We talked about Ellington and what's happening to his music
KENNY Burrell, it seems, has two missions in life. His first is to play the most satisfying jazz guitar ever, and the other is to spread the gospel of Edward Kennedy Ellington. During a recent interview on my WBUR jazz program in Boston, the subject matter quickly turned to the Duke's music and its meaning. Burrell has absorbed more Ellingtonia than most and has recorded two albums of Ellington music. In the course of the conversation we discovered that the publicist Al Morgan had introduced both Kenny and me to the great composer. In fact, Ellington publicly stated that Burrell was his favorite guitarist. (My turn came in 1963 as I interviewed Ellington for a CBS radio program at the now defunct nightclub Basin Street East. The orchestra was just about to embark on a European, Mideast, and Far East tour with prodigal trumpeter Cootie Williams returning to the band, mute in hand.)
The next day over lunch the interview with Kenny Burrell turned into a private one. We continued to reminisce about old Al Morgan but, more important, to focus on Duke Ellington. It was my chance to express some theories about ``The World Famous . . . .''
George Avakian's liner notes on the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival served as catalyst for this essay. George wrote that a rolled-up copy of The Christian Science Monitor in the hands of the celebrated drummer Papa Jo Jones inspired the Ellington band as it played ``Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.'' Paul Gonsalves played umpteen saxophone choruses in a historic performance as Papa Jo whipped the Monitor to shreds backstage. Burrell loved the story and instantly recalled from his Duko-file that one of the f irst stories (or interviews) done on Duke was in the Monitor in 1930 [please see opposite page]. The piece was prophetic.
From that time on Duke Ellington accomplished more as a composer than most, while also touring and playing practically every night. How did he do it? Duke was prolific; it is said that even in his last days he was preparing a jazz opera. But what of the public perception of Ellington? Here we are in 1985, and still the man in the street sees him as a cameo player as depicted in the recent film ``The Cotton Club,'' Francis Ford Coppolla's fumbled attempt to fictionalize the Harlem Renaissance, where the music of Ellington is parodied. A glaring example occurs when the transcribers of Duke's music try to rework ``Daybreak Express,'' based on the chords of ``Tiger Rag.'' The original arrangement written by Ellington in the early '30s is weakened considerably by the elimination of certain complex saxophone passages in order to accommodate the dancers or possibly some inept musicians. The high-stepping chorines and singers rush through the Ellington material as if preparing for an MTV production. ``The Cotton Club'' does not bring honor to Duke Ellington. And further, why wasn't the current band under the direction of Mercer Ellington used?
Another insult appears in a PBS special about Duke Ellington with Tammy Grimes and Treat Williams in renditions of his music. Were not the likes of Adelaide Hall, Anita Moore, Al Hibbler, and Herb Jeffries available? PBS producers lapsed badly, further diluting the artistry of Duke Ellington.
It is true that a group calling itself ``The Ellington Project-Partnership'' has plans for the Duke that include movies and TV. Mercer sees the venture as a two-edged sword that will provide the estate with continuous endowment, while possibly jeopardizing the creative Ellington. He also claims he will have the last say on ``Duke'' the movie, adding that his father hated the Hollywood hokum of ``Lady Sings the Blues.''
To forget that Ellington stands beside Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Charles Ives derides the creative font of black music in America and, in a sense, reduces America's contribution to the great music of the world. Virgil Thomson, Roger Sessions, and Leonard Bernstein all see Ellington as a major composer. The music community as a whole has an obligation to preserve Ellington masterpieces. The mechanics are simple and the tools are available. Symphony orchestras, concert bands, and lab jazz bands can avail themselves of the Ellington library. High school lab bands need to include more of Ellington and less of Kenton, Ferguson, and ``Tonight'' show band arrangements.
Duke Ellington's music is rarely done by others. In 1944, Paul Whiteman premi`ered ``Bluetopia''; in 1955, the Symphony of the Air performed ``Night Creature''; Herb Pomeroy reconstructed the mythical ``Road of the Phoebe Snow'' for the Boston Ballet, and again in 1981 for the Boston Globe Jazz Festival; and Gunther Schuller instilled Ellington music in the students at New England Conservatory. (Pat Hollenbeck has performed many Ellington works with his ``Medium Rare'' big band.) The list is all too short. More should be done to preserve this music.
Hundreds of Ellington's works are heard only on the original recordings. Will we ever hear performances of Ellington's musical black history in ``Black, Brown and Beige'' from 1943, ``Liberian Suite'' from 1947, or ``A Tone Parallel to Harlem'' from 1950? Or Ellington's program music: ``Such Sweet Thunder,'' based on Shakespeare's works; ``Suite Thursday,'' echoing John Steinbeck's ``Sweet Thursday''; adaptations of Tchaikovsky's ``The Nutcracker'' and Grieg's ``Peer Gynt''? Or several global romp s set to music including ``Afro-Bossa,'' ``African-Eurasian Eclipse,'' ``Far East Suite,'' ``Latin American Suite''? They need to be played to live audiences by living musicians, for greatness is diminished if works of genius are not exposed.
Duke's artistry included the hot jazz of ``Rockin' in Rhythm,'' the rich tonal concepts of ``On a Turquoise Cloud,'' the avant-garde of ``A Clothed Woman,'' with variations of beauty and sentimentality, like the brilliance of a thousand Fourth of Julys. If we preserve the Duke, we can make Kenny Burrell prophetic, for his dedication albums to Duke are called ``Ellington Forever.''