Nov 13, 2013 View All News

Portrait of Duke


How to best paint a portrait of the Duke? Terry Teachout , author of the new biography Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, recently chose to illustrate his descriptions with sound and vision: a swinging live performance of original Ellington arrangements by a 17-piece orchestra and rarely-seen film footage of the composer at work and play.

Portrait of Duke, presented during NJPAC’s TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival, was curated by the arts scribe and Wall Street Journal drama critic, who four years ago published a bio of Louis Armstrong. As the program’s narrator, he knitted passages from Duke and other anecdotes from the podium while Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks – the big band of choice for HBO’s Twenties-era Boardwalk Empire – gave robust renderings of Ellington masterworks. Hilary Gardner of Broadway’s Sinatra-centric Come Fly Away lent her silky vocals to the salute in the Victoria Theater.

The audience was all ears for Ellingtonia and was on board for an excursion that opened with “Ko-Ko” (with conductor Giordano on bass, filling the role of Jimmie Blanton) to Billy Strayhorn’s anthemic “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

Here are 10 take-aways about Edward Kennedy Ellington, whom Teachout assuredly calls “the greatest jazz composer of the 20th century”:

1. The concert included a television clip from March 1957, when Edward R. Murrow interviewed Ellington on CBS’ Person to Person. Seated at the piano in his Manhattan apartment, Duke attributed most of his success to luck: “being at the right place at the right time, doing the right thing before the right people.”

2. Ellington was a procrastinator with a capital “P.” In Duke, Teachout writes, “He was the most chronic of procrastinators, a man who never did today what he could put off until next month, or next year. He left letters unanswered, contracts unsigned, watches unworn, and longtime companions unwed, and the only thing harder than getting him out of bed in the afternoon was getting him to finish writing a new piece of music in time for the premiere.”

3. The Ellington band’s first female vocalist was Ivie Anderson, luminous in such numbers as “Rocks in My Bed” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Both were performed by Gardner at NJPAC.

4. Speaking of “Rocks in My Bed,” it is a 1941 bluesy tune that was written for a failed Broadway musical titled Jump for Joy. It is also one of the few surviving songs co-written by Ellington and Strayhorn: Ellington did the instrumental portion and Strayhorn provided the vocal arrangements.

5. Ellington’s music was famously written for the concert halls and movie house stages where he appeared – but also for dance floors. “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” composed with Johnny Hodges in 1938, is a shining example.

6. Strayhorn wrote “Chelsea Bridge” for the band in 1941. His inspirations? Ravel and a painting by Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge.

7. Duke’s breakfast of champions each morning consisted of steak, potatoes and hot water to drink, revealed in a snippet from a 1960s TV documentary, On the Road with Duke Ellington.

8. Ellington and saxophonist Ben Webster composed the G-force swinger “Cotton Tail” (The Nighthawks’ Lance Bryant was showcased on tenor sax) but the origin of the title itself is murky.

9.  American composer Aaron Copland was a big fan of Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” which caused massive saturnalia at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival when Paul Gonsalves, on tenor sax, played 27 consecutive choruses of the blues.

10. The band’s theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” was written by Strayhorn after he took that line to reach Ellington’s apartment in hopes of getting hired. However, it was at a theater in Newark, N.J., where the band was playing one night, that Strayhorn landed the job.

Nov. 13, 2013