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Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and bandleader of a jazz orchestra, which he led from 1923 until his death in a career spanning over fifty years. Born in Washington, D.C., Ellington was based in New York City from the mid-1920s onward and gained a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In the 1930s, his orchestra toured in Europe. Though widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a liberating principle, and referred to his music as part of the more general category of American Music, rather than to a musical genre such as jazz. At the age of seven, Ellington began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him to live elegantly. Ellington’s childhood friends noticed that his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman, and began calling him “Duke.” Ellington credited his chum Edgar McEntree for the nickname. “I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke.”Some of the musicians who were members of Ellington’s orchestra, such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges, are considered to be among the best players in jazz. Ellington melded them into the best-known orchestral unit in the history of jazz. Some members stayed with the orchestra for several decades. A master at writing miniatures for the three-minute 78 rpm recording format, Ellington often composed specifically to feature the style and skills of his individual musicians.
Duke strode onto the stage to the strains of Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” which had become Ellington’s theme song, and addressed the audience in typically slick fashion: “You’re very beautiful, very sweet, very gracious, very generous, and all the kids in the band want you to know that we do love you madly.” And with that, the orchestra launches into a full-blown version of “Take the A Train,” a feature for trumpet star Cootie Williams. This well-known piece opens with a rare waltz-time piano trio rendition with Duke accompanied by drummer Dick Wilson and bassist Jeff Castleman.
Coming out of that surprising arrangement, they segue neatly to the more familiar 4/4 time and swing through a few more choruses before the full big band finally enters with the familiar, swaggering theme. Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves is next featured on the frantic up-tempo workout “Up Jump.” As Ellington tells the crowd in typically sly fashion, “Paul Gonzalves, you’ll remember, was arrested in 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival and indicted for arson,” a reference to his amazing 27 solo choruses on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at Ellington’s historic appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. And while this solo may not reach those lofty heights, it is a prime showcase for Gonsalves, who wails with raucous abandon over the top of this kinetic romp.
Often collaborating with others, Ellington wrote more than one thousand compositions; his extensive body of work is the largest recorded personal jazz legacy, with many of his works have become standards. Ellington also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, for example, Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”, and “Perdido”, which brought a Spanish tinge to big band jazz. After 1941, Ellington collaborated with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his writing and arranging companion. With Strayhorn, he composed many extended compositions, or suites, as well as additional short pieces. Following an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, in July 1956, Ellington and his orchestra enjoyed a major career revival and embarked on world tours.
Ellington recorded for most American record companies of his era, performed in several films, scoring several, and composed stage musicals. Duke’s longtime baritone sax ace Harry Carney is next featured on a lovely rendition of “Sophisticated Lady.” In his erudite intro to “The Biggest and Busiest Intersection,” a piece from his Second Sacred Concert released earlier that year, Ellington explains that the title is a metaphor for the entrance to heaven… or hell. This up-tempo swinger is paced by Rufus Jones’ insistent hi-hat work and imbued with some of the busiest, most energetic playing by the Ellington aggregation since his fabled ‘jungle band’ days from the mid-1920s. The writing on this tumultuous romp through the gates of Eden (or Hades) is full of dissonant harmonies in the horn section and culminates in a whirlwind drum solo by Jones and some screeching high-note trumpet blasts from Cat Anderson. Due to his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and thanks to his eloquence and charisma, Ellington is generally considered to have elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on a par with other more traditional musical genres. His reputation continued to rise after he died, and he was awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize for music in 1999One of the most famous names in jazz history, second only to Louis Armstrong, Edward Kennedy Ellington (aka Duke) was the most prolific composer and important bandleader for a span of over 50 years. By the time Ellington appeared at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival, he was approaching 70 and had just lost his close friend and colleague, composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn, who died of lung cancer the previous year (Duke would pay tribute to his valued right-hand man on 1968’s And His Mother Called Him Bill). Perhaps sensing his own mortality in his later years, Ellington turned to compose sacred works in 1965 and 1966 (he won a Grammy in 1966 for best original jazz composition for “At the Beginning, God”) and in 1967 he incorporated world music influences on his ambitious Far East Suite. But for his performance at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival, Duke relied on some of his proven favorites to win over the Friday evening crowd at the free-body park.
In early 1939, a young composer-arranger-pianist from Pittsburgh named Billy Strayhorn joined the organization and became Ellington’s composing partner and right-hand man. The subsequent addition of bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster fortified the ensemble. Their impact on Ellington’s sound was so significant that this aggregation has been dubbed “the Blanton-Webster Band” by jazz historians. In the summer of 1941, this unit recorded Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” which became the band’s theme song and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
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