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.

The sound that Ellington created was unique. To me it was just classical music that sounded very different compared to anything I was used to listening as part of my academic regimen. Even without the extensive string section it still captured the vast palette of tones and textures of sound. It was rhythmically inventive. And the music could be both subtle and forthright. But more than anything else, the music of Duke Ellington—even in the 1960s—was a beautiful and richly laden document of the history of a people, which had emerged through tormented struggle into an exuberant sunshine of almost spiritual proportions. It was the document of a triumphant journey—that began in with the lament of the blues and... well taken together it was beginning to sound like a triumphant passacaglia... in continually evolving, emerging ode to joy. This swirling migration into human freedom began, in many respects, more than three decades ago...

It was time, time to put away the photograph of that day back between the dark pages of the old album of childhood memories.

Now I pick up the box that I received in the mail a week or so ago. It is one I have been expecting for some time and I am thrilled that it has finally arrived. I tear open the wrapping tape and its contents are revealed. This is Duke Ellington: 1936-1940 Small Group Sessions (Mosaic, 2006).

Duke Ellington has always occupied a very special place in my memory and in my heart. He was my second and most powerful inspiration. I wanted to look like him, tap my feet like him, sound like him when he spoke. Sit at the piano and play like him. At eight years of age, I knew that I would be asking Ludwig von Beethoven to make room for Duke Ellington. Now once again, I know why.

I spin the first of seven discs. The tape hiss is pronounced, but the magic and majesty of the music is unmistakable. I hear it all very clearly—despite the early primal rhythms that folks once called jungle music—yet I detect a thick sophisticated canvas of color and texture where notes and phrases meld and drip like life-giving sap from an age-old tree in a dense forest. It is misty and the mist too is alive. I am enraptured and seduced by the intense rhythm of the bass and drum and the growl of the Rex Stewart's cornet sharing melody with the svelte glissandos of Johnny Hodges' alto... horns in strange yet beautiful harmony. Mesmerized, I travel further back in time.

Now, as Alejo Carpentier did as he undertook that mind-expanding journey in search of the source of music in the Amazon years before, I retrace The Lost Steps. No longer a "baiano" I am a Yoruba now. The immense sophistication and architecture of this old-yet-new music and the scale of the compositions appear to dwarf all else in the world—including me. I am a bedazzled interloper now and I have an epiphany.

In it I see the how the Duke hears sounds. He hears everything differently. He hears sound and sees the color of each tone individually. He puts the two together in the notes he conceives for each of his musicians: Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, Tricky Sam and the others... Each, it appears has an individual living taste, an odor and a color and tone... Duke hears this in every note they will ever play, so he begins to live these sounds too as he conceives of them and writes them, these notes ascribed to each and his instrument both of which are indelibly hewn in the rocks of ages and which inhabit a unique color and texture and vibration. This explains how each trombone has a different hue... Trumpets growl and sing and the bass swings sexily, punctuated by tickling, rattling and rolling and rim-shooting... "Indigo Echoes" are subtly expressed in each take on disc 1. They are filled with a subtle grace that comes from a distillation of everything else to leave behind only the purest of pure sounds.

This is more than merely the work of a Washingtonian—albeit one who writes in the 1930s and 40s. It is the artistry of an alchemist of sound. One who is able to bypass the filigreed sound that fluffed the dance-bands of the era and the elegant puffery of the dance hall. It is the sonic secrets revealed at the hands of a veritable druid of sound.

The proverbial grail for Ellington was the orchestra that he came to lead with magical elegance. Anyone who cared to sip from the cup of the then new sound that in the late 1930's broke the cacophony of pedestrian entertainment so to speak knew that they were imbibing something special; something that so altered the music they were used to hearing that it couldn't but change the effect on mind and heart. Such was the effect that the music of Duke Ellington's small groups that it was to establish a new sound in the classical music of the 20th Century—a new era for all music that came after this to become—the "swinging-est" music yet, written and performed.

Oddly enough that was not quite the way Duke Ellington saw it. But then Ellington always saw and heard things differently. He always heard what no one else did in the first instance. He was blessed with a peculiar characteristic: He became immersed in his musical environment with all his six senses, all at once. His response to stimuli was like a total-body experience. So he saw and heard, smelled and felt the world around him with fecund tactility, experiencing it as if with a sweeping in all its completeness of tone and texture and with a heartfelt rhythmic intensity—if such a thing is at all possible. The Duke: a remarkable visionary and connoisseur of sound. And he also experienced it from the twin polarities of the musical phenomenon: as artist-instrumentalist and as audience at the same time.

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