Dear Big Jazz Nerd,
Whom was Duke Ellington referring to when he wrote "Sophisticated Lady"?
A good guess would be his mom, Daisy Kennedy Ellington. History tells us that she was a beautiful, intelligent, educated woman who doted on her son, Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974). Duke worshiped Daisy, but his 1932 masterpiece was not written about her or any one woman in particular. Rather, the tune was actually a composite musical sketch of three womenthree of young Ellington's grade school teachers in the U Street neighborhood of Washington D.C. "They taught all winter and toured Europe in the summer. To me that spelled sophistication, Duke said.
"Sophisticated Lady was originally an instrumental mood piece. Later, Tin Pan Alley lyricist Mitchell Parish ("Stardust, "Ruby, "Moonlight Serenade ) added words to Ellington's lilting melody, telling the sorry tale of a wealthy, love-lost socialite "smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow. Ellington approved of Parish's lyrics, calling them "wonderfulbut not entirely fitted to my original conception.
Interestingly enough, "Sophisticated Lady is also the title of a 1989 British documentary film celebrating the life of the great jazz singer Adelaide Louise Hall (1901-1993), whose 1927 hit recording of Ellington's sexually-charged "Creole Love Call rocketed both to international stardom. Known to many in the UK as the "First Lady of Jazz, Adelaide was born in Brooklyn and raised in Harlem at the height of the Jazz Age.
She appeared in the all-black musicals "Shuffle Along (1921) and "Runnin' Wild (1923) and toured Europe as the star of "The Chocolate Kiddies Revue (1925). The toast of Broadway throughout the '20s and early '30s, Adelaide sang and danced with Bojangles, gigged with accompanist Art Tatum, and toured internationally on numerous occasions making her, in 1931, reportedly the richest black woman in America.
In 1935 she moved to England, where her star continued to rise on stage and screen. The result of relocation, however, was that she was largely forgotten in the US over the proceeding decades. She returned to the States on rare occasions, appearing at the 1979 Newport Jazz Fest production of "Black Broadway. Two sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall in March 1992, marked her last performances in America. Adelaide Hall, a very sophisticated lady, indeed.