Duke of the World

Looking Back on a Hundred Years of Ellington

Copyright © 1999 by David Reitzes

Ellington -- everyone pays lip service to Ellington.

In jazz circles his name is dropped with regularity; Lincoln Center sponsors lavish programs in tribute; even many among the pop music audience know they're supposed to appreciate Ellington, just as they're supposed to appreciate Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. But to many of those too young to have grown up with the music of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, the most common point of reference for Duke's actual music is an unfortunate advertising campaign for plastic sandwich bags that sought to remind us, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that cling."

On the occasion of what would have been the Maestro's hundredth birthday, RCA would like to remind us that there is more to Ellington's legacy than commercial jingles, and more than even the song hits of Broadway's Sophisticated Ladies.

Remember the Frank Sinatra "suitcase" from Reprise a few years ago? The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973 is even bigger - 24 (yes, twenty-four) CDs spanning some five decades of musical brilliance. This should not be mistaken for Duke's career output; just as Sinatra's "suitcase" only collected his recordings for the Reprise label, Ellington recorded for numerous labels over the years. Of these many labels, however, RCA can claim two distinctions: The Maestro came back to them the most, and each time he did, he created music that would be ranked among his very best.

The recordings from Ellington's earliest years with the label contain some of the most enduring classics of the 20th century. How many tunes from the 1920s have been recorded by Steely Dan? One of Duke's earliest creations was: "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo." From these years, we also find such perennial favorites as "Black and Tan Fantasy" (given an unusually vigorous interpretation), "Creole Love Call," "Rockin' in Rhythm" and Duke's first bona fide hit, "Mood Indigo."

We also have such "critics' picks" as "Creole Rhapsody," Duke's first extended composition - clocking in at a mere 8-and-a-half minutes, filling two sides of a 78 rpm record - and the Maestro's earliest "train" piece, "Daybreak Express," recording Duke's vivid musical impressions of his band's frequent rail travels.

There are many fans and critics who proclaim the early Forties on RCA the high water mark of Ellington's entire career. Such an opinion may give short shrift to some of Duke's other eras, but it's certainly a respectable opinion: He had one of the greatest bands of his career (including tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Cootie Williams and the innovative and dynamic bassist Jimmy Blanton) and practically every recording from this period is a certified classic, including such gems as the original "Take the 'A' Train," "Ko-Ko," "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Perdido," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Harlem Air Shaft," and highlights from his Black, Brown and Beige suite.

Are these antiques, suitable for preserving under glass and appreciating only from afar? Absolutely not: they are as fresh and inspired as the days when the Ellington band wooed young couples to the dance floor.

The set also collects the dozens of small-band tracks that Ellington recorded with hand-picked musicians from his orchestra. That means that for the first time we have in one place such memorable moments as trumpeter Rex Stewart's wittily growling "Menelik, the Lion of Judah," alto saxophone legend Johnny Hodges' romantic readings of "Day Dream" and "Passion Flower," the Duke's celebrated piano-bass duets with Jimmy Blanton (who would tragically succumb to tuberculosis months later), a rare piano solo of "Solitude" and the few precious "four hands" piano duets with Billy Strayhorn.

After the 1940s, Duke's recordings for RCA were less frequent, but he gave the label a handful of albums that rank near the top of any Ellington fan's list, including the celebrated Far East Suite and 1967's And His Mother Called Him Bill, Ellington's heartfelt tribute to Billy Strayhorn, who had just been struck down by cancer. While the producers have done a remarkable job bringing out every tiny nuance from these vintage recordings, nowhere is the result more stunning than on these later recordings. When Johnny Hodges breathes life into "Blood Count," one of Strayhorn's deathbed compositions, we can almost feel him just over our shoulders, telling us in song about the friend he has lost.

Also in one place for the very first time are all three of Ellington's Sacred Concerts, the extended suites that the Maestro himself considered his greatest work. While there are admittedly few Ellington buffs that feel the same way, RCA has given us the first chance to hear all three of the concerts side by side before we make up our minds. For those who don't wish to spring for the whole $400 kit and kaboodle, RCA already has a great deal of this music available on CD, and word has it they'll be releasing the newly remastered versions in a series of 3-CD sets later this year.


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