Billy Taylor, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Duke Ellington: Perdido

A list of Duke Ellington songs is like a list of those from the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and a few others. The song are so familiar and deeply connected to the culture that in a way they don’t even belong to the artist any longer. They are part of the bigger soundtrack.

The above version of Perdido features three famous pianists. There is Ellington in front, and Billy Taylor, who passed away in late 2010, in the back.

In the middle with the cigar is Willie “The Lion” Smith, a legendary stride piano player and mentor to Ellington. Smith was different. In an affectionate post jazz critic Nat Hentoff quotes Smith through pianist Spike Wilner:

…”A lot of people are unable to understand my wanting to be Jewish. One said to me, ‘ Lion, you stepped up to the plate with one strike against you and now you take a second one right down the middle! They can’t seem to realize I have a Jewish soul and belong to that faith.” (Editor’s note: In his 1965 autobiography, Music On My Mind, Smith also states that his birth father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish.)

Here is some vintage Ellington. He performs Take the A Train beautifully in a small group setting. Others standards are C Jam Blues, Mood Indigo, It Don’t Mean a Thing and Satin Doll. No posting concerning Ellington would be complete without mention of his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn, who wrote Take the A Train. Here he plays and sings Lush Life.

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