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Duke Ellington: Symphony of the Body and Soul

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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But more than anything else, the music of Duke Ellington, taken together it was beginning to sound like a triumphant passacaglia... in continually evolving, emerging ode to joy.
A study in sepia

It was the package that arrived, which prompted me to open an album of memories in the first place. Looking at the photograph, I recall some—not all—of the many details of the evening it was taken. The boy in the photograph is I, and I am in a black mood. Suddenly my memory stirs vigorously, and it is then that I to go back to a dusky evening in 1963. My father who is on my left has his hand on my head and is ruffling my hair. On my right is my father's brother, Rui. I call him "Padrinho," using the Portuguese salutation for Godfather, as a sign of deep respect. Tiu Rui is a world-renowned ballroom dancer who had brought a few stars from his school of dance on a tour of South East Asia. So here we are, seemingly trapped in this photograph... It is evidence that we just happen to be in Bombay, India when the Duke Ellington Orchestra is on a US Government-sponsored tour of that country as well.

Now the memory is aglow in a shade of burnished yellow. And the sepia photograph comes to life again. My father stroking my hair, my uncle Rui—who had just presented an exhibition of ballroom dance in which my father and mother swept across the floor doing the pasa doble and then the rumba—has a hand on my right shoulder and behind me is Duke Ellington, who just happened to be staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel with members of his orchestra when the dance recital was on. And this was just two days after a command performance by the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the National Center.

Duke gave my father a copy of a record, Paris Blues (Warner Brothers, 1961), a vinyl with music from the soundtrack of a film—starring Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Louis Armstrong—written by Duke and Billy Strayhorn. I clutch the record like a prize that I do not want anyone taking away from me. Although the full import of being in such illustrious company was not lost on me even then, I never fully grasped the singular importance of that moment. Upon review today, I now recognize Billy Strayhorn and Duke's big baritone saxophonist, Harry Carney.

In a gushing new flood of memories, I remember that night as if it were unfolding again. I now remember wanting to stay on and listen to Billy Strayhorn play dazzling runs on the gleaming Bosendorfer Grand—that had also been played by Arthur Rubenstein—at the Grand Ballroom at the Taj Mahal Hotel. A few of my father's friends stay behind to listen. Something is going on in Strayhorn's head. Duke and my uncle are talking. A cigarette is burning softly between his fingers and there is one in my father's hands too. My father is speaking in his soft baritone. Duke laughs. Then he turns abruptly to Strayhorn and calls him "Sweetpea..."

I remember the name very well even though I was only eight years old then. I also remember that the concert was memorable and it changed my life. I am sure that this encounter was eventually one of the turning points in my yearning to become a jazz pianist one day. In fact right there and then, I still recall that no longer did I want to play like Beethoven. I have a recurring vision of a cold and wet afternoon in which I was sitting at the beautifully tuned Brasted upright piano we had at home in London, I was playing "Come Sunday" and in my vision Duke was pleased. In fact, I was his "Sweetpea" too and I felt ecstatic.

A black and tan fantasy

The Duke looks majestic in the photograph... and charming too. I remember that day very well. My mother was so taken by him and the compliments that he paid her that I was concerned that she would grow faint from holding her breath.

Of course I did not know then who they were and from whence they came, but I know now that that band, which Ellington had brought to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan was the same one that swept triumphantly through Europe at the tail end of winter 1963. Men like Cootie Williams and Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney and Sam Woodyard and Ernie Shepard... And, of course, Billy Strayhorn.

By 1963, the Duke Ellington Orchestra had long since hit its stride and was performing music that was in fact creating the Songbook for the 20th century—perhaps re-creating is a better word. Many critics were still confused and unwilling to give up their stilted ideas that Duke's music and the music of Parker and Gillespie, Mingus, Monk, Miles and Coltrane and some other musicians should have already been known then as the "classic" music of the 20th Century.

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