Richfield Springs Mercury

The Swing Era’s Great Bands 

Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra

Musically speaking the ‘King’ was Nat ‘King’ Cole, of course and the ‘Count’ is Count Basie. And there is only one ‘Duke’ - naturally that would be Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington leader, composer, arranger, and pianist - a warm witty, urbane gentlemen whose countless contributions to American jazz and swing music are endless. ‘All the musicians in jazz’ says trumpeter Miles Davis, ‘should get down on their knees to thank Duke.’

Born of a middle-class family of respectability in Washington, D.C. in 1899, Young Edward’s father was first a Butler and later a navy Yard blueprint maker. The boy’s prim mother, Daisy Kennedy Ellington, kept him so well scrubbed that a neighbourhood kid took to calling him Duke.

Both his parents played piano, so, by age 7 young Duke was a fair pianist also, having taken lessons from professional teachers. By his teens he was seized by a passion to play and from the first Ellington's piano was part of his total approach to music. He soon developed a piano style that fit very beautifully into the sound of his bands. Jazz critics have called Duke’s piano style ‘highly original, very percussive and orchestral, full of unforeseen (sic), unexpected harmonic and rhythmic ideas.’

The young talented pianist began to play more or less regularly with other talented kids around Washingtonians, some of them were the first of his fabulous sidemen: drummer Sonny Greer, saxist Otto Hardwick, and trumpeter Arthur Whetsol were three. The group called themselves ‘The Washingtonians" And after a first road trip to New York were soon back in D.C. “to get their stomachs full’ said the Duke. Their first venture away from home was anything but successful!

By 1924 though, the Duke was creating his own particular jazz sounds and with a twelve piece outfit in 1926, Ellington was playing music composed and arranged by himself. With Ellington’s fertile mind, this then was the course of the young leader’s orchestra. The simple yet elegant jazz sounds Ellington created, featured the soloist rather than the ensemble as did great Fletcher Henderson band of the late twenties. From his piano chair Duke learned to throw the band phrases and figures and melody lines, and to treasure riffs and counterthemes that came back from his men. The Ellington band developed through the 30s and 40s into an ensemble of great individual stars through this great man’s handling of composing and arranging matters.

After early success with his smaller groups, Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington tasted the fruits sweetness of success with a big band in the Cotton Club in New York where it had been booked by rising band booker Irving Mills. The Mills - Ellington relationship lasted about a dozen years and during the thirties the Duke and His Famous Orchestra were to become world famous, not only performing throughout the United States, but also many European countries as well, including England, where he played four-handed piano with the Duke of Kent and drank gin with Edward, Prince of Wales. 

During the thirties Ellington grew as a composer, gave more attention to harmony and form. Great and memorable were many of the Dukes hits of the thirties - “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart’, “Mood Indigo" and “Caravan” are just three of a batch of the stirring creative works of the likes of Duke Ellington.

Great soloists graced the Ellington band in the 30s and 40s and many stayed years later. The late Johnny Hodges played alto sax, there was clarinetist Barney Bigard, Otto Hardwick blew a sweet sax, drummer Sonny Greer, trombonist Juan Tizol, who also composed some of the Ellington music, and Cootie Williams on trumpet. Later bassist Jimmy Blanton joined the Ellington Orchestra, but was with the band only a few years. He died in 1942 at the tender age of 24. At one time in the 1950s ten of the Duke’s musicians had been with him for a sum total of 200 years - a sure indicator of the type of leader was the polished Ellington. 

The death of his mother in 1935 and his father's death in 1937 were heavy blows to Duke and he was at a personal low ebb at this time. He had been separated from his wife Edna (who bore him his son Mercer) since 1932.

In 1938, “Carnival of Swing" held on Randall’s Island, New York and attended by some 25,000 fans, helped to link Duke firmly in the public’s mind and helped erase the death of his father whom he admired, not only a father, but a wonderful man as well. 

Duke and the band went to Europe again and returned refreshed and ready for the 40s, a period of time when Duke and the band reached their zenith. He turned his business affairs over to the William Morris Agency, which soon book him into such plush prestige spots as the Hotel Sherman in Chicago and the Ritz Carlton in Boston.

The forties saw Ellington and the band record many hits: “Take The A Train" was a Billy Strayhorn original and became Ellington's theme. “Perdido”, “Cotton Tail”, ”Don't Get Around Much Anymore”, ”I’m Beginning To See The Light”, and one of his finest works, "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart". 

He saved what many consider, along with “Sophisticated Lady", as his greatest of compositions for the 1950s. "Satin Doll" he named her and intriguing as the Sophisticated Lady she was. Duke recorded his all-time hit on April 6, 1953 and the melody lingers on as refreshing today as the day it was recorded. 

Veteran sidemen dropped out of the band in the fifties. Hodges and drummer Greer quit in 1951. But the band made a big hit at Newport Jazz festival in 1956 and through the  years he has been the star of numerous festivals, concerts, T.V. specials, tours abroad, happily leading the life of a nomadic soul, as is the life of a band leader.

Duke is a constant Bible reader and in 1965 at a suggestion from the Dean of San Francisco’s Episcopal Grace Cathedral, turned his mind to religious jazz. As a result, Ellington, who was brought up with love, has performed religious jazz in such churches as the Grace Cathedral (The Concert Of Sacred Music it was named), but also New York's Fifth Ave. Presbyterian Church, England's Coventry Cathedral, Washington’s Constitution Hall, And New York's Cathedral Church of St John the Divine (which drew an audience of 7500 people).

On his 70th birthday Ellington was feted by President Nixon, receiving America's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. The President even thumped "Happy Birthday" on the piano. Duke not only holds the U.S. Medal of Freedom, but also the Bronze Medal of New York, as well as plaques for winning polls for best composer, big band leader and arranger, and a string of honorary awards. 

Three of your outstanding girl singers admired you greatly, namely Kay Davis, Joya Cheryl, and Ivy Anderson. Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, for your monumental contribution to American music, we all admire you as one of the single greatest talents in the history of jazz. Just hearing the strains of “Take The A Train” sets me back to the days of Joe DiMaggio – I can see his gracely lope across the outfield grass of Yankee Stadium now... 

Lionel F. Lefty Pratt

Richfield Springs Mercury, Richfield Springs, N.Y., 31 October 1972

© 2014