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Greetings to all the cats out there ready to dig the cool sounds of the eel's hips swinging in the trees. The Easter Bunny done come hopping into town and I’m like doing the eat and greet with relations across the nations. But Jazz gives rest the neyfus, the show must go on….

(I really did know someone who would talk like that)

And so…when one thinks of the great American composers, a few names should automatically come to mind: Copeland, Gershwin…and Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974. Duke Ellington .com

It’s Saturday night as I write this and the Orphan Black season premier has just ended. This isn’t going to be an insightful diary (although I do have a thing or two to say…and none of that will involve questioning the abundance of pre-Christian imagery in the commercialization of what one would assume is the Holiest holiday in the Christian tradition)…it’s a Holiday special and celebration!  Next year in Jerusalem!

Take the orange squiggle to get to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem

Did they make train whistles sound like #9 chords on purpose?

It just swings.

Anyway…the story starts like many of these stories start. Duke studied piano as a child, getting more serious in his teen years and then as he got older started to go out and tried to get gigs. Yes, he had a particular entrepreneurial streak. And apparently his mother felt it was important to impress upon him a certain way of manners and elegance. “Duke” was given to him as a nickname by his childhood friends due to his "way".

His first band was formed in the early 1920s and a 1923 gig in Atlantic City led to work in New York. Duke had already began composing and entered into a publishing contract with Irving Mills in 1926. This relationship allowed him to begin to record prolifically. In 1927 he took up residence at the fabled Cotton Club.

The famous songs start to come…

Duke’s audience in the USA is mostly African Americans at the time, but he is also quite popular in Europe and begins to tour there in 1933 and 34.

Once we get into the 30s and the era of the great Big Bands…Duke’s music isn’t quite so commercial. “Jazz is music, swing is business” is what he once said. Benny Goodman, the Dorsey’s, Glenn Miller were all more popular, especially with the white audiences.

but the tunes....others recorded the songs....

Billy Strayhorn, November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967, joined Duke first as lyricist and then as composer and arranger. The two had a great collaboration for years to come.

Strayhorn wrote A Train. He wrote this one with Duke…

Billy Strayhorn also wrote the very well know composition, Lush Life. There are no recordings of Duke’s band playing Lush Life. So here’s one of Coltrane with Johnny Hartman doing it.

Ellington had wanted to move his writing past the short tunes and arrangements and Strayhorn helped him with that as he had more training in classical music. The first major long piece they prepared was debuted on January 23, 1943, called “Black Brown and Beige”

There were others, such as the Far East Suite in the 60s

The post war years made it difficult to maintain a big band (15+ members!). Duke persisted through the early 50s, partially due to his publishing deals which kept the money coming in. However the band was often just breaking even. Paul Gonsalves , July 12, 1920 – May 15, 1974, joined Duke in 1950 and Clark Terry, born December 14, 1920, in 1951.

Ken Burns makes a big deal out of Duke’s 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival…and for good reason. The band kicked ass, the recording released swung damn hard and was released during a great period of jazz. The recording, however, was cleaned up and augmented for release. And the audience cheers added.

Duke and Strayhorn also began composing for films. This includes the soundtrack to 1959’s Anatomy of Murder, the first soundtrack written exclusively by African-American composers.

In the 60s, he made some recordings with younger jazz musicians in small group settings

Strayhorn developed esophageal cancer and began writing compositions with titles related to his illness.

UMMG (Upper Manhttan Medical group)

Blood Count

In 1965, Duke did the first of his Scared Concerts

In 1966 he even recorded with Sinatra!

Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, an Honorary PhD from the Berklee College of Music in 1971, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973. (I cut and pasted that from Wikipedia).

OK…what I’ve wanted to know for thirteen years is why the promotion for New York City in the months post 9-11 didn’t include some Duke Ellington…”take the A-train downtown again!”. Well…I know the answer. It’s similar to the answer for the question as to why school children are not taught about Duke Ellington.  And why, nationally, we heard no jazz promoting New Orleans post Katrina (until Treme on HBO of course).

I’ll rant about how no one cares about jazz. I’ll complain about the lack gigs. I’ll certainly go on about how jazz in colleges is…peculiar. And don’t get me started on the recording industry. But what really matters is how the United States denies its cultural legacy and marginalizes some of its most enigmatic and prolific icons and producers of that history. If there is anyone that all Americans should be aware of, its Duke Ellington. One thing is for sure, none of our oligarchs could create what Duke did. They may be recreated nobility in the 21st century, but Duke had the title. They ain’t got no soul and money can’t buy you one.

The Ken Burn documentary does a great job with Ellington, so please do watch that if you never have! There is such much Duke Ellington and I barely scratch the surface of it today. On the youtubes are several full length concerts from the 60s. I've also failed to mention some of the large number of great musicians who played with Duke; Johnny Hodges, Juan Tzol, Sonny Greer to name a few.

Now that the writing is done and edited and stuffs...I've also finished watching Billy Crystal's new comedy special on HBO, 700 Sundays. In the special, Crystal talks quite a bit about his family's relationship with Jazz. Some of it is rather moving and apparently a very young Billy Crystal was taken to see his first movie, Shane, by none other than Billy Holiday herself.

It’s a busy weekend and a very busy Sunday. I expect to get back to Miles and Trane next week…but I’ve been listening to a ton of Keith Jarrett lately and maybe he goes next week. Thanks for listening and thanks for your support! And don’t forget to support your local Jazz musicians and all local live music.

Originally posted to An Ear for Music on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 03:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Protest Music.


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