The Duke of Ellington
in our series about Composers and Lyricists Linked to 1997 Broadway Musicals
by >Richard N. Hughes
Editor's Note: LikeDream, which prompted out first
musical reminiscence by Richard N. Hughes, Play On is a musical featuring the
music of an American icon, the late great Duke Ellington. The setting in the new musical is
Ellington's own Harlem but the book this time is based on a different cultural icon--the great
Bard. The play being given the Harlem setting and Ellington sound is Twelfth Night.
During the big band era, American made up for its lack of royalty at the head of state by
creating its own titled class in the world of music. We had a King - Benny Goodman; a Count -
Bill Basie; A Clown Prince - Spike Jones; and a Duke - Edward Kennedy Ellington. We even had Knights -
led by a band leader now nearly forgotten, Horace Heidt.
Of all of that group, only one had anything that resembled a royal manner - and that was
Duke Ellington. So elegant a figure was he on the band stand that he seemed to come from
another domain, and truth to tell, he did. His music was like none other, and while his band could
"swing" along with the best of them, its distinction was in its ability to render the most subtle
coloration of a melody line ever heard in popular music. The sound the Ellington Band produced
was almost classical in nature. There was a dignity about the band and its players that was
The contrast between Duke Ellington and all the other band leaders of the time is perhaps
best illustrated by a comparison. When Louis Armstrong played in London in the late 1930s, The
King of England came to the opening night performance. After the theme was played, Louis
stepped up to the footlights, looked up at the royal box, and in that incredible, incomparable
voice, his loveable face fairly beaming, said, "This one's for you, Rex!" It was something that
only he could have done, and the King loved it.
When Duke Ellington and his orchestra played a concert at the Leeds Festival in England in
1958 it turned out that Queen Elizabeth was a fan. Arrangements were made, and Duke Ellington
was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet her. At the meeting, in his remarks to the Queen, he
mentioned to her that "Something musical will come from this." And it did. The Duke
composed a suite of six songs which he dedicated to the Queen. One of them, a solo piece for
the piano called A SINGLE PETAL OF A ROSE, was written specifically in recollection of their
meeting.. Back in America, he recorded the set at his own expense and had only one pressing
made, which he sent as a gift to Queen Elizabeth. It is, I understand, the only recording in
existence of the six pieces that made up the suite, although Mercer Ellington included a version of
the piano solo in a compilation of The Great London Concerts of January, 1963. The CD is
available on the Jazz Heritage label. It is an elegant piece, identifiable as Ellington in an instant by
anyone who knows anything about his style
I first heard Duke Ellington at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor in 1938. I was a
precocious eleven year old at the time, but music was my first love and I knew all the bands and
all the band leaders, and never missed seeing them when they came to town. Mostly the stage
shows featured what you would call "the B list" of popular orchestras. In that era, Benny
Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and later, Glenn Miller and Harry James played only the
Detroit theaters and an occasional university sponsored dance - "The J-Hop" was the big formal
dance at Michigan in those days - while the lesser bands, well know but not quite as famous or
acclaimed, played what they called "split weeks" at one of our local theaters. The Ellington band
was booked for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, probably en route to a weekend job
somewhere in the mid- west.
Generally, the stage show consisted of the band and a couple of tired vaudeville comedians or
dancers and "personality" was a very big thing. All the band leaders wanted to ingratiate
themselves to the audience and would do almost anything to be liked and appreciated. A couple
of weeks before Ellington came to town, Pinky Tomlin and his orchestra (does anyone else
remember him?) appeared on the same stage. Tomlin tried to resurrect his fifteen minutes of
fame which came with a recording of a delightful little song called "The Object of my aAffection,"
probably the only good song he ever wrote, with a new, sprightly number, "Horsey Keep Your
Tail Up". I venture to say that I am the only person in the world who can sing that song from
memory. It was not a great success, but it exemplifies the urgency with which those lesser band
leaders tried to ingratiate themselves with the audience. The last line of that less than memorable
ditty, was "Keep the sun out of my eyes."
And then came Ellington. I was utterly unprepared for what I was to see and hear. The
movie ended, the curtain was drawn so the screen could be lifted, the house lights went to black,
and the Ellington theme, in those days, "Mood Indigo," began. The curtain opened as the band
stand rose from the orchestra pit. The stage was flooded with a deep blue light - indigo, of course
- and at the front of the orchestra was the Duke himself, wearing a white full dress tail suit, seated
at a white grand piano.
He was bathed in a tight, white spot, and the applause began even before the band had slid
back to its performance position on the stage. At the end of the number, the Duke stood, smiled
and said, very simply, "Thank you, and now we would like to play 'Perdido.'" He turned to the
orchestra and counted off the beat. It was that way with every number. No hysterics, no
"personality," no jokes about Ann Arbor or the University of Michigan, no comments on how
glad he was to be there. No beat-up vaudevillians. Clearly, he came to make music.
I have never, before or since, seen such dignity on stage. It was one of the forming moments
of my early life. I have always said that I learned how to live from the popular songs and the
movies of the time, but nothing had a greater impact on what I would become than that first, for
me, Ellington appearance. I wanted to be like him. Dignified. Reserved. Confident. Pleasant,
but a no-nonsense person.
Obviously, I was hooked. Duke Ellington has, since that day, been one of my two or three
favorite orchestras, and I saw him through that early, reserved period and into his warm and fuzzy
phase, when "Love you madly" became his favorite greeting and farewell. I'm not sure what
happened between the old and the new Ellington. The music stayed pretty much the same. The
I saw him many times in theatrical and concert performances, but there were two where I
almost felt like a member of the band. In 1966, the orchestra played for a private party for
advertising executives, hosted by the ABC Television station in Los Angeles. I had the good
fortune to be in the city on other business - I worked for ABC in Detroit at the time - and was
invited to the party. Normally at such parties, I stood by the shrimp bowl. That night, I stood at
the end of the keyboard, and over a period of four hours, had a conversation with Duke between
the musical numbers. I would never claim that we were friends - even acquaintances, but he
remembered the evening three years later when the orchestra was playing at the Rainbow Grill in
Rockefeller Center, New York. I was living in New York at the time and had decided to take my
wife to see the Ellington orchestra on her birthday, but had neglected to make a reservation.
When we arrived, there were no tables left. We were about to leave when the Duke himself
got out of the elevator, recognized me and asked why we were leaving before the show. When I
told him there were no tables, he suggested we follow him. He talked with the Maitre d' for a
moment, turned and smiled and said, "That's fixed - 'Love you Madly,'" and went on to the band
room or wherever he was headed. Our table was quickly set up at the end of the reed section. I
was as close to Johnny Hodges as I would have been if I had been performing with the band.
Indeed, as close to him as I had been to Duke at the ABC party. We talked between numbers, and
when he learned that it was a birthday celebration, asked my wife's favorite song. No fool, she
answered "Day Dream," one of his most famous and most touching solos. He gave Duke an
almost imperceptible signal and the band began the introduction. He excused himself, moved to
the center of the small stage, then turned around, back to most of the audience, and played the
first chorus facing the orchestra - and us. Johnny Hodges would be dead about six months later.
The three things I remember about Duke Ellington are those three events. Michigan Theater,
1938. ABC Party, 1965. Rainbow Grill, 1969. Love you madly.
The vitality and longevity of his music will get a fresh test later this month when a musical
version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, using Ellington compositions, will open
on Broadway. It will be fascinating to see how the music fits the drama.
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