Tuesday, April 29, 2008

This Day in Music History (Duke Ellington’s Birth)

April 29, 1899—His first and middle names at birth in Washington, D.C., were “Edward Kennedy,” but while still a youngster he became known by the name that millions of fans the world over now recognize him by: Duke Ellington.

“Class tells,” one of John O’Hara’s characters remarks in Ten North Frederick. As often is the case with the novelist, the noun in that sentence has a layer of irony: of course it refers to the social distinctions that divide people, arbitrarily and maybe even unfairly, but also signifies elegance, courtesy and simple human dignity. In that second sense, few embody the term as well as America’s premiere jazz bandleader-composer.

“Beyond category,” Ellington’s highest compliment, could just as easily apply to his life and career. He let nothing stand in the way of his creation—and audiences’ appreciation—of the notes snatched from his fecund brain: Not racial or national origins, not sexual preferences, not bandmembers’ weaknesses or audiences’ fickleness, not even the smallmindedness of people who should have known better (like the Pulitzer Prize board that overruled its own jury that in 1965 recommended him for a special citation).

From the shimmy back herringbone suit that first got the young pianist noticed in Washington to the cool remove he maintained between lovers and himself, he was a natural aristocrat—taking after his father James, “a Chesterfieldian gentleman who wore gloves and spats,” in the words of the musician’s sister Ruth.

In 1923, the 24-year-old Ellington paid his way into the segregated section of Washington’s Howard Theatre to hear saxophonist Sidney Bechet—his first real exposure to New Orleans jazz. Five years later, firmly established in Harlem, musicians, including white ones (like Bing Crosby), were coming to see him. By the end of his life, he had played all over the world, to audiences of all races and nationalities.

Ellington’s longtime musical alter ego was
Billy Strayhorn. Ellington managed the delicate balancing act of according “Sweetpea” as much recognition as he could without thrusting him so firmly into the limelight that Strayhorn’s homosexuality would be exposed in that less tolerant era.

Harder than keeping Strayhorn’s secret was holding the Ellington big band together. In the band’s heyday, it involved not just creating tunes with solos where musicians like Johnny Hodges or Cootie Williams could shine, but also keeping Ben Webster away from the bottle enough so he could show up for recording dates and concerts, or maintaining emotional equilibrium in the South, where the band would constantly deal with segregated accommodations, or playing small halls when their fortunes cratered with the bebop vogue after World War II.

In a warmly affectionate
tribute to the Duke on his 70th birthday, when Richard Nixon was throwing a state dinner in his honor at the White House, Ralph Ellison noted the special irony of the occasion: at the turn of the century, Ellington’s father had served as a butler there. Now the son was recognized officially as a kind of roving ambassador of perhaps the only uniquely American art form in the world: Jazz.

Something in Ellington’s easy grace must have even impressed Nixon, who, we know now, had few equals as a racist in the 20th-century White House. Five years later, on the same day he had to go before the American people and reveal the damaging Watergate transcripts, the President still found time to call the dying musician and wish him a happy birthday. It was an unexpected grace note in a President notably lacking in any, but it also testified to the example of the nonpareil musician and man who called it forth.

Ellington’s physical decline also brought out the best in a man as complex as Nixon, but who, for all his roughness, was also far more given to warmth and generosity:
Frank Sinatra. Approached by a mutual friend of the composer’s to have Ellington’s doctors checked out, Ol’ Blue Eyes had the eminent heart specialist Michael DeBakey flown up, at his own expense, to New York. DeBakey quickly sized up the situation—Duke’s doctors had blown it, and his lymphoma was terminal.

Sinatra didn’t stop there, though. On Ellington’s 75th birthday, the singer (who seven years earlier had collaborated with the jazzman on
Francis A. Sinatra and Edward K. Ellington), arranged to have the hall near Duke’s room lined with baskets of fruits and fosters, costing anywhere from $2,000-$3,000.

I probably have more CDs of Ellington than of any other jazz musician, but three stand out:
Anatomy of a Murder, Live at the 1956 Stratford Festival and Ellington at Newport: 1956. The soundtrack for the 1959 Otto Preminger courtroom classic, like the film itself, is alternately urbane, lush, ironic, and sensuous. The bandleaders’ appearance at Canada’s premiere theater venue features one tune certainly chosen for its appropriateness: “Hark! The Duke’s Trumpets.” The Newport recording preserves forever one of the landmark moments in jazz history: When the bandleader, undoubtedly inspired by a sexy blonde dancing in the audience, allowed tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves to cut loose on “Diminuendo in Blue” with a 27-chorus solo that brought the festival to electrifying life and earned the Duke a Time Magazine cover story and a new recording contract with Columbia.

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