LONG LIVE THE DUKE
It began when Elvis Presley became Mr. Sex" by humping the air on The Ed Sullivan Show. It spread when the Rolling Stones secured their bad-boy image by grinning through drug arrests, and when John Lennon declared himself a saint through his more popular than Jesus" pontificating.
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.
Ellington once confronted the demonic bassist Charles Mingus for threatening another musician with a fire ax. Duke calmly commended the volatile giant on his performance," comparing him to Nijinsky in the way Mingus leaped across the piano with upright bass still in hand. But he also asked Mingus to retire from the band. Ellington never had to fire anyone.
The charming way he says it," says Mingus of the incident in his biography, Beneath the Underdog, it's like he's paying you a compliment. Feeling honored, you shake hands and resign."
Ellington never lost face when encountering dismissals of his own. His tongue-in-cheek comment on being rejected for the Pulitzer Prize was, I guess the good Lord didn't want me to become famous too soon." He was 60 years old at the time and fully aware of his status as a landmark figure in American music.
Duke won everything else. Before his death in 1974, he had received 15 honorary degrees, been given the key to 18 cities, presented himself upon her request to England's Queen Elizabeth II and had a White House birthday party thrown for him by then-President Richard Nixon. Jazz elitists claim his expensive sounds as their own. But it's critical to remember that Ellington was a Top 40 figure of his time. His large-scale compositions like Black, Brown and Beige" laid the groundwork for future pop-rock operas. And he even had his own share of groupies.
As a pop star, Ellington played Keith Richards to his own Mick Jagger, lyricist Billy Strayhorn, who co-wrote Duke's hits for almost 30 years. And like the rock 'n' rollers to come, Ellington irked his record companies by refusing to stick to formula pop writing.
He even predated the solo stamina of the average guitar band by coaxing saxophonist Paul Gonsalves into improvising 26 choruses of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. The usually conservative festival audience went wild. Being a class act did not mean playing it safe.
And, like the pop acts of today, crazy crowds fueled his fires. Ellington had enough fans to keep him on the road and in the studio almost his entire life. In 1991, a diehard Dukester in New Jersey turned over his collection of Ellingtonia to the Library of Congress; 188 cases of albums and tapes, comprising more than 10,000 songs recorded by Duke, were catalogued. There were recordings of complete ballroom dances, as well as a mountain of blues numbers, religious masses and symphonic suites written for countries that had impressed Duke with their own elegance.
Ellington was on the pop scene for so long that it's nearly impossible to grow up in America and not be familiar with some song written by the man. You may have caught a snippet of Satin Doll" on the big-band station while searching for your favorite jams. Or maybe a VH-1 video of the band, still active nearly 20 years after Ellington's death, thanks to the continued leadership of his son, Mercer. Ellington continues to be well-represented on disc and video. Sony Music, Red Baron Records, Atlantic Records and Fantasy Records all have numerous Ellington collections in their current catalogues. Some of the best currently available videos on Ellington are Memories of Duke and A Duke Named Ellington. Unfortunately, there's no one on the horizon of pop music today trying to fill his satin slippers. No one who aspires to cut such a stately figure. Big-band revivalist Harry Connick Jr. isn't even in the ballpark.
So keep listening to that growing stack of recent Ellington reissues. Don't turn the dial so fast from that big-band show. And maybe even keep an ear cocked to the tinny version of Duke's Perdido" playing overhead in the elevator. Let's hope we never forget the days when just tuning in the songs and the suave personality of Duke Ellington made generic fans feel like sophisticated ladies and lucky so-and-sos.
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