Duke Ellington Orchestra British Tour – February 1964 003
Pages 2 and 3 of a programme for Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra's tour of Britain, 1964. Both pages profile the long and extensive career of Duke Ellington, with two photographs of him playing piano and conducting.
|Catalogue Reference Number||NJA/PRO/8|
|Creator||Jack Higgins, Benny Green, Eric Jelly|
|Title or Caption|
|Event Date||February 1964|
This text has been generated by computer from the image and may contain typographical and/or grammatical errors.
ï»¿ONE of the richest of all musical witticisms is the one coined by Sibelius, who once made a remark to the effect that nobody ever erected a statue to a critic. Sibelius's point is well taken, but it is incompletely expressed. What he should have added was that if critics had any sense of justice they would from time to time erect statues to musicians. So far as a reviewer is concerned, a great musician is a man who makes life pleasureable. The reviewer of jazz music leads a chequered existence, brightened occasionally by events which are a treat to write about. In ten years of attending concerts. 1 have not been able to help noticing that Duke Ellington has been responsible for about half these bright spots. Whether it is a new album or the reissue of an old one. a live concert on a canned television show. Ellington always manages to stimulate the senses and restore waning faith.
One of the most comforting things about his career is its sheer continuity. For forty years he has been leading groups of different shapes and sizes, and in every performance the light of his own personality has shone through. It might be a project loaded with cultural significance, like the attempt to reflect the characters of Shakespeare and John Steinbeck. Or it might simply be another throwaway version of the Blues. But whatever it is, the sound that comes out is the Ellington sound, something so self-contradictory, so typically jazz and yet so opposed to at least half the tenets of jazz theory that to write about it is a frightful task. One of Britain's most talented jazz musicians, the clarinettist Sandy Brown, recently underwent a Blindfold Test in which he refused to make any comment on an Ellington recording, giving as his reason the fact that everything there was to say about Ellington had already been said by meâtwice. It was a barbed compliment in the Oscar Wilde class, but sadly untrue. The truth is that 1 am woefully ignorant on the subject of Duke Ellingtonâs music. There are whole areas of his career which are still unknown territory to me. whole systems of orchestration favoured by him which remain beyond the understanding, although not the appreciation, of my ears.
Ellington is a great musician, which means that by every definition, to enjoy his music requires time and patience. One day no doubt somebody will write the definitive book about his music. It is a book which badly needs to be written, but judging from the kind of copy being published about him at present, there is no prospect of its
appearance for some time to come. All that critics like myself can do is to air a few platitudes about what constitutes Ellingtonia, and then shrug our shoulders in shame at our own ineptitude.
But even if we begin to think about Duke Ellingtonâs music, we realise immediately that it poses several awkward questions. It is commonly accepted, for instance, that â jazz â and â improvisation â are synonymous, and it is indeed true that jazz as we have come to know it is improvised âmore or less. But how are we to explain away the fact that some of the greatest jazz ever played, the jazz of the Ellington band, is not purely improvised? If the theory doesnât fit the facts of Ellingtonâs music, then so much for the theory. What in fact has happened is that improvisation is a false test of jazz quality. What matters is not improvisation, but the preservation of its spirit.
If a jazz unit can play prearranged music with the kind of style and attack that dupes the listener into thinking he is listening to pure improvisation, then that is all that matters, and this is the one thing Ellingtonâs bands have always been able to do.
There is only one proviso, and it is a huge one. It is that the man who writes the notes down on manuscript will be so thoroughly experienced in the art of improvisation, be so in love with the processes of making jazz, that he will retain the ability to notate phrases which will be foolproof in the jazz sense, and it is surely in Ellingtonâs early jazz background that the roots of the mystery may be detected. It is difficult for us to think today of Duke Ellington as just a piano player thumping out choruses for a living, but that is exactly what he once was. and after listening to his reminiscences on the subject, I suspect that in
many ways his recollection of this formative period is fonder than anything else in his career.
When he was visiting us in 1963, his hotel suite was the usual gathering ground for half the jazz world of London. The door was always open and another bottle was always being ordered. Some of the talk was fatuous and Ellington knew it, but he wove his way through the labyrinth of senseless questions and idiotic requests like the past master he is. One evening in particular I will always remember. Mr. Sinclair Traill had cunningly directed the stream of conversation around to Stride piano in the 1920s. and instantly the quality of Ellingtonâs conversation changed. No doubt this was what Mr. Traill was angling for. and the success of his gambit put us all in his debt.
Ellington began to talk of his beginnings in Washington during the First World War. He smiled as he talked, recalling incidents that ob-
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