Playlist: Five From Duke Ellington

A good start of a list of American musical geniuses includes Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Jerry Garcia and Johnny Cash. There certainly are others, but how do you distinguish between the “geniuses” and the very good?

In any case, Ellington is on the list. There of course is an unbelievable amount of material about him on the Internet. I was struck by this essay at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival website. It touches on everything — Duke’s history, his piano playing, his composition and his band leadership. Here is a nice section of the essay–which was written by Dominic Florio–describing Ellington’s comeback:

It was the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 that put Duke Ellington’s name back on the map. Nearing the end of the set, Duke stopped the performance due to late arrivals of some key players in the group, and instead of the scheduled end of the set, Duke and his orchestra played two compositions titled Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue, which were in the Ellington book since 1931 but were largely forgotten. As Duke led the orchestra through the end of the set, the festival manager was frantically trying to get him to stop the performance as it ran long after the festival end time. The audience was raving. Duke Ellington was on the cover of the next issue of Time Magazine, a feat only two other jazz musicians, Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck, managed to achieve. Since then, Ellington’s name was restored to its once high standing in the music industry. 

Nothing should be written about Ellington without mentioning Billy Strayhorn, his alter ego:

If you are familiar with the jazz composition, “Take the A Train,” then you know something about not only Duke Ellington, but also Billy “Sweet Pea” Strayhorn, its composer. Strayhorn joined Ellington’s band in 1939, at the age of twenty-two. Ellington liked what he saw in Billy and took this shy, talented pianist under his wings. Neither one was sure what Strayhorn’s function in the band would be, but their musical talents had attracted each other. By the end of the year Strayhorn had become essential to the Duke Ellington Band; arranging, composing, sitting-in at the piano. Billy made a rapid and almost complete assimilation of Ellington’s style and technique. It was difficult to discern where one’s style ended and the other’s began. The results of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration brought much joy to the jazz world. (Continue Reading…)

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