DUKE ELLINGTON MUSIC SOCIETY
06/2 August - November 2006
Our 28th Year of Publication.
FOUNDER: BENNY AASLAND
Voort 18b, 2328 Meerle, Belgium
Telephone: +32 3 315 75 83
There Is Just One King, And He Is The Duke There have been many dukes, but for me the only Duke is Ellington.
Kings of jazz and swing have come and gone, but the only King of Jazz is Ellington.
English and French jazz critics have been joined by critics of the classical in crediting Edward Kennedy Ellington with the distinction of being the most important single influence on all modern music. Some great contemporary academic composers, among them Stravinsky and Milhaud, concur.
Oddly enough, the real stature of this composer, pianist and orchestra leader was not widely recognized at home until the summer of 1965 when, in a City Hall ceremony, the Mayor of New York handed Duke the Key to the City during "Ellington Week." That key turned out to open the whole country.
More than a decade before these festivities, I happened to mention Ellingtons crucial importance in the world of music, and was flabbergasted to hear his road manager of many years exclaim, "Gee! I didnt know the guy was that great " No, he was not putting me on. The Duke never sported the laurels heaped on him.
Henry Miller, in The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), portrays Ellington in the lyrical lines his music deserves. In picturing the wondrous blue light of Grecian skies, Miller intones: "I let a song go out of my heart, to Duke Ellington, that double-jointed cobra with the steel-flanged wrists whose favorite mood is indigo, which is that of the angels when all the world is fast asleep."
Arthur Jackson, my dear old friend from Mel-O-Dee Music Shop days, put his finger on the power of Ellingtonia. Arthur was the person in whose company I most enjoyed listening to records. No question, he had missed his calling. He should have been a musician instead of a postmaster. His whole body, his heart, brain, all his other inner and outer parts are filled with jazz. He just has to whisper and he swings. Instead, he joined the U.S. Postal Service. Well, look at it positively: Great music needs deep listeners.
I remember Arthur reproaching me when I began a record session with a new Ellington side I was anxious to play for him. "Now, Timme," my friend said gently, "I came to spend the evening, and if you are going to start with the Duke, what on earth are you intending to follow him with?"
My first meeting with Duke Ellington was in London in 1933, the year before my first visit to the United States. I was twenty-two, he was thirty-four. As if it were yesterday, I remember pulling myself together and striding off to invade the imposing Grosvenor House, tremulous but determined somehow to get his autograph and an interview for my Danish newspaper, Politiken.
Taking a deep breath and straightening my tie, I knocked timidly at the door of his suite. It was instantly opened by an elderly gentleman. Duke Ellingtons father bade me enter as I mumbled something incoherent and darted into the enormous room, coming to a halt directly in front of the seated Duke, who was industriously occupied with a king-size steak. I couldnt have been more nervous had I been standing in the presence of Greta Garbo, my other idol of that era. There was not much difference, really. To me, Duke was the Garbo of jazz, the ultimate in brilliance and beauty. Ellington brought the same royal glamour to Americas music as the Swedish actress did to the silver screen.
Duke quickly put me at ease with his boundless charm and graciousness. "Sit down! Sit down and tell me about yourself," he said, flashing that smile. Over the years, I can say with pride that we have become very close friends. I have made it my business to know where he is playing at all times. When he and his band perform in theaters, clubs or concert halls in New York or (when I am there, and within distance), in Europe, I am nearly always in the audience or standing next to the fireman in the theater wings (Note 1). It is the same when Duke has a recording session at Victor or Columbia. You cant keep me away.
For a whole year, Inez Cavanaugh was Dukes secretary and also took care of his publicity, and during that period he was often in our home. It was, incidentally, Inez who wrote the original words for Dukes first epic composition, "Black, Brown and Beige." A tone poem, he called it, and Inez wrote the text in blank verse. Almost a hundred pages long, it was a gripping account of the history of black people in America, to complement the music. The original idea was that the book be published along with Ellingtons own recording of the work. For various commercial reasons, it never was.
An equally big sin was that Ellingtons own debut performance of "Black, Brown and Beige" in January 1943 at his orchestras first concert in Carnegie Hall, never was released on records. It was such an important composition, with marvelous solos by trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, and saxophonists Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges and trumpeter Rex Stewart, and wonderful singing by Betty Roche. Instead, some parts of the work were recorded a few years later on the Victor label. They were pale and bland by comparison.
What a privilege it has been to share many of Dukes off-duty hours (if they ever were) at his home, in his dressing rooms, at the after-hours sessions in Harlem, Paris, London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, wherever. Getting to know him has been the most fascinating experience of my life. Many times, at his apartment, I have thought the hour late, but no, Duke always managed to find something else to keep him up, and so between raiding the Frigidaire and listening to music, I found no place for fatigue in the stimulation of his presence. His subtle sense of humor, so alive in all his creations, his devouring curiosity and profound understanding and tolerance of people, his canny acceptance of their quirks and foibles, has been a key factor in keeping his unique organization together.
His musicians had often opposing musical tics. When it came right down to it, he may have wanted the quirks rather than discipline. The musicians became extensions of his personality to the point that he would indulge their faults as though they were members of his own family.
The sectional sound, as well, consisted of a blend of attracted contradictions, consonant antonyms, a sort of high-flying, explosive post-impressionism. The brass would be voiced in clusters, with Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams and Joe (Tricky Sam) Nanton manipulating wah-wahs and plungers and an assortment of mutes united in their variety. The melodic saxophone sections soli rolled along hauntingly. His cross-textural orchestral choirs came from some very private place, blended sweet and sour, hot and cold, breathy and clear .. the soloists Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Cat Anderson, Jimmy Hamilton .. are all individuals, yet Ellington creations as well. Ellington was an inventor of sound as much as a composer, and to get specific colors, he hired individuals rather than the instruments they played. Clark Terry played himself, not the trumpet. Their improvisations became part of the "score."
Mike Zwerin, "Ellingtons Timeless Blend," about "Anniversary" (13 CD box, Masters of Jazz), in International Herald Tribune, May 26, 1999
And Duke does everything in his power to hang on to his players, even using some of the royalties from his compositions to help cover the very heavy band payroll.
Really, how many bandleaders could put up with such a collection of "sensitives" and keep on composing new music at such a rate for so long on that endless road of one-nighters? The men who have left the band for health or other reasons have never reached the same creative heights away from Ellington. Nor have they been as happy in their work. For Duke, losing a man is like losing a finger or an arm. He loves them all, as he says, and they are all his instruments.
Like every other leader he has to deal with the personal problems of his men, and this he always does, with patience and sympathy.
One evening at the great Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, Sonny Greer, who had been entertaining in his dressing room between shows, leaned back against his chimes, arms folded in true concert stance, when suddenly he took a ten-foot drop chimes, drums, cymbals, Sonny and all, crashing backwards off the bandstand.
It happened during Dusty Fletchers ("Open the Door, Richard!") act. Duke was standing in the wings. Backstage was in a flurry. Duke didnt budge or utter a single word. But fear that Sonny had injured himself blanched his face.
Inez Cavanaugh was touring with the band. She was sent home with Sonny who, when caught up with at the hotel, was holding court and protesting, "I know Duke is going to think I was high "
Despite all his bravado, Sonny was ashamed to face the boss. On his return to the theater, he decided to meet the heat head-on. He flung open the door to Ellingtons dressing room and bluffed: "Well, here I am, daddy, sharper than a skeeters peter!"
Duke roared. "Its okay, Sonny!" he said. "I found out the band boy didnt put the brakes on your chimes when he set up. Youre my man! And the sharpest!"
Ellington has been called superstitious, but I felt he was no more so than anyone as aware as he was of the element of chance. And so, I did not deem it extraordinary when he told me, on closing night of a Capitol Theatre engagement, as we drove past the entrance on the way to his home uptown: "I always tell Willie (his chauffeur) not to pass in front of the theater on closing night. I just dont like to see my name being taken down from the marquee "
An odd commentary on the vicissitudes of life is the fact that Ellington does not like the business of getting from one place to another. He cannot sleep on trains, ships, in cars, and he especially dislikes flying. Constant travelling for forty years has not changed him at all. Approximately 14,650 sleepless nights account for those heavy bags under his eyes. Come to think of it, he doesnt like to go to bed at home, either. Life fascinates him so much, it seems a terrible waste of time. He just seems to thrive on not sleeping!
On the road, he prefers to play cards with the bandsmen, very often winning all their loot but he is a gracious loser, too. Until recently, when he bought an apartment in a skyscraper on New Yorks Central Park West, Duke had a modest little flat on Harlems Sugar Hill. He fell for New York the first time he glimpsed the bright lights which, to his imaginative soul, were an Arabian Nights dream.
A born big-city man, he has a deep-seated dislike for expanses of green grass, saying they remind him of cemeteries. Cant bear any kind of outdoor sports; regarded the walk down three flights of stairs in his old Harlem apartment as his daily constitutional; laughingly describes himself as "a hot-house flower."
"You have to be careful, Timme," he once told me. "Theres nothing more dangerous than fresh-air poisoning!"
My parents would take me to see Duke Ellington when I was a kid. We were lucky because we had no generation gap with music. My father would take me to the Apollo Theater to hear Ellington or Basie or Earl Hines or Andy Kirk. . . . In that period, all the music was in the black community, so many of the songs were written about the African-American experience. Duke was our master storyteller. He was universal in his compositions. He wrote music about Asia, about the Queen of England. He was a great composer, but whatever he did, I dont care how complicated it was, he always heard the blues underneath, which for me was the black expression. I didnt recognize Ellington as a pianist until much later. Then I heard him play trio at the Museum of Modern Art for the first time, and I was moved.
Randy Weston, pianist, in DownBeat, July 2004
Duke, like this writer, has a "thing" about birthdays. He loves birthdays, and insists they be celebrated in grand style. His own, the twenty-ninth of April, I have happily attended many times. Naturally, every sixth of July when my birthday rolls around, Ellington is there if he is in town (Note 2).
In July 1943, I was planning the usual bash on West Thirteenth Street, where Inez and I lived in Greenwich Village. I was upset when I heard Duke was on tour, but the party had to go on. Many types I had never seen before, or after, found their way to the shindig in true Village style, bottles in hand. There was some kind of unwritten law in Greenwich Village: If you turn up with a bottle, you cant be turned away.
Well, among the invited, who could barely squeeze their way in, I was delighted to see Red Norvo, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Pete Brown, Herman Chittison, Bernard Addison and Billy Taylor. And my rented grand piano never stopped rocking, much to the distress of some of my unhip neighbors, but the cops on the beat were used to jazz parties and the likker was good.
I shant linger on the details of that party, though the details linger on me. Out came the Danish delicatessen and the spirits, and in came an endless parade. At any rate, when I awakened the next day, I was of the firm conviction, confirmed by a mammoth hangover, that this must have been the mother of all parties.
Desperately in need of a breath of air, I took my head for a walk, Danish style. Up on Broadway I was momentarily paralyzed by the sign on the huge marquee over the Paramount Theatre: TONIGHT DUKE ELLINGTON AND HIS FAMOUS ORCHESTRA PREMIERE!
Dashing backstage, I found Duke, and my unhappiness must have shown all over me: "So youre in town! I only wish I had known. It was my birthday yesterday. It was a great party, and I certainly missed you!"
Duke gazed at me for a long, astonished moment. With profound pity on his noble face, he said putting emphasis on these words "Timme, that must have been the greatest party. Dont stand there and tell me you cant remember the two of us sitting in the corner by your fireplace until dawn, talking music and stumbling over bodies to change the records "
Note 1: On a short amateur video of an interview with Ellington, Timme says, "I have tried to hear your concerts whenever I have been around." Duke replies, "And Timme, do you know that I remember exactly what you were wearing each time!"
Note 2: In the Timme Rosenkrantz Collection at the University of Southern Denmark there is an acetate recorded on Timmes birthday, July 6, 1946 at his New York apartment, on which Duke plays two tunes on solo piano. The recording quality is not very good, according to chief librarian Frank Büchman-Møller.
There Is Just One King, And He Is The Duke
There have been many dukes, but for me the only Duke is Ellington.