Reproduced with the permission of Mr. Reney

Echoes of Ellington

A century after his birth, the legendary pianist continues to inspire


Tom Reney

Published 03/04/99

A year before I caught my first glimpse of Duke Ellington at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium -- it was 1966, I was 13 and it was "Duke Ellington Day" in my home town -- my mother had drawn my attention to the television broadcast of Ellington's First Sacred Concert at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Perhaps it was the venerable setting -- I was still an altar boy -- or its reminder of Mahalia Jackson, whose gospel singing, as seen on the Ed Sullivan Show, moved me beyond youthful comprehension, but the Ellington effect dazzled me from the start, and the religious devotion that I would experience with jazz had begun.
What I responded to so readily in Ellington -- aside from his sartorial elegance, his originality, his extraordinary presence -- was the blues and other speech-like effects lying at the heart of his music, and that of the African-American tradition itself, which struck me, much like my Roman Catholicism, as at once ancient and immediate. It was only a matter of time before I would hear a similar cry in the music of Charles Mingus, Lester Young, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday and, another personal hero, the white bluesman Paul Butterfield.
Subsequent Ellington sightings took place in a range of settings typical only for a musician who by 1970 had been performing a ceaseless round of one-nighters for more than 40 years. There was the Sunday afternoon benefit for the local hospital guild at the town hall in Webster, Mass.; the Newport Jazz Festival in 1971; a Carnegie Hall concert at the first Newport-in-New York in 1972; and two of his annual Sunday evening concerts at Franklin Park in Boston.
At Webster, 20 miles south of Worcester, my teenage friend Nic and I seemed the only people in the packed house under 50. How thrilled we were when, as we stood in front of the town hall an hour before the concert, the Ellington bus pulled up and the driver asked, "Hey fellas, where's Duke Ellington playing?" And how dismayed when we saw one of Webster's finest search the bus once the band had disembarked.
It was in Webster, too, that I saw an unforgettable display of the pianist's legendary charm. During the first half of the concert he featured his tenor saxophonist, Paul Gonsalves, on the show-stopping Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue. The related pieces, composed in 1938, had been featured in virtually every Ellington concert program since 1956, when, at the Newport Jazz Festival, Gonsalves played an electrifying 27-chorus-long solo on the interval connecting the two. The Newport crowd went into a frenzy the likes of which jazz hadn't ignited since Benny Goodman's opening at the Paramount in New York in 1935.
A week later, Ellington, whose fortunes had dipped considerably in the early 1950s, was on the cover of Time, and the resulting album, Ellington at Newport, became the biggest seller of his career. Thereafter, Ellington introduced Gonsalves, a native of New Bedford, as being "from Newport, Rhode Island."
When calling the roll of players at the Webster concert, Ellington managed to bring even more of a local flavor to Gonsalves' regional origins. A nearby body of water known as Webster Lake had an intriguing reputation due to its original Nipmuck name, which roughly translated as "You fish on your side, we'll fish on our side, and no one fishes in the middle." Here Gonsalves was introduced as having been born "just to the east of Lake Chargogagogg Manchaugagogg Chaubunagungamaugg." The house responded with delight over the ease with which Ellington, ever to the mannerborn, excelled as a name-dropper.
Of even greater formative impact were the performances I attended at the Elma Lewis Playhouse-in-the-Park in Franklin Park, where Ellington performed annual free summer concerts during the 1960s and early '70s. < >Here the normally tuxedo-clad orchestra was attired in porkpie hats, sport shirts and Bermudas, lending a relaxed, down-home air to the event. There was considerable banter between the band members and audience before the concert, and a responsiveness to the music that I'd already grown accustomed to at Worcester's Kitty Kat Lounge, where the jam sessions were as ceremonial as anything I'd yet experienced in church.
Not surprisingly, the music at the Lewis amphitheater was long on the blues, and in the two years I was there, rousing performances of Ellington's great spiritual "Come Sunday" served as a reminder that there is a touch of both the sacred and the profane, the earthy and ethereal, in all of his music.
The Franklin Park concerts were a celebration of the heroic Ellington: as cultural icon, as leader of the most esteemed jazz orchestra in the world, as a natural aristocrat who enjoyed access to the widest imaginable range of people and places both here and abroad, and as the composer of an enormous body of music that drew its original inspiration largely from the folk traditions, the dance, and the collective memory of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies of African-American life. Who but Ellington was composing pieces with titles like "Black Beauty" as early as 1928?
This too was the Ellington remembered with palpable fondness by Howard Jefferson, a tenor saxophonist who took me under his wing at the rough-and-tumble Kitty Kat. Despite having been called upon to spell ailing members of several of the great big bands of the 1940s, Howie had elected to remain with his family in Worcester and earn a livelihood playing locally. He spoke to me often of Ellington, especially his memory of watching Duke "in a do-rag and silk robe" on the second-floor porch of the tenement across the street from Howie's boyhood home on mornings after a performance in the area.
The implication, of course, was that in 1930s Worcester, even Ellington (not to mention his sidemen) had to find private accommodations, that while he may have been revered by a crowd of fox-trotting swells at the Bancroft Hotel, he wasn't welcome there as an overnight guest.
While Boston was probably no more hospitable than Worcester, it was nonetheless an important city in the Ellingtonian landscape. Back in the mid-'20s, when the Washington, D.C.-born pianist was beginning to gain a foothold in New York City, he would spend January and all of July and August in the Hub, playing the ballrooms and pavilions from Boston to Worcester to Providence, as well as the summer resorts along the North Shore, and the rooftop of the Ritz.
Moreover, it was in the very same Roxbury neighborhoods where most of the Franklin Park audience lived that two of the most important Ellingtonians were raised. Harry Carney was born in Boston in 1910, and from the age of 16 his magisterial baritone saxophone anchored the Ellington reed section for an astounding 47 years. During the last two decades of their lives (Carney died within six months of Ellington in 1974) they traveled hundreds of thousands of miles together with Carney at the wheel of his Chrysler Imperial. "He's a great fellow," Carney said of his boss, "and it's not only been an education being with him but also a great pleasure. At times I've been ashamed to take the money!"
Johnny Hodges was raised around the corner from Carney and began playing the saxophone as a 13-year-old. He became a disciple of Sidney Bechet, the jazz pioneer he'd encountered in Boston in 1920, one year after Bechet had been noticed by the prescient Swiss conductor Ernst Ansermet, who predicted that Bechet's "own way is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow." Ellington's "way" was paved in part by Bechet, who worked with the band during their New England tour in 1926; he described the New Orleanian as "the greatest of all the originators ... whose things were all soul."
The diminutive Hodges became a "beautiful giant in his own identity" over the course of his 38-year career with Ellington, who tailored dozens of ballads and blues to show off the exquisite sensuality and jesting wit of the saxophonist whom Ellington eulogized as a player of "complete independence of expression." With Hodges' death in 1970, Ellington said "our band will never sound the same," but on the evenings in Franklin Park the air was heavy with his legacy.
Just as Ellington helped his sidemen discover their own gifts as musicians, as collaborators, as members of what Gunther Schuller called the "utopian commune" of Ellingtonia, so too was I guided in my own search for identity by the figure of Edward Kennedy Ellington. What was it that attracted me so deeply to Ellington and made him such a compelling role model?
Ellington impressed me as a pillar of strength and self-possession, a true elder statesmen at a time when such models were in short supply. Like many of my generation, I groped for direction in an era buffeted by chaotic extremes and the disintegration of mainstream institutions. Furthermore, I found myself caught between two worlds -- one white, one black, both at times unsupportive of my curiosities and passions, and, then as now, all too often reluctant to acknowledge and embrace their abundant commonalities.
Not surprisingly, it is in the writings of Ellington's literary counterpart, Ralph Ellison, that I have discovered many of the essential truths about my early and enduring affinities. As Ellison asked in his Homage to Duke Ellington, "To how many thousands has he defined what it should mean to be young and alive and American? To how many has he given a sense of personal elegance and style? A sense of possibility? And who, seeing and hearing Ellington and his marvelous band, hasn't been moved to wonder at the mysterious, unanalyzed character of the Negro American, and at the white American's inescapable Negro-ness?"
Tom Reney hosts Jazz la Mode on WFCR/88.5FM, where he is producing a year-long series, The World of Duke Ellington, on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. His classes in jazz history meet at Northampton's Pahana Gallery.