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Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington
EDWARD KENNEDY ELLINGTON ARRIVED on the eve of the twentieth century in his nation's capital city. He was born in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899. Coming from a modestly well-to-do family in a middle-class black neighborhood, he enjoyed a comfortable and pampered childhood where he was always encouraged to be himself. His relationships with his parents and younger sister, Ruth Ellington, were filled with closeness and warmth. His father was a successful butler who sometimes worked at the White House, and later designed blueprints for the Navy. He taught young Edward about the importance of eloquent speech and proper dress. Edward became a sharp dresser and soon earned the nickname "Duke" from one of his schoolmates.
His bond with his mother was the strongest, and her death in 1935 was the agonizing blow that would inspire him to compose "Reminiscing in Tempo," one of his earliest extended works. Ellington would continually refer to his departed mother throughout his life. She was the defining influence on Ellington's spiritual beliefs, escorting him to church and Sunday school as often as possible, instilling in young Edward a strong belief in a loving and benevolent God. It was her unshakeable religious devotion that laid the foundation for her son's own spiritual expression, and toward the end of Ellington's life his Sacred Concerts would become the crystallization of his faith. Until the Concerts were composed and performed in the sixties, only those closest to Ellington knew of his love of God and intimate knowledge oftheBible.
Ellington was always exposed to music at home and in the church. His mother and father were both musicians, and he soon learned the basic fundamentals of piano. Yet he never received any significant formal musical training. He learned how to play mostly by hanging around local poolrooms and observing other pianists who would befriend him and show him the basics. This was back in the days when professional musicians would freely give younger players advice and encouragement. Ellington was a great listener with a natural aptitude, and had no trouble finding mentors. Such people included Oliver "Doc" Perry and Henry Grant. Ellington's piano style was rooted in two-handed stride, but would develop its own unique characteristics over the years: a highly percussive approach that left a good deal of space between the notes and chords, and a distinctive bell-like tone. Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor are some of the prominent pianists who would learn from Ellington's technique. As Ellington developed his piano skills, he also began writing his own music.
The fact that Ellington did not receive formal training is significant. It means that he developed his methods without an awareness of restrictions. He simply played and wrote what he heard and felt, with nothing but his inner creative impulses as his guide. Ellington became widely known as an innovator and rule-breaker, mostly because he never learned the established rules of composition to begin with. His lack of training became a source of pride for him, because he felt that his creativity would have suffered in a structured educational environment.
Ellington's first compositions were "Soda Fountain Rag" and "What You Gonna Do When the Bed Breaks Down?" Within a short time he acquired a taste for the show business lifestyle, when he realized that being a professional musician could enhance his relations with women as well as boost his income. Eventually Ellington became a regular performer around Washington who displayed a gift as a showman and businessman. He also tried his hand at painting. Although he never fully pursued a career as a visual artist, his natural affinity for color manifested itself in many of his titles: "Mood Indigo," "Azure," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Sepia Panorama," "Blue Light," "Black Brown & Beige," and others. This emphasis on color carried over into his composition as well, as Ellington became a master of orchestral color, giving the music a visual quality and sense of place. The pensive melody of "Mood Indigo" vividly conveyed the melancholy images of dusk implied in the title.
Before he was twenty, Ellington was a family man. On July 2, 1918, he married Edna Thompson, who had lived across the street from Ellington and attended the same school. The next year his only child, Mercer Ellington, was born on March 11. Duke's business acumen inevitably improved in direct relation to his growing financial responsibilities, and he began to make money booking local bands around Washington in addition to his own musical engagements. At one point he had taken out the biggest yellow page advertisement under listings for musicians and bands.
His marriage with Edna would prove unsuccessful, and although they never divorced, they separated after only a few years. His only other long term living companion would be Evie Ellis. Inevitably, this is where many Ellington biographers begin to encounter difficulty. Ellington's private life is a subject quite beyond the scope of most biographies. Too much simply remains unknown about Ellington's personal life. Suffice it to say that although Duke always had an eye for beautiful women, none could match his devotion to his music. Of course, Ellington was fond of stating: "Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one."
Ellington nurtured a strong personal charisma, and would soon attract the people who would form the nucleus of his first band, beginning with drummer Sonny Greer, banjo player Elmer Snowden, and saxophonist Otto Hardwick, who was Duke's neighbor. Together they formed the core of Duke's Serenaders, later to change their name to the Washingtonians. Greer had a reputation for flamboyance, and boasted of connections in New York from previous gigs. This would eventually help the band find work in the City with bandleader Wilbur Sweatman, and although paying gigs were scarce at first, they decided to take their chances in the burgeoning entertainment capital of the world. This was the environment where Ellington received his most valuable education. In the house parties and barrooms piano masters such as Willie "the Lion" Smith and James P. Johnson were to be found—both of whom had enormous musical and personal impact on Ellington, who had learned to play Johnson's "Carolina Shout" note for note by studying the piece from a slowed down piano roll.
The Washingtonians finally landed a job at a Harlem club called Barron's, where they quickly learned how to make extra money by playing for tips. Ellington also learned how to generate income as a composer, and was soon selling the rights to songs like "Blind Man's Bluff" to Broadway publishers on Tin Pan Alley. His first complete score was a collaboration with lyricist Jo Trent on a musical production called Chocolate Kiddies, which ran for two years in Germany. This was also the time (November 1924) when Ellington made his first professional recordings: "Deacon Jazz," and "Oh How I Love My Darling" on the short-lived Blu Disc label.
The band soon upgraded to the classier Kentucky Club in midtown Manhattan. Two New Orleans musicians came aboard at this time: bassist Wellman Braud, and clarinetist Barney Bigard, who would go on to collaborate with Ellington in 1930 on "Mood Indigo," perhaps the most widely known Duke Ellington piece of all time. Trombonists Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Charles Irvis, trumpeter Bubber Miley, and legendary soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet (also from New Orleans) all joined the band and helped create Duke's "jungle" style by employing wah-wah and "growling" techniques on their horns with the use of rubber plunger mutes and braying sounds. It was their unmistakeable sound that helped inspire Ellington's compositional methods. For the first time in music history, ensemble and composer joined forces to create a unified work of art. For the rest of his career, Duke and his musicians would enjoy an intimate relationship that would define the way Ellington would structure his music. Each player had his own voice, and Duke composed with those individual voices in mind.
Another important person at this stage is Irving Mills, a businessman who became manager of the Ellington band for over a decade, and who was instrumental in transforming Duke's band into an international success. Although the relationship between Ellington and Mills was sometimes strained, Ellington would very likely not have progressed as quickly without the help of this shrewd negotiator. Two important saxophonists from the Boston area also arrived at this time. Harry Carney played baritone saxophone, clarinet, and bass clarinet. Not far behind was Johnny Hodges, the master of alto saxophone, as well as soprano saxophone for a brief period. Both musicians were indispensable additions to the orchestra, bringing new colors to Ellington's palette. Carney also became very close personal friends with Ellington, and remained in the band for the rest of Duke's life. Hodges became the most celebrated soloist in Ellingtonian history.
Jazz gained wider public acceptance in the twenties as more white artists such as Paul Whiteman developed a softer and more sophisticated approach. Ellington's music expanded upon this evolution. "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," first recorded on November 29, 1926, was a landmark composition that would become the band's theme song until the arrival of Billy Strayhorn and his classic, "Take the A-Train." Soon Duke was able to reach a larger audience, and every year from 1926 all the way to his death in 1974, the Ellington orchestra always broke the Top 5 rankings of jazz bands. The next year the orchestra won the lucrative position of house band at the prestigious Cotton Club in Harlem. Beginning with their debut performance on December 4, 1927, the Ellington band was now reaching people across the nation on a nightly basis with the classic hour-long radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club. Ellington could not have asked for better exposure. It was during this period that crucial new additions to the band were made with the arrival of Hodges, trumpeter Cootie Williams—who would replace Bubber Miley—and trombonist Juan Tizol.
New innovations came with pieces like "Black and Tan Fantasy," "The Mooche," and "Creole Love Call," which featured a "wordless" vocal by Adelaide Hall. "Black Beauty" was one of Duke's first musical "portraits," written for deceased singer Florence Mills. "Mood Indigo" introduced new concepts of color and harmony, an abstract and introspective piece that featured a trio of muted trumpet and trombone with clarinet—the clarinet playing in the lower register as the trombone played in the upper. The unprecedented inversion of the standard range of these instruments created a sound previously unheard in music.
The following year, in 1931, Ellington wrote his first "extended" work, "Creole Rhapsody," which stretched over two sides of a 78 rpm disc. Another productive year was 1932 with more Ellington classics like "Sophisticated Lady" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," both of which would become standards for musicians around the world. Comparable only to George Gershwin and Cole Porter, Ellington wrote thousands of songs in his lifetime, the exact number of which remains unknown. He would also reinterpret many of his standards over the years. "Mood Indigo," for example, would be rerecorded with new arrangements in 1957, 1966, and so on. Ellington left the Cotton Club in 1931 and, unlike Gershwin or Porter, henceforth established his orchestra as a consistently active touring band.
As Ellington broke new ground musically, Irving Mills broke new barriers in his promotional efforts for Ellington and the band. Soon there were film appearances such as Check and Double Check. Ellington's roles in films from the very beginning were never stereotypical or racially demeaning. He was always portrayed as the intelligent, "gentleman genius." Then came the highly successful tour of Europe in 1933, an important turning point. Ellington was astonished by the degree of familiarity and affection European audiences felt for his music. He made his first connections with royalty, and soon the Duke of Ellington was sharing his piano stool at parties with the Duke of Kent.
It was also at this time that Ellington was being compared with European classical composers ranging from Delius to Bach—although as Gunther Schuller points out, Ellington was not familiar with classical music at this time. He simply continued following his own path. The individual voices of his players increasingly excited his musical imagination as never before. He continued to establish the previously unknown practice of composing pieces that would incorporate a given player's unique sound into his own musical vocabulary. "Clarinet Lament" was a type of concerto for Barney Bigard. "Trumpet in Spades" for Rex Stewart, "Echoes of Harlem" for Cootie Williams, and so on.
There were also more structured works for the entire orchestra. "Reminiscing in Tempo," written in mourning after the death of Ellington's mother in 1935, was a one-movement variation piece that stretched over four 78 rpm sides. It was attacked by critics who felt that Ellington was straying too far from the "hot jazz" that was popular at the time. Many called it boring, self-indulgent, pretentious. This type of criticism would resurface when Ellington unveiled his magnum opus in 1943, "Black Brown & Beige." Such attacks on his extended pieces were a personal blow to Ellington, but he forged ahead in spite of criticism and a rigorous touring and recording schedule. In fact, constant travel provided Ellington with a great deal of inspiration and isolation for his writing, and kept his musicians employed. Ellington, always protective of his health, did not allow the relentless schedule to slow him down, and in 1937 he first encountered the doctor who would become his personal physician and one of his closest friends for the rest of his life, Arthur Logan.
By the beginning of the forties, three new musicians arrived that would help define one of the strongest units in Ellington's career: virtuoso bassist Jimmy Blanton, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, and composer Billy Strayhorn. Growing up in Pittsburgh, Strayhorn played and studied classical music. Hearing the Ellington band in concert had an overwhelming impact on him. Within a few years he found enough courage to show Ellington some of his songs, including the incredible "Lush Life," written when Strayhorn was still in high school. Ellington was stunned at the quality of Strayhorn's work, and brought him into the organization without hesitation.
Although he was initially hired as a lyricist, Strayhorn's skills as a composer, arranger, and pianist enabled him to become Ellington's musical companion, creating one of the most unique partnerships between two composers in history. When listening to an Ellington-Strayhorn composition, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint who wrote what, such was their affinity for one another personally and musically. Strayhorn immediately contributed several classics into the band's catalogue between 1940 and 1942: "Take the A-Train," which would become the Ellington band's theme song, "Raincheck," "Day Dream," "Chelsea Bridge," "Passion Flower," to name only a few.
This steady stream of Strayhorn material came at a welcome time when Ellington's own material was being kept off the radio due to a dispute between ASCAP and radio stations. Mercer Ellington also began making important musical contributions during this period with "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," "Moon Mist," and "Blue Serge." As a young composer and trumpeter, Mercer was beginning to establish himself in his father's world, and the two experienced a complex relationship for the rest of Duke's life—another difficult area that suffers some misrepresentation in many Ellington biographies, including Mercer's own book on his father's life.
Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and bassist Jimmy Blanton also made significant musical contributions at this unique juncture of Ellington's career (1940-42). Webster became Ellington's first major voice on tenor, influenced particularly by Coleman Hawkins. Suddenly Duke had to adjust his writing strategy to accomodate the new sound. The same changes were required for Blanton, whose approach to bass as a simultaneous solo and rhythm instrument created a whole new language for future bassists in jazz. The combination of these three newcomers (Strayhorn, Webster, and Blanton) with the ever-evolving strengths of Hodges, Cootie, Carney, Nanton, and company, gave Ellington one of the greatest ensembles of his career, inspiring him to new levels in composition. The classics poured from Ellington's pen: "Jack the Bear," "Ko Ko," "Sepia Panorama," "Warm Valley." There were "exotic" pieces with a Latin flavor such as "Conga Brava," and "The Flaming Sword," similar in flavor to Juan Tizol's "Caravan." There were musical "portraits" such as "Bojangles," and "Portrait of Bert Williams." And there were two pieces that anticipated the bebop movement by at least five years: "Cottontail" and "Main Stem."
All of these were masterpieces of the three-minute format. But Ellington was ready to compose more extended works and perform longer concerts, something his manager Irving Mills was against. Ellington soon severed his ties with Mills for this and other reasons including financial conflicts, Mills having received royalties on many Ellington songs. The William Morris Agency became Duke's new business representation. Ellington soon began work on a musical production called Jump for Joy. The show would express many social concerns of the African-American community in an entertainment context as opposed to outspoken political protest, which was always Ellington's preferred approach. The production was only performed in Los Angeles where it was created, not only because too many players had left to fight in World War II, but also because the show itself was simply too ahead of its time in 1942. Nevertheless, it was a milestone for Ellington because it gave him more confidence in producing more extended works.
He began work on his most ambitious composition of all, "Black Brown & Beige," with an eye toward unveiling the piece at one of the world's most prestigious venues for classical music: Carnegie Hall. But before this would happen, Ellington had to deal with the tragic loss of bassist Jimmy Blanton to tuberculosis, as well as the departures of important players such as Cootie Williams, Barney Bigard, Ivie Anderson, and eventually Ben Webster. New arrivals included trumpeter Ray Nance to replace Cootie, Jimmy Hamilton to replace Bigard, and arranger Tom Whaley from Boston. Duke was now working around the clock on his magnum opus for the Carnegie Hall performance on January 23, 1943.
"Black Brown & Beige" is a three-movement work that Ellington referred to as a "tone parallel to the history of the American Negro." Some of his ideas came from an unfinished opera with a similar theme he had been working on called Boola. The "Black" movement was the most fully realized and successful, contrasting the physical impact of the "Work Song" with the spiritual introspection of "Come Sunday," which featured a breathtaking alto solo for Johnny Hodges. "Brown" presents a musical picture of the black, notably Haitian, heroes of the Revolutionary War. "Beige," the least successful of the three movements, came to the present day with concerns regarding education, social advancement, and family. This final section received the most criticism, because Ellington had rushed to complete it before the deadline of the Carnegie performance, and it did not receive the attention and development given to the previous two movements. Many critics felt that the entire suite started off strongly, but tapered downward in quality as the movements progressed. Other critics rejected it altogether, saying that it was once again too pretentious and that Ellington was moving completely away from his proven abilities in jazz. Despite these criticisms, "Black Brown & Beige" was a major event not only for Duke Ellington, but for the entire world of music. The future implications of this would be enormous.
Carnegie Hall became an annual event for Ellington, and he would unveil his most ambitious pieces there. At the next Carnegie show in December of 1943, Ellington premiered "New World A-Comin'," which would later be rearranged for symphony orchestra by Luther Henderson. In years to follow at Carnegie there came Ellington-Strayhorn's "Perfume Suite," "The Deep South Suite," "The Liberian Suite," "The Tattooed Bride," and "Harlem," which would also be rearranged for symphony orchestra. These concerts helped establish Ellington as an American composer on a different level from other big band or jazz artists. And while jazz—and eventually rock—artists would begin performing in classical music venues much more frequently in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, it was Duke Ellington who first opened the door for these artists with the performance of "Black Brown & Beige."
Ben Webster left the band in 1943, only to return briefly in 1948. Although his place was taken by Al Sears, Ellington would now lack a distinctive voice on tenor saxophone until the arrival of Paul Gonsalves. Rex Stewart also left at this time, but Cat Anderson was a capable replacement. Anderson had his own sound, and was able to hit the highest register of any Ellingtonian trumpeter. The band enjoyed lengthy seasons at New York's Hurricane Club and Capitol Theatre, as well as the annual Carnegie performances, but the relentless touring also continued—as well as frequent recording sessions where collaborations between Ellington and his orchestra continued to develop. Later in the decade Ellington contributed to a musical called Beggar's Holiday, but it was a complete flop. Much more positive was Duke's return to Europe in 1949, although without the whole band due to union complications. He also played with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. In the midst of this activity, Ellington could not have foreseen the problems on the horizon.
Bebop was developing as a musical form, and growing in popularity. Artists who had been profoundly influenced by Ellington such as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, were pioneering a new style of jazz. Their bands were much smaller, usually featuring only five or six players. The post-war celebrations were over, and life was getting lean for the big bands. Promoters wanted to save money, ballrooms were closing, cinema theaters were only showing movies instead of presenting concerts. Many of the swing bands fell apart. Ellington was one of the only survivors of this period, but because of the recording ban there was not nearly as much new Ellington music on the market. Ellington had to make financial sacrifices to keep his musicians employed, and there were more significant personnel changes.
Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves joined the band in 1950, and his warm and rich tone finally filled the void left by Ben Webster's departure. Gonsalves would remain with Ellington until his death. It was at this time that Ellington had a falling out with Sonny Greer, who had been suffering from a severe drinking problem. The two had an unhappy confrontation toward the end of a European tour. After his return to the States, Ellington completed work on what many consider his most successful extended work, "Harlem." The piece was commissioned by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. It was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera House as part of a benefit for the NAACP. But soon after this triumph, Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown, and Johnny Hodges announced that they were leaving the Ellington band. Hodges planned to keep the other two players as part of his own group.
The music world wondered if Ellington would be able to recover from the loss. Ellington again proved himself a streetwise survivor with a decisive action known as the Great James Robbery. Ellington lured three important musicians away from bandleader Harry James: Willie Smith to replace Hodges on alto, Louis Bellson to replace Greer on drums, and Ellington's own former trombonist Juan Tizol to replace Brown. Tizol had been responsible for some of Ellington's best known tracks, including "Caravan" and "Perdido." Another trombonist named Britt Woodman also joined at this time, along with two outstanding trumpeters, Clark Terry and Willie Cook, and Butch Ballard on drums. These new voices, along with the incredible Gonsalves, gave Ellington new enthusiasm, although there were those who were not impressed with the new lineup.
With the changes taking effect in the early fifties, Duke began composing more steadily again. The most well-known piece from this time was "Satin Doll" with lyrics by Strayhorn and Johnny Mercer. He had also begun to take advantage of the new technology of long playing records, extending his studio arrangements for the new format. Two of his first twelve-inch LPs, Masterpieces by Ellington and Ellington Uptown, were successful and well received. The Ellington orchestra had never sounded so good on record before. He also recorded for Capitol as a solo pianist backed only by bass and drums on The Duke Plays Ellington. But Ellington had to swallow his pride to make ends meet in 1955, and spent the summer backing up an aqua show in Long Island called "Aquacades." Despite this apparent embarrassment, Ellington was able to complete the extraordinary "Night Creature," a new extended work performed at Carnegie with the Symphony of the Air. This innovative piece would be recorded in 1963 with various orchestras of Europe.
Everything turned around for Ellington when Johnny Hodges returned to the orchestra after his own group disbanded. Drummer Sam Woodyard also joined at this time. Ellington negotiated a new deal with Columbia Records and began a relationship with Irving Townsend, who would work on many Ellington projects in the future. The two met at Duke's legendary performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island on July 7, 1956, where the band performed the exotic "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," with Paul Gonsalves nearly inciting a riot as he blew an unprecedented twenty-seven choruses. The crowd reaction was ecstatic. Never before had such a sustained improvisation from one player been heard in jazz. The remaining ensemble had also given one of their strongest performances, aware of the need to prove themselves. The victory at Newport landed Duke Ellington on the cover of Time magazine, and the live recording of the Newport Festival would become Ellington's best-selling LP.
Ellington was back, and he and Strayhorn immediately took advantage of this new momentum with new music, beginning with an extended work for the color television special "A Drum Is a Woman." The piece features picturesque narration by Ellington between songs, tracing the history of jazz in an allegorical fashion from the African jungle to New Orleans. Their next major work was "Such Sweet Thunder," a series of musical impressions based on the plays of William Shakespeare, who was a major source of inspiration. Duke trasformed Henry V into Hank Cinq, Katherine from "Taming of the Shrew" into Sister Kate, and Lady Macbeth into Lady Mac. Shakespeare had come to Harlem. Ellington and Strayhorn premiered the entire suite at the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario, in 1957. It is regarded as one of the peaks of post-war Ellingtonia. The orchestra returned to Europe, and Duke was presented to Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret at the Leeds Festival. Duke returned to the States and recorded a new composition called "The Queen's Suite," and sent a special pressing to Buckingham Palace. In 1959 Ellington composed his first film score for Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder. More film scores quickly followed, such as Paris Blues.
In 1960, Ellington and Strayhorn premiered "Suite Thursday," based on John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday. The piece was first performed in Steinbeck country at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California. It was later recorded and released on an album which also featured an adaptation of Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suites 1 and 2." A similar effort with Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" would soon follow. By this time, Lawrence Brown was also back in the band, soon to be followed by the celebrated return of Cootie Williams in 1962. In retrospect, the sixties would prove to be one of the most productive and creative periods of Ellington's career, with travel around the globe that would inspire some of his best work, arguably his most consistent lineup of musicians, new innovations in the studio, and Ellington's emergence as a composer of religious music—as well as pieces with a renewed concern for African-American expression.
The decade began with Ellington's involvement in many recording collaborations with other leading jazz figures: Ellington and Basie bands side by side, Ellington guesting on piano with Louis Armstrong, trio sides with musical descendants Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and joint sessions with Coleman Hawkins as well as John Coltrane. It seemed that everybody wanted to record with Duke.
Nineteen sixty-three was an especially prominent year, beginning with another triumphant European tour that would produce the brilliant live recording The Great Paris Concert. Ellington and Strayhorn also composed music for a production of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. The hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclomation was celebrated in Chicago, and Ellington was invited to unveil his newest extended work, the musical production My People. Composed and orchestrated entirely by Ellington, it was a logical extension of many elements of "Black Brown & Beige," with the "Come Sunday" section revised and expanded into "David Danced." The entire production divides its focus between spirituals and blues, until a climax is reached with a direct approach to social issues with "King Fit the Battle," and "What Color is Virtue?" "King Fit" is a direct reference to Martin Luther King's experiences in Birmingham, Alabama.
Then came the landmark Asian State Department Tour later in the year, taking the band through the Middle and Near East including Jerusalem, Beirut, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Teheran, Isfahan, and Baghdad, among other cities. The reception was overwhelmingly positive, as was the band's experience of the tour, but the trip came to an abrupt and unpleasant halt on November 22 when President Kennedy was assassinated. Nevertheless, the sights and sounds of that tour prodded the inspiration for what many feel is one of Ellington and Strayhorn's strongest collaborative efforts, "The Far East Suite."
The title can be misleading, because the band never reached the Far East on that tour, although they would visit Japan the following year—which inspired the closing piece of the recorded suite, "Ad Lib on Nippon." The suite was conceived as a series of musical impressions of the Middle and Near East, and was performed live but not recorded until 1966. When the record finally appeared, it was hailed as Ellington's most fulfilling studio LP to date. The unmatched genius of the Ellington-Strayhorn partnership produced a body of work that painted vivid aural pictures of the Asian landscape while still bearing the Ellington-Strayhorn stamp. Again Ellington's music conveyed a sense of place, but without succumbing to the limitations of any particular indigenous music. The success of this venture gave Ellington the encouragement to visit other areas of the globe. But the next major milestone of his career would be of an entirely different character, with the unveiling of his First Sacred Concert.
Ellington was invited to perform sacred music at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on September 16, 1965. He responded without hesitation with a program that included many previous pieces such as "Come Sunday," "David Danced," and "New World a-Comin'." But Ellington also included new material such as "In the Beginning God." The first concert was performed many times in various churches of different denominations, and Ellington viewed this work with the highest degree of seriousness. He would compose a second concert toward the end of 1967 using all new material with the exception of "99 Percent Won't Do." The Second Sacred Concert was premiered in New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine on January 19, 1968. Duke believed that all of his sacred music—the Second Sacred Concert in particular—was the most important work of his career, expressing his most profound spiritual beliefs as never before. A third concert would be completed shortly before his death in 1974. Far from being "jazz mass," or traditional gospel or liturgical music, Ellington's sacred music was an individual expression of Negro folk music. As always, it was beyond category.
But between the creation of the First and Second Concerts, Ellington suffered a devastating blow with the loss of his close friend and musical alter ego, Billy Strayhorn. It was the most difficult experience of his life with the sole exception of the death of his mother. In 1965, Strayhorn was hospitalized for cancer treatment, and would never be able to travel with the band as freely as before. As his condition grew more critical, he continued to compose some of his most poignant music, and Ellington maintained steady contact with Strayhorn over the telephone. Some of Strayhorn's song titles at the time painted a picture of the painful circumstances of his life. "U.M.M.G." stood for Upper Manhattan Medical Group. "Blood Count" was the last piece he completed before his death. It was sent directly from Strayhorn's hospital bed to a Carnegie Hall performance, where Ellington held up the manuscript for Johnny Hodges to sight read. On May 31, 1967, Billy Strayhorn passed away in the early morning hours. Ellington immediately sat down and wrote a heartfelt eulogy, which can be found in the liner notes of the record the orchestra recorded as a Stayhorn memorial, And His Mother Called Him Bill. This record is regarded by many as one of the orchestra's finest, and features some of the most emotional playing from Johnny Hodges on pieces like "Blood Count," and "Day Dream." The original vinyl record closed with a spontaneous Ellington piano recital of "Lotus Blossom" that conveys the sense of grief and loss that permeated those sessions.
Becoming increasingly aware that his time in the world was growing short, Ellington began to drive himself with even greater intensity, with new compositions and appearances around the world. His first major effort in the aftermath of Strayhorn's death was the Second Sacred Concert. The extraordinary vocalist Alice Babs was brought in from Europe on soprano. The opening in New York, as well as subsequent performances, elicited audience response ranging from reverent to ecstatic. Highlights of the piece included "Supreme Being," "Heaven," and the finale, "Praise God and Dance." Ellington was pleased with the reaction to what he considered his most important work.
The next career milestone came in the form of Ellington's first Latin American tour in the late summer of 1968. Departing New York on September 1, the band took their first trip south of the equator as they played Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, then back to the United States for a small string of one-nighters before returning to finish the tour in Mexico. As with the Asian tour of 1963, Ellington's sensitive mind absorbed the cultural aspects of the region, and produced an individual body of work based on his impressions. This time, Ellington composed the music so instantaneously that he was ready to debut the new suite in Mexico City before the end of the tour! The original title was "Mexican Anticipacion," but would eventually be recorded and released as "The Latin American Suite." One of Ellington's most exuberant works, it perfectly conveys the colors and rhythms of South America, again without reverting to the instrumentation or limitations of that region's indigenous music. Paul Gonsalves, who spoke fluent Portuguese and served as official interpreter of the tour, was the chief soloist of the suite.
The following April, Ellington celebrated his seventieth birthday in his home town of Washington, D.C., at the White House, where he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Nixon. Ellington had been the guest of presidents Truman and Johnson in the past, but the birthday celebration of April 29, 1969, was of a much higher caliber. The ceremony began with a formal dinner, followed by the presentation of the Medal, and then an evening of music with an all-star lineup of musicians (Ellingtonian and non) playing selections from the Maestro's book. Some of the musicians included Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Gerry Mulligan, Louis Bellson, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and Billy Eckstine, among many others. The most poignant moment came during the presentation of the Medal, when Ellington declared, "There is no place I would rather be tonight except in my mother's arms."
Later in the year, the band returned to Europe and recorded the live record entitled "Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert." It was given unanimously positive reviews. The 1969 European tour included Ellington's first performance in Eastern Europe with a concert in Prague. Sacred Concerts were also performed in Paris, Stockholm, and Barcelona. By this time, Jimmy Hamilton had left the band and was replaced by Harold Ashby, a fine saxophonist, but not the distinctive voice on clarinet that Ellington enjoyed with Hamilton—although Russell Procope continued to be heard on the instrument. It would not be long before Duke would lose the greatest Ellingtonian of them all—Johnny Hodges.
For the band's appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival of 1970, Ellington composed the first portions of what would become "The New Orleans Suite." Five sections painted aural pictures of the Crescent City, while four sections were conceived as musical portraits of some of the city's prominent native sons and daughters: Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Wellman Braud, and Mahalia Jackson. The festival performance was a success, and the band entered the studio to record the suite. But by this time, Lawrence Brown had once again left the orchestra. Then halfway through the recording of the album came the devastating news that Johnny Hodges had passed away in his dentist's office. The timing of this tragedy was especially poignant. Ellington was hoping to persuade Hodges to dust off his soprano saxophone for "Portrait of Sidney Bechet." Hodges hadn't played the instrument in at least thirty years, and Bechet was unquestionably one of Hodges' role models. Standing in Hodges' place, Paul Gonsalves gave a heartfelt tenor performance on the piece in memory of the greatest soloist the Ellington orchestra had ever known.
Despite this latest blow, Ellington had no choice but to continue moving forward. His itinerary was filled with more dates in Europe and Japan, as well as the orchestra's first visits to Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and Laos. He was commissioned by the American Ballet Theatre to compose one of his most ambitious pieces yet, The River. His experiences in Japan and Australia helped inspire him to compose yet another unique series of musical impressions brought together in a suite called "Afro-Eurasian Eclipse." It was the last example of Ellington's individual approach to world music, and a worthy continuation of his works devoted to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. As a gesture of gratitude to the African nation of Togoland, which issued Ellington's image on a set of postage stamps, he composed the suite "Togo Brava—Brava Togo!" The suite was premiered at the 1971 Newport Festival. These aforementioned pieces would be among the last works of significance from Ellington's pen—with the exception of his autobiography, and one remaining extended work that would soon see the light of day.
With the loss of Hodges and Brown, as well as Cat Anderson, the orchestra seemed to be going through another difficult period of transition. Cootie Williams was soon to depart as well. Ellington, however, only expressed confidence in his personnel, and in 1971 the orchestra embarked on the biggest global tour of their career, with returns to Europe and Latin America, as well as their first voyage to Russia, which would last for five weeks and was a resounding success for Ellington. In 1972 the schedule was equally as relentless, with a mammoth tour of the Far East including more dates in Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Ellington finally began completing his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, which would mostly consist of anecdotes and stories about his many friends, associates, and favorite haunts. Not surprisingly, the book revealed very little about Ellington the private man.
In 1973, Ellington discovered that he had been developing lung cancer. In the face of this revelation, Ellington continued working with more courage and determination than ever before on what would be his final statement to the world—the Third Sacred Concert. The new piece would be performed at Westminster Abbey in London on October 24, 1973. Unfortunately, Paul Gonsalves had taken ill just prior to the performance, and Harold Ashby assumed Gonsalves's solos. The rehearsals were frantic, almost right up to performance time. But the Third Sacred Concert proved to be one of the most poignant and spiritually evocative pieces of Ellington's career, with more tremendous vocal performances from Alice Babs on pieces such as "Is God a Three-Letter Word for Love?" and "The Majesty of God." Harry Carney and Ellington himself were also prominently featured throughout the concert.
While Ellington was still in the United Kingdom, his long-time physician and close friend Arthur Logan fell from his apartment window in New York under mysterious circumstances on November 25. This was the final blow. Only the losses of his mother and Billy Strayhorn were as devastating. Ellington confided that he would almost certainly not last another six months with Arthur Logan gone. He was off by one day.
In January 1974, Ellington collapsed during a performance in his hometown of Washington, D.C. He was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, then returned to his West End Avenue home. But he was not the same Duke Ellington that his friends had known. In March, Evie Ellington was also diagnosed with lung cancer, and was hospitalized. Ellington returned to Presbyterian Hospital in April, never to see Evie again, or to return home. Once Evie left the hospital, Ellington maintained constant telephone contact with her. He was also working with Mercer to make changes and improvements on his Third Sacred Concert from his hospital bed.
With Ellington unable to attend, Brooks Kerr and Roscoe Gill were brought in to conduct a performance of excerpts from the Sacred Concerts at St. Peter's Church in New York in celebration of Ellington's 75th birthday on April 29, 1974. His health was steadily declining by this time, and it was the first time the Ellington orchestra performed without him. Unbeknown to him, Paul Gonsalves has passed away in London in mid-May. Nobody had the heart to tell Ellington, fearing that the news would only upset his fragile condition. Finally on May 24, 1974, one day shy of the six-month calculation he had given his own life expectancy after Arthur Logan's death, Edward Kennedy Ellington passed into the place where he most longed to be—his departed mother's arms.
|Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington||15|
|Frank "Kash" Waddy||77|
|Two Kindred Spirits||128|
|A Spiritual Bond||132|
|New World A-Comin'||137|