Duke Ellington Orchestra British Tour – February 1964 004
Pages 4 and 5 of a programme for Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra's tour of Britain, 1964. Both pages continue to profile Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, with photographs of band members Cat Anderson and Cootie Williams.
|Catalogue Reference Number||NJA/PRO/8|
|Creator||Jack Higgins, Benny Green, Eric Jelly|
|Title or Caption|
|Event Date||February 1964|
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ï»¿viously were important to him. He had started as a small band organiser doing local gigs in the capital. In wartime Washington there was plenty of work to be had. and Ellington told how in time he found the only way to cope with all the engagements was to organise more thaaone group, which he did with his usual efficiency. There had finally come an evening when the bookings got muddled, and Ellington found himself booked by himself to play a private party. There was no piano in the place, and rather than forgo the pleasure of working, Ellington decided to employ himself as a guitarist. There then followed a description of what his guitar-playing sounded like, and then the twist at the ending of the tale, which was that the group had two guitarists, so that Ellington's shortcomings were not so noticeable.
The talk then jumped from personal reminiscence to authentic jazz history. Ellington was now in New York, an ambitious pianist who knew perfectly well where to go to improve his conception. Working in the city at that time were those twin masters of Stride piano. James P. Johnson and Willie âThe Lion" Smith. Ellington explained how he saved his own wages but regarded the tips he collected as expendable. So every night when he finished work he would find James P. and Willie The Lion. They were his university, and the only problem was how to induce them to do a little teaching. There was one other pupil besides Ellington, the teenaged Thomas â Fats â Waller, and soon the two of them hit on the right strategy. They would spend all their spare cash on liquor for the two masters, who would eventually become so mellow that a benelicient aura would radiate around the piano. James P. and Willie The Lion would then argue with each other for the privilege of showing the two callow youths how jazz piano should really be played.
Ellington said : â First James P. would show us how it was done, and then The Lion would accuse him of misleading the youths, and then HE would take over and show us his way. Thomas and I learned fast.â And then Ellington took good care to point out one fact which he obviously considered important. This was that of the four pianists involved in the tale, he, Ellington, was easily the poorest player. In an odd kind of way he was quite right, but only if we measure jazz piano by the standards of the great Stride masters. James P. Johnson and Willie âThe Lion" Smith were, of course, unbeatable at that kind of game, and in time â Fats â Waller became their equal.
Ellington never did, but not because of any lack of aptitude. His piano playing deviated from the Stride norm to become something more subtle, more exotic, something, in fact, which reflected his own temperament much more accurately.
The two episodes, the one with the guitar, the other involving the old days with two musicians Ellington admired, may not sound terribly relevant to the issue of his music today, but they do give some kind of clue to the kind of jazz Ellington once played and wanted to play, and it is that kind of music which does in its turn give us a hint of what kind of musical personality lies behind the most sophisticated and ambitious of his orchestral writing today. His famous remark, that this kind of conjecture â stinks up the place â, is a curious one. There is no figure in all jazz history more likely than Ellington to come out with an enhanced reputation from a learned discussion on origins and intentions. There is more to talk about and think about in Ellingtonâs music than in any other jazz musicianâs work. But there also happens to be more to listen to, and perhaps this is what is behind that statement of his. It is correct in so far as the only thing to do about Ellingtonâs music really is not to write about it, or talk about it, or even think about it, but to do what readers of these notes will be doing in a few moments, and that is listen to it.
It is the easiest thing in the world to do this. Even in Britain, where record catalogues of jazz music are compiled seemingly according to the ethics of the roulette wheel rather than intrinsic musical value, there is enough of Ellingtonâs music available to make connoisseurs of us all. We can buy albums of his work in 1927 or in 1963. If we are wise we will buy both, and try to understand the connections between the two, for there are indeed connections.
I apologise in advance for what I am about to say about Ellingtonâs music. Every word will be platitude. It has all been said before, as Sandy Brown observed. But until concert programmes are printed which play Black And Tan Fantasy or Prelude To A Kiss when you put them on the turntable, it will have to be said again and again and again. Ellington is a great, though highly personal pianist. His piano jazz does not conform to the tastes of some purists, who see in it only charming ramblings. Others, like myself and most of the musicians 1 know, regard him as a player of amazing originality, full of jazz feeling, no doubt inherited from James P. and The Lion, and full of something else, too, a delicacy and grace
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