An Evening With Edward Kennedy Ellington
Duke’s Satorial Style Was as Elegant as his Music
On April 29, 1999, the centennial of the birth of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, I sat outside the elegant brick and stone building on ST. Nicholas avenue, in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and listened to some sonic gems from the late jazz master’s copious musical ouvre, a repertoire that includes over 2000 compositions. Now a national historical landmark, the unassuming and well kept little building was the site of many of the Duke’s numerous compositions about his beloved Harlem.
Sitting outside Duke’s crib, listening to “Take The A Train,” “Harlem Airshaft,” and “Black, Brown and Beige Suite,” I could feel his presence; and it resurrected memories of an enchanted evening I once spent with him in his downtown digs back in the early seventies, when the master was in the twilight of his wonderful life.
It was a soft, sparkling, lovely summer afternoon, and I couldn’t suppress the thought that I was about to experience a rare opportunity to witness history in the making. For just a few blocks from my crib on the upper west side, the best of the Afro-American and European orchestral traditions were being fused into a marvelous musical tapestry. The great Ellington orchestra was participating in a collaboration with the “Symphony of the New World,” for the express purpose of exploring the incandescent musical imagination of the peerless Edward Kennedy Ellington.
It was altogether fitting that the concert was held at The Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts, which was then the most conspicuous center of American cultural schizophrenia. (The Jazz department, which was added a few years ago, is a prominent sign of recovery toward cultural wellness.) To my mind at the time, this concert was the musical event of the season. I was convinced of this in spite of the rather astonishing fact that New York city was host to over fifty thousand musical performances that year! For this was a musical offering beyond category. The most consistently inventive musical craftsman in America would preside over a posse of virtuoso instrumental pioneers, and their vast musical wisdom would be shared with some of the rising stars of the younger generation through the joyful experience of making music.
Virtuoso Cellist and Conductor of the New World Symphony
Seated side by side on the bandstand were vintage staples of the Ellington orchestra like Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, Clarinetist Russell Procope, and trumpeter Cootie Williams, and brilliant young masters like Bassist Richard Davis, cellist Kermit Moore, flautist Hubert Laws and violinist John Blair. And their cooking solos were fired up by the lush sounds of the New world symphony. Although these two musical aggregations were born of very different esthetic impulses, they came together in perfect harmony on this divine day.
The Great Ellington Orchestra
For half a century Duke wrote for them
The Ellington orchestra was organized to give expression to the Duke’s unique musical vision and prolific compositional gifts, which produced a fifty year flow of musical portraits and tone poems that captured the beauty and complexities of the cultural ambiance and lifestyles of black America, a virtual sonic kaleidoscope of Afro-Americana that captured the ethos of American civilization. And, I might add, contributed mightily to the creation of Jazz, a neo-African art form which provides a truer portrait of America than any of the paintings by the equally American school of “Abstract Expressionist” painters.
On the other hand, the now defunct Symphony of the New World – which was named after the famous composition by Anton Dvorsak – which utilized Afro-American melodies as it’s central theme – was the Afro-American musician’s response to the racism and cultural chauvinism that continues to besmirch the reputations of the nation’s leading symphony orchestras. Hence that orchestra served primarily as a vehicle for those Afro-American composers, conductors and instrumentalists who chose to express themselves in the genre of wholly composed music. When these two orchestras merged in concert, it was clearly an artistic event of the first order.
The chain of events which led to my receiving a highly coveted invitation to the after party at Duke’s place began when the Duke was greeting friends, fans and well-wishers back stage after the gig. As Duke graciously chatted with guests, Master John Blair – a colorful bald head character who looks like a bronze Mr. Clean, but is a master of the martial arts and the violin – eased up behind Duke and started playing a medley of his tunes. Plesantly surprised, Duke turned around broadly smiling and said “so you’re a jazz violinist too huh?” Then he invited John to come party at his place.
For my part, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Since Master John Blair was my main man, he invited me to tag along. It was a short trip to Fifty Ninth street and Columbus Circle, where Duke kept and apartment overlooking the southern most entrance to Central Park .
Approaching the entrance to the building I reflected on the fact that at the turn of the century, a community called “Black Bohemia” was located just a few blocks away. It was the home of such gifted Afro-American artists as Hubie Blake, Nobel Sissel, Will Marion Cooke, James Reece Europe, J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Bob Cole, Bert William’s and George Walker.
These men played a vital role in the both the creation of the American popular song and the development of the musical theater. And several of them influenced the musical development of Duke Ellington, especially conservatory trained composer and virtuoso violinist Will Marion Cooke, with whom Duke studied music theory and called “Pops.”
The View Of Central Park From Dukes Balcony
Looking Toward Fifth Avenue
As we entered Duke’s apartment, we were greeted at the door by his sister Ruth, who proved to be a gracious and charming host throughout the evening. The first thing to seize my attention was a large white grand piano in the middle of the living room floor. Surrounded by a sea of white walls, drapes and carpet, the piano seemed to stand out as the central fact of this living space. The overall aesthetic effect was one of purity and singularity of purpose. It was sort of like entering a temple devoted to the making of music.
I scanned the room observing the anxious nervous energy displayed by various members of the group, as they anticipated the Duke’s presence. The scene had much in common with a group of religious devotees awaiting the presence of their guru. As we were introduced around, it became immediately clear that this assemblage comprised a unique collection of personalities. There was several aging members of the European nobility, sporting titles that suggested the grandeur of a now-forgotten world. There was a black expatriate symphonic conductor, forced to live in Sweden in order to practice his art. And a young black man exotically attired in flowing black monk’s robes and a large straw hat, engaged in lively conversation with some erudite members of the Duke Ellington Society.
The gathering also included a smattering of the obligatory record executive types and a few solidly middle-class professionals. As I strolled about the room, drink in hand, savoring the excellent cuisine and listening to bits and pieces of conversations, I became aware of a sudden and dramatic change in the room. I looked around and there he was: the musical genius who had left an indelible imprint on the music of America and greatly influenced the orchestral music of the world. Yes! There he was, Duke Ellington in the flesh, standing in his own living room. It was almost too much.
After greeting us with his infectious charm and fabled smile, the Duke walked straight to the piano and sat down. Strikingly and colorfully attired in a flowing red silk robe, complemented by a floor length white silk scarf, he seemed almost a different species of animal from the rest of us. It was easy to see how he got the name “Duke”, a name that suggests nobility. For he possessed the attributes that we have been conditioned to associate with a hereditary nobility. But Duke was a natural aristocrat, belonging to the aristocracy of talent and genius, which after all is the only one that really matters. And it soon because obvious that this critical distinction was also recognized by those ascribed aristocrats, who lounged around the room like relics from a European wax museum.
An American Icon
The Master In His Element
Everyone watched in amazement as the Duke secured his cigarette in an elegant holder and began to lightly play through some of his tunes. As the evening progressed, I could clearly delineate various aspects of his character in the events that transpired. From the outset his total devotion to music was self-evident. And the requests arising from the guests testified to the universal appeal of his art. Some of these people had crossed an ocean to attend the concert earlier in the day. After a while, it was clear that several of the guests had seriously followed Duke’s work for thirty to forty years.
One could hear girlish laughter arising from the group as an elderly Countess recalled first hearing a particular tune in Paris during the thirties, or was it Stockholm in the forties? In a business as fickle as music, it is difficult for an artist to retain a national audience for five or ten years. Yet here was a man who had retained an enthusiastic worldwide audience for fifty years! As Duke responded to requests and moved from one tune to another, I was impressed by the fact that most of these songs were now part of the standard repertoire of American music.
Though we had all heard some of these compositions many times before, like all true classics, they retained a certain freshness and vitality. Sitting there watching the master at work in the intimacy of his living room, I desperately wanted to explore this fascinating creative personality. I silently longed for an opportunity to talk to him privately. I wondered at the artistic sensibility that could conceive these elegant tone poems, based in sophisticated urban blues and surrounded by consistently inventive orchestrations. Alas, I never got the private audience I craved…. but I did get a chance to talk to him in relaxed moments at the party.
Among the most fascinating lesson’s I learned from my conversation with Duke is that when he composed his suites to various regions of the world he never wrote the music when he was in those places. “I don’t want to be overly influenced by the local musical traditions, so I always wait until I’m back home to write my impressions.” And he also confessed to me after a few rounds of champaign: “I’m a sophisticated savage.” Before I could persuade him to elaborate on his colorful claim our conversation was disrupted by others demanding the attention of the great man. I understood and bowed out.
Although the American cultural establishment has only recently recognized Duke Ellington’s contribution to American art, awarding him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for music only this year, the racial, ethnic and class composition of his long time admirers who came togather on that enchanted evening in July, 1974 demonstrates that rest the world has long recognized the extraordinary creative contribution of the Duke. It is long past time this prophet became a hero in his own land.
* To see Duke Ellington and his marvelous Orchestra in a variety of performances click this link
*Originally published on the Centenary Of the Maestro’s Birth