THE SIGNAL from David Katznelson
"Art is dangerous. It is one of the attractions: when it ceases to be dangerous you don't want it."-Duke Ellington
Happy Duke Ellington Day
No, it is not a national holiday, but it sure as hell should be. Today is Duke Ellington’s birthday (122nd), the greatest composer of the 20th century, whose incredible output spanned from his beginnings in the 1920s til his death in 1974. Incredibly, his compositions and recordings remained jaw dropping the entire time, and he always put together the greatest bands. Just listen to one of the late period records, The New Orleans Suite, released in 1971 and whose recording bookended the passing of one of the giants of his ensemble, Johnny Hodges: even as Ellington looked death directly in the face, his creative output knew no mortality. But I get ahead of myself.
Duke was born in DC right before the 20th century began…in 1899…and his house is still inauspiciously there…you could easily miss it if you didn’t know what to look for. He was just a teen in the district when he snuck into Frank Holiday's Poolroom to hear the likes of Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts, Cliff Jackson and a slew of other stride piano players that inspired the young genius enough to start writing and performing around DC and Baltimore. And while DC definitely brags ownership of him, with murals and salutes all over town, Duke made his mark when he moved in New York just in time to help usher in the Harlem Renaissance and begin his true legendary status as bandleader at the Cotton Club. And from there he was off.
To me, one of the greatest Duke Ellington stories was when he challenged a packed house at Carnegie Hall in 1943 to his composition—a “jazz symphony”—Black, Brown and Beige….which he introduced as "a parallel to the history of the Negro in America” and dedicated to “the 700 Negroes who came from Haiti to save Savannah during the Revolutionary War.” It was a piece that clocked in at over 45 minutes. Ellington’s audience at that point was a mixed one and between the subject matter and the never-before-experienced length of a “jazz” song, both the audience and the critics met his triumph with confusion and uncertainty. It was decades before he played the piece in its entirety again.
For a record collector, Ellington has been a gift. While he was an often bootlegged…and while many of his radio performances were released legally by mega-fan Mel Torme throughout the sixties and seventies, they are not the most wanted commodities now. Treasures that are affordable. Bring a twenty with you to Amoeba and you will walk out with a stack of Ellington from all corners of his great career. I have over 70 of his albums in the collection and every Friday night, the kids are asked to grab one of their choosing and throw it on the turntable as diner is served. That is the only way to hit the weekend.
He is heroic in his musical magnitude; there should be a day we can all take off and bathe in his compositions.
So what to listen to on Duke Ellington Day?
The New Orleans Suite: As discussed above, this 1971 record is a beautiful Jazz portrait of the big easy and the artists that made it…with a beautiful garnish of blues woven in.
Ellington Uptown: This 1948 recording showcases what is for many the top Ellington period, blending sophistication and ease and a great recording. There are some standards redone here…and he just lifts them up anew. Iconic.
Anatomy of a Murder: Ellington’s score to the 1959 Otto Preminger classic proves once and for all that Ellington was wayyyyyy beyond just a Jazz guy. Yes, he never leaves the Jazz behind…but this symphonic score is a hard-hitting colorful masterpiece
Duke Ellington And John Coltrane: Coltrane and Ellington play so wonderfully together….with ‘Trane bringing some of his friends along (Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison) creating a complex but sweet groove. This set contains my favorite recording of In A Sentimental Mood and since it is on Impulse, it looks and sounds great.
The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943: One of the great live recordings. With the complete performance of Black, Brown and Beige…and more…this historic show is a feast.
Early Ellington: The Complete Brunswick And Vocalion Recordings 1926-1931: This is a BIG set to be sure…but it does represent the stuff that launched Duke into the stratosphere….all the Cotton Club goodness and more.
Money Jungle: Whatever you might expect with a bringing together of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach is everything and more. Ellington gives Monk a run for his money here…and is given a stage to show off his piano chops in a way that is rare and exciting. Of course, students Mingus and Roach are incredible too. File this under: damn do I wish I was at that recording session.