Right up to the end Duke Ellington maintained an ability to surprise lesser mortals with his impish wit. In 1969 he visited the White House to celebrate his 70th birthday and kissed President Richard Nixon on the cheek four times. When Nixon asked why four times, Ellington replied, "One for each cheek."
Tricky Dicky wasas they say nowadaystotally gobsmacked but regained his composure in time to present Ellington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honour, proclaiming magnanimously, "In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke."
After these shenanigans in Washington, it was business as usual for the Ellington band. In November: a European tour, one of the highlights of which was this concert at the 2,200-seat Doelen Concert Hall in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. The De Doelen had reopened just three years previously after being rebuilt. The original hall was destroyed by a German bombardment in 1940 at the start of World War Two.
The band still had plenty of great soloists. The saxophone section included Johnny Hodges on alto, Paul Gonsalves on tenor and Harry Carney on baritone. Lawrence Brown was still hanging in there on trombone and Wild Bill Davisfor good or illwas doing his thing on organ.
In the brass section, Cat Anderson was still hitting those "impossible" high notes, Cootie Williams was growling away as he had done off and on for decades and there was the added attraction of Duke's son Mercer Ellington.
There was also a new but very good rhythm section, comprising Victor Gaskin on bass, Rufus "Speedy" Jones on drums and, of course, the pianistnow what was his name?
Things get off to a wild, if somewhat ragged start with Billy Strayhorn's "Take The A Train" married to a rocking "C Jam Blues." Cootie Williams is in fine form on this one but Paul Gonsalves is a trifle under-recorded.
There's a mighty roar of approval for Ellington's intro to "Kinda Dukish" and "Rockin' In Rhythm" and Cat Anderson gets nicely stratospheric towards close of play. Next comes a "proper" version of "Take The A Train," which builds nicely to a climax starring Cootie Williams. Gonsalvesintroduced by his boss as "the hero of the Newport Jazz Festival"cuts loose as only he can on "Up Jump," which Duke describes as "tenor saxophonic callisthenics."
Ellington wrote "La Plus Belle Africaine (The Most Beautiful African)" for the first International Festival Of Negro Arts held in Dakar, Senegal three years previously. At nine minutes plus, it's the longest but also most interesting track on the album, starring Harry Carney and Russell Procope. It's followed by an "African" drum feature by Rufus Jones, mercifully not overlong. There's a vocal medley by Tony Watkins, who spent seven years with the band and was by no means the worst vocalist Duke ever hired.
The most moving number is the lovely ballad "Black Butterfly" starring Johnny Hodges. It was one of the last chances jazz fans had to hear this wonderful, inimitable soloist. He died six months later.
Take The A Train (theme) and C Jam Blues; Kinda Dukish and Rockin’ In
Rhythm; Take The A Train (full version); Up Jump; La Plus Belle
Africaine; Come Off The Veldt; El Gato (The Cat); Black
Butterfly; Things Ain’t What They Used To Be; Don’t Get Around Much Anymore;
Medley 1 – Caravan, Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady; Medley 2 – Making That
Scene, It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, Be Cool And Groovy For
Me; Satin Doll; R.T.M; In Triplicate into Satin Doll.
Cat Anderson, Cootie Williams, Ambrose Jackson, Mercer Ellington, Nelson
Williams, Benny Bailey: trumpets; Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Norris Turney,
Harold Ashby, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney: saxophones; Duke Ellington: piano;
Victor Gaskin: bass; Rufus Jones: drums; Tony Watkins: vocals.