Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Duke

April 29, 1899: birthday of Duke Ellington, foremost of the jazz nobility.

Ellington and his orchestra (which he kept together, with most of the key musicians, for fifty years) played Vancouver a number of times, including evenings at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre where he gave the audience lessons in finger snapping--"Behind the beat, please"--and a two-week run at The Cave, during which he spent his days at the Georgia Hotel writing the score for "The River," an Alvin Ailey ballet.

Although he played piano, people often said the orchestra was his instrument. But we find that the Ellington records we play most often are his least typical: his duets across generations with John Coltrane; the meetings with Louis Armstrong--two ageing masters; a little known album on Reprise with Frank Sinatra; a titanic collaboration with Count Basie's band; and "Money Jungle," with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Ellington had three famous performances billed as "Sacred Concerts," but it is the two versions of "Solitude" on "Money Jungle" that seem most hymn-like.

The Duke was a romantic and a romancer. Once, in Ottawa, CBC interviewer Mildred MacDonald found him improvising a dreamy melody at the piano. "What is it called?" she asked. Duke said, "It's called 'Mildred'." Mil said she believed he probably used the same tune and the same line everywhere he went.

Many tributes to Ellington over the years, beginning with the debated Pulitzer Prize recommendation. Charlie Barnet based his orchestra on Duke's, and Dave Brubeck's "The Duke" has become a jazz standard. (The full title is "From Darius to the Duke," signifying Brubeck's artistic debt to his teacher, Darius Milhaud, and the jazz roots represented by Ellington.)

But we'll leave the last word to Terry Garner, who said, "Ellington first. All others far behind."

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