By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
Shock value and outrageousness have been milked by pop musicians for so long that few eyebrows are raised today when Axl Rose bashes a fan or the Red Hot Chili Peppers end their show by getting naked.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the cult of personality did not rely on tabloid accounts of tabloid behavior.
Duke Ellington, the greatest pop star of the century, drew an enormous amount of attention to himself in an entirely different manner. And what promotional genius came up with the winning angle? His mother, Daisy Kennedy Ellington.
Back when he was still too small to reach a piano, young Ellington's mom assured him he would grow up to be a class act. She was the first to see it coming. For as long as he lived, Duke Ellington radiated an entirely legitimate sense of royalty, both in the steak-for-breakfast way he lived and in the silky music he composed. Before Prince and Madonna and Michael (The King of Pop") Jackson, there was a Duke who reigned over popular music for an amazing 55 years. Place in a row the recording careers of Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for an idea of how long radios, record players and dance floors were enamored with Edward Kennedy Ellington. Our parents flocked to ballroom appearances in which Ellington and his tuxedo-clad band entertained with dance tunes like Satin Doll," Sophisticated Lady" and I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So." Recordings of those dates reveal how Ellington could transform even a podunk pavilion in Fargo, North Dakota, into a palace. While many of his big-band contemporaries leaned toward vaudeville, with horn sections huffing and puffing to blow the house down, Ellington and his silvery musicians assumed they were playing for an audience of Cinderellas and their princes. His band somehow sounded like big bucks. Part of it came from his players. Duke hired only the best musicians-Johnny Hodges and his woozy, late-night alto saxophone; Ben Webster and his velvety tenor sax; and Jimmy Blanton and his dance-perfect, frenetic bass, to name but a few. A dozen other stars, no less colorful, found themselves staying with Duke's band for decades, sometimes for their entire musical careers.
There wasn't a gig that could outclass playing with Ellington. Both sides of the bandstand knew that an Ellington show was not just another night with a ballroom dance orchestra, but a chance to rub shoulders with the musical elite. Besides great players, what kept Duke miles above the competition was the mysterious richness of his songwriting. Classical pianist and conductor Andre Previn made a famous statement to the effect that only Duke Ellington could take three horns and form a beautiful chord that no studio arranger in the country could decipher.
For proof, check out the lofty air of an Ellington piece like Mood Indigo." A less-brilliant bandleader would have shaped the same notes into a hokum blues shuffle with shades of a minstrel stage show. It took Ellington to breathe pride into so solemn a piece. In his hands, Mood Indigo" became a taste of the blues, forlorn and low-down, but still highbrow. As one jazz writer put it, With two bars of music, he could put stained glass windows in a gymnasium." His was high-quality dance music. Ellington unrepentantly played meaty, challenging jazz while other popular big bands, most of them white, were doling out shallow fluff crooned by Betty Boop vocalists. Duke and his music were million-dollar hip, and he knew it. If you knew it and could swing along, you couldn't be far behind.
His tasteful pop music and classy persona attracted a largely white audience in the days when segregation was a given. But Duke wasn't about to let anything cramp his style, not even rampant racism.
Whatever someone should not do, could not do or was not supposed to do," remembered his son, Mercer Ellington, in a recent PBS documentary, Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo, he always found a way to get away with it." When playing the Deep South, Ellington one-upped the demeaning No Coloreds Allowed" policies of restaurants and hotels by traveling in Pullman railroad cars that flamboyantly housed and fed the band. No one but presidents traveled in such fashion back then. Ellington knew that the best way to snub racists was to outclass them.
Little wonder, then, that Duke was a monumental figure in the eyes of his own band members, all of whom had faced their share of white clubs that hired them to play, but that would never let them enter as patrons. Most Ellington biographies recount numerous tales of Duke's charming soused musicians into playing despite their state of intoxication. Ellington also had his dark side. What passed for great charm one minute could turn to vicious manipulation the next. He ruled the band with an iron hand in a velvet glove. He regularly fended off requests for raises by responding that it was impossible to pay the band member what he was worth. With rejections for more bread coming wrapped in upper-crust flattery, it's no surprise that members of Duke's band were spoiled to the point of expecting separate tables at restaurants.