Duke Ellington Orchestra British Tour – October 1958 004
Pages 4 and 5 of a souvenir brochure for Duke Ellington's tour of Britain 5th - 26th October 1958, presented by Harold Davison and Norman Granz. Stanley Dance's profile of Duke Ellington's career continues.
|Catalogue Reference Number||NJA/PRO/6|
|Title or Caption|
|Event Date||5th - 26th October 1958|
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ï»¿possible advantage, often revealing in them unexpected resources of inventive ingenuity. And in the case of Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges, who must figure on anyoneâs list of jazz-immortals as the outstanding performers on their instruments (baritone and alto sax respectively), the Ellington band has proved to be a greater and more advantageous setting than any other they could possibly have had.
Duke has been called the supreme colourist of jazz and his choice of musicians always shows him to be discerningly sensitive to the variety of his palette. In this respect, the roles of bandleader and arranger become intrinsically one. He selects his men with specific parts in mind, parts that have become, or will become, traditional to the bandâs repertoire. â Most of all,â he has said, â the jazz musician needs to be acutely aware of musical history and the position of jazz in that history.â Duke himself is so aware, and most acutely of the history of jazz itself. The idle vagaries of jazz fashions do not disturb him. He sees jazz whole. He still features plunger-muted brass, with highly dramatic and stimulating effect, in an idiom that has not substantially altered in thirty years. What is good and musically satisfying is not cast away because it is six months old! Rather is it cherished and made welcome in new settings. His wonderful 1956 album, Historically Speaking (London LTZ-N15029), was a demonstration of thisâthat good jazz is good art, and therefore durable.
The nature of his compositions necessitates wide range of tone colours and voices, yet to listen to a performance of such a work as his Black, Brown and Beige (Philips BBL.7251) is to be astonished that all its orchestral sections were accomplished by fifteen men. The strength of the music derives to a considerable extent from the fact that Duke is writing with particular musicians in mind, knowing their capabilities exactly and employing them to the best possible advantage. This has always been one of the major secrets of success in the whole field of big-band jazzâthe arranger within the band rather than without, writing for musicians he knows intimately rather than for instruments. From such an association, too, spring those qualities so lovingly preserved in Dukeâs music, which are, as he well knows, of the utmost significance in jazz spontaneity, warmth and swing. The title of his well-timed number, It Don t Mean a Thing If It Ainât Got That Swing, was, in fact, axiomatic throughout one of the liveliest eras in jazz history.
Some of the bandâs most exciting vehicles have grown out of a kind of group improvisation built on a theme provided by Duke or one of the other musicians, then shaped, modified and expanded in performance, and altered again with the introduction of new soloists. In this category are Rockinâ in Rhythm, The Mooche, Caravan, C Jam Blues, In a Mellotone, Stompy Jones and Perdido. More than most do Dukeâs compositions warrant, and profit from, the kind of re-working
they are subjected to by the band.
While much of the music is functional, in the sense that the relationship between jazz and
dancing is stressed, Duke resents limitation in any guise. â Jazz,â he has said, â cannot be limited by definitions and rules. Jazz is above all a total freedom to express oneself." In this freedom, Duke has found it possible to write extended works of an altogether unique character. Foremost among these is Black, Brown and Beige, a new version of which has recently been recorded with Mahalia Jackson singing in the spiritual section (Philips BBL.7251). In some ways a musical portrayal of the Negro in America, this work is a reminder that black, brown and beige are not simply three colours of the skin, but three ways of life.â Yet even with such a subject, the deep undercurrent of Ellington humour comes briefly to the surface. Explaining the optimism of the work song, he said, â When the Negro got shipped over here from Africa, he thought he was
going to be eaten. Think how relieved he must have been when he found out all he had to do
Humour was abundantly evident in the extravaganza he wrote for TV called A Drum Is a Woman (Philipps BBL.7179). This light-hearted history of jazz, with narration by Duke, brought considerable dismay to the intellectual type of jazz criticsâhere and in Americaâwho are all in favour of solemnity. â 1 donât know what we expected,â one lamented, â but it wasnât this. That points to what is for some a source of delight and for others a disconcerting factor : Duke s gift for providing the unexpected. Thus his series of âmusical pictures inspired by the Bard â,
which resulted from an engagement at the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario, came as a complete surprise. Under the title of Such Sweet Thunder (Philips BBL.7203), this was a scintillating display of wit and ingenuity. In his Tone Parallel to Harlem (Philips BBL.7003), on the other hand, Duke was at pains to indicate the fact that there are more churches than night-clubs in Harlem, and he achieved a very realistic balance between the spiritual and the temporal. His Deep South Suite, too, was at variance with what he called the â Dixie Chamber of Commerce dream picture ââironically in Magnolias Just Dripping With Molasses, grimly in Hearsay. All of these works evidence an adventurous imagination, ranging eagerly beyond the confines of popular song.
Yet within those same confines Duke is more than ever the master. Unlike most other songwriters who have won world-wide popularity, he is hard to type. One could say that Mood Indigo, Solitude and In a Sentimental Mood were pure Ellington, songs that could have been written by no other hand, and as such instantly recognizable. But what about Sophisticated Lady. I Got It Bad and Prelude To a Kiss? A kind of Ellington torch song for the Ã©lite, they reveal another facet of his genius. Then there are songs like / Let a Song Go Out of My Heart, All Too Soon, Donât Get Around Much Anymore. I'm Beginning To See the Light, Everything But You, Youâre Just a Lucky So-and-So, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me and Just Squeeze Me âlyrical expressions with an interesting melodic line, good words, and a definite rhythmic twist. One could go on categorizing. The variety is magnificent, a fact borne out by Rosemary Clooney on one LP (Philips BBL.7090), and even more strikingly by Ella Fitzgerald on four (Columbia), all devoted to Ellington compositions.
No discussion of Duke as a composer would be complete without mention of his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn. Although he rarely appears in public with the band, he makes an important contribution as composer, arranger, pianist and confidant. Duke calls him his â write-hand man ". He has very thoroughly absorbed the Ellington technique, and of many works written in collaboration, only he and Duke probably know where one's work ends and the otherâs begins. Among Strayhornâs best-known compositions are Lush Life, Something To Live For, Take the A Train, Chelsea Bridge, Day Dream and Johnny Come Lately. In the larger works, critic Nat Hentofl noted recently, he is often assigned several sections under Ellingtonâs supervision. Ellington, in
any case, exercises the final decision in the shaping of the work.
Sometimes Duke is questioned on the wisdom of exposing himself to the constant strain of touring, and then advised to give it up. To such counsel he made the following answer in Hi-Fi and Music Review for July 1958 : â
â Iâm much too impatient to do that. 1 have a fear of writing something and not being able to hear it right away. Thatâs the worst thing that can happen to any artist. In fact, if the band hadnât always been there for me to try my pieces on, I doubt if Iâd have gotten nearly as much writing done as I have. This business of just being a composer, in any case, isnât easy. Look at
the hundreds of good composers who come out of the conservatories each year, write hundreds
of symphonies, and never hear them played. No, I prefer being sure my music will be played and will be heard, and the best insurance is having oneâs own band around all the time to play it ! â
It is fortunate for us that the present tour should be made during one of his most creative periods. New compositions have recently been forthcoming at an astounding pace, and in the present band Duke obviously has the kind of flexible, balanced unit that he requires for their sympathetic interpretation.
On the occasion of his professional Silver Jubilee, Duke recalled the most memorable events of his career. One was his renowned London debut in 1933. New generations of jazz lovers have grown up since then, but their experience of an in-person Ellington performance should remain in their memories as vividly as it did in those of their counterparts twenty-five years ago.
Duke has defined his notion of luck as a matter â of being in the right place at the right time, and doing the right thing before the right people â, It seems appropriate to confirm the validity of this definition by suggesting, on behalf of the audience, that tonight the luck is all ours.
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