The Day Of The Duke
“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”― Duke Ellington
!!!!!!!HAPPY DUKE ELLINGTON DAY!!!!!!!
If there ever was a national holiday that needs to be put into universal practice, it is the celebration of the day that the greatest composer of the 20th century was born…arguably the greatest composer of the recorded age, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. Born today, 123 years ago, Duke Ellington stands alone in his six decades of activity leaving behind a wealth of compositions and recordings that are beyond comprehension. Just try collecting all of the goodness Duke released during his lifetime…I have merely scratched the surface and I own over eighty records of his.
In 2009 New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared April 29th Duke Ellington Day on the composer’s 110th birthday and there are some in the territory that still observe it. But for an artist whose output was both so incredible and diverse, who used his platform to fight inequality…sometimes being criticized even during the height of his popularity…who wove the cultures and voices of immigrants and the under-appreciated into his music, constantly evolving as an artist—pushing boundaries and experimenting—up until his death in the 1970s: he had such an immense impact on our country’s story, its tapestry; artists change our lives, help define the eras in which we live, and it is hard to think of many who held such a power as Ellington.
This is a day to put everything aside and listen to his great music and raise one up to his genius. As I did last year, to celebrate Duke Ellington Day, here are a few choice recordings to dive in to, today looking at the live shows that showcase the Duke and his band in all of their glory during very different eras:
Live From "The Crystal Ballroom", Fargo, North Dakota, 1940: Called one of the greatest live music documents of all time, the Fargo Recordings were made when two super fans who worked at the Dept. of Agriculture in North Dakota (one being a DJ) convinced Duke’s agents to have the band come and play, booked the Crystal Ballroom and recorded the set directly onto acetate discs—total field recording/bootleg style. Longtime trumpeter Cootie Williams had just left, with Ray Nance slipping sweetly right in…with the greats Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster leading the charge..the night was just electrifying. Thank you Robin Cohen for turning me on to this live set.
70th Birthday Concert in Paris, 1969: Duke lived it up for his 70th, playing birthday parties for himself all over the world, from the White House to England to the Tivoli Garden and beyond. I love this Paris recording…the whole thing was multi-camera shot, with the band (as usual) in lock step with their leader who is just having a great time; this is breathtaking stuff. The jewell amongst the treasure is the performance of Sophisticated Lady that featured Duke breaking it down to just his piano playing off of Harry Carney’s sax, the duet sounding so damn modern and sweet. Duke hosted many a brilliant player in his bands, and gave them room to shine (Duke took part in a more stripped down ensemble around this time in Paris as well that is worth checking out).
Live At Newport, 1956: It is hard to believe that when Ellington took the stage at Newport, he did not have a record deal. The big band era had given way to smaller, tighter bee-bop units and the Ellington sound had gone out of style. But Ellington, unlike most, kept his band intact…hitting Newport hard, electrifying the crowd with a jaw-dropping set which included the now famous tenor saxman Paul Gonsalves’ extended solo during Diminuendo in Blue that launched the band’s sound into modernity. Duke remained successfully regal for the rest of his life.
The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943: I pointed this one out last year….Ellington would do yearly concerts at Carnegie Hall…most being released by Prestige. This is the most “important” of them (don’t confuse importance with boring…this is in no way the latter). It was during this performance that Ellington debuted the complete Black, Brown and Beige Suite…longer than the critics could take and too politically motivated for some. And while the performance is incredible, and pushes the limits of what “jazz” wuzz, the push-back Ellington received stopped him from performing the entire suite again for decades.
If you wanna dig in to even MORE Ellington, you can check out my post from last year.
CHEERS TO THE DUKE ON HIS DAY!!!!
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