Reuben Jackson On Duke Ellington

Apr 29, 2013

Duke Ellington was the composer of American jazz standards such as Mood Indigo, sumptuous extended works like The Afro Eurasian Eclipse, The Far East Suite and three Sacred Concerts. He was also the consummate multitasker.

If I learned anything during my 20 year stint as archivist and curator with the Smithsonian's Duke Ellington Collection, it was this: It was not uncommon for the Washington, D.C. native to juggle studio sessions, new compositions, interviews, meetings, concert dates, friends, fans and, yes, romantic interests. He was not the central casting isolated artist seeking the muse in, say, some remote corner of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Humanity was his Walden Pond.

Still, it's one thing to be a multitasker. It's another to multitask with the deceptively casual attention and intense focus Ellington gave to each part of his life. Ellington loved people; he said the key to accomplishing as much as he did was "mental isolation."

When cataloging the sound recordings in the Smithsonian's collection, I still wondered how he managed to gracefully handle dozens of inane press conference questions about "jazz," a word he abhorred, then lead his Orchestra through an accessible yet musically radical reworking of an Ellington standard like "Mood Indigo" a few hours later. I have no idea how he did this with such unfailing grace—and I probably never will.

As some of you in the VPR listening audience know, I am also currently employed as an English teacher at Burlington High School. On average, I see an average of 35 students with very different personalities, interests and needs every day. By contrast, Ellington worked with groups of varying sizes, skills, and issues (curmudgeons, kleptomaniacs, some addicts) for nearly 50 years. More importantly, he consistently got the best out of these ensembles. Even "students" who disliked him intensely reveled in the time spent with the man they called The Maestro. (And I have the nerve to pant like an exhausted marathon runner on Friday afternoon!)

If Duke Ellington were reading this, he might utter one of his frequently-used axioms: "Don't let your intelligence get in the way of your learning." With that in mind, I'll cease with the first person reflections (I've commented at length about Ellington and some of his contemporaries in this VPR Presents lecture), and share that which mattered most to Duke Ellington: The music.

Below you'll find video of a couple of my favorites and a bibliography of reading and listening.  You'll also hear something composed, performed or inspired by Ellington every week on my show.

-- Reuben Jackson, Host of Friday Night Jazz

Here's a solo piano rendition of "Le Sucrier Velour"—a movement from 1959's "The Queen's Suite."

The second Ellington composition is entitled "Chinoserie" It is the opening movement from 1971's "Afro Eurasian Eclipse"—complete with Ellington's silver, no, platinum-tongued introduction.

All are but a taste of the mad skills (as the rappers say) Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington possessed—and continues to share with the world.

Recommended Reading

  • Cohen, Harvey G. Duke Ellington's America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Ellington, Duke. Music Is My Mistress. New York: Da Capo, 1976,
  • Ellington, Mercer. Duke Ellington In Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Recordings

  • Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The Ellington Suites.
  • Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. And His Mother Called Him Bill.
  • Duke Ellington-The Far East Suite-Special Mix