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Home » blog » Billy Taylor, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Duke Ellington: “Perdido”
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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.

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 solo. 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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--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.