A benefit for the Duke Ellington Foundation
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Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, in Washington. D.C. He was the son of a locally prominent caterer and butler, James Edward Ellington, and Daisy Kennedy Ellington, of whom he later wrote, "no one else but my sister Ruth had a mother as great and as beautiful as mine." Little Edward was pampered in every conceivable way by the considerable contingent of women in the family. He also got piano lessons from a Mrs. Marietta Clinkscales, although he remembers missing more lessons than he took, "because of my enthusiasm for playing ball, and running and racing through the street." His father, seeing that Edward had a talent for painting and drawing, encouraged him to become an artist. But by his high school days. Duke had settled permanently on both a nickname and a vocation: "I learned that when you were playing piano, there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end."
Ellington made his first, unsuccessful stab at a musical career in New York in 1922. But the following year he took the advice of Fats Waller and went back as pianist with Elmer Snowden's Washingtonians. This five-piece group started out at the Kentucky Club on Broadway. As their fortunes grew, they enlarged the band to ten pieces, bringing on many of the players who would share in the glory to come over the next forty years. By 1927, Ellington had taken over the band and moved it to Harlem's famed Cotton Club. There it became famous for accompanying the club's lavish production numbers with so-called "jungle music" as well as providing songs for dancing and "pure" jazz instrumentals. Recordings and Hollywood film appearances followed, and by the early 1930s, Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra were indeed world-famous.
During the next decade, Ellington wrote many of the great songs heard on this CD. His big band toured extensively, performing at Carnegie Hall and in venues all over America and Europe. He began writing a number of longer works, such as ballets . and suites both for his band and for symphony orchestras, but his lasting fame would come from the hundreds of three-minute singles he produced, mainly of his own songs and instrumentals. Duke Ellington was able to draw upon the varied talents and approaches of his band members to help create strikingly original melodies, tone colors, and orchestral effects. Throughout his life, he held fast to the idea that he was doing far more than selling records and selling out dance halls and "I am not playing jazz. I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people."
"We are children of the sun and our race has a definite tradition of beauty and glory and vitality that is as rich and powerful as the sun itself. These traditions are ours to express, and will enrich our careers in proportion to the sincerity and faithfulness with which we interpret them."
The young composer, arranger and pianist Billy Strayhom wrote Day Dream shortly after Duke brought him into his organization in 1939. Originally a "concerto" for the creamy sound of Johnny Hodges, lead alto sax player in the band, it was featured in Ellington's first Carnegie Hall concert in 1943. Here Jonathan Butler's unforced vocals and acoustic guitar perfectly capture the mood of the song.
Prelude to a Kiss dates from 1938 and shows Duke at his romantic height. The melody gracefully arches along the chromatic scale (a combination of all the black and white notes on the piano) in a most sensual - and never predictable - way. Jeffery Osbome more than does it justice on this CD.
Come Sunday first appeared in 1943 (with Hodges again soloing) as part of the concert suite Black, Brown, and Beige. It gained greater renown in 1958 when Ellington recorded it with the inimitable Mahalia Jackson delivering both the lyrics and wordless, almost instrumental vocals afterwards. When Ellington turned to composing and compiling music for sacred concerts in the 1970s, he gave Come Sunday, in a revamped arrangement, a place of honor in his first sacred concert. The arrangement on this CD is by trumpeter Burgess Gardner, who also solos.
Don't Get Around Much Anymore began life in 1940 as an instrumental called Never No Lament. In that uptempo form it spotlighted Hodges, trumpeter Cootie Williams and trombonist Lawrence Brown. Two years later. Bob Russell added lyrics, and now countless singers have added their own take to those phrases, sad but hip, melancholy but swinging - "Missed the Saturday dance/Heard they crowded the floor/Couldn't bear it without you..."
Ellington wrote It Don't Mean A Thing in 1932, recording it immediately and highlighting it on his tour of Europe the following year. It's not hard to see why it became an instant classic, its driving rhythms and high spirits perfectly capturing the spirit of swing for all time. The Duke himself said that he first heard this immortal phrase from his original Cotton Club trumpet player, Bubber Miley, in the 1920s. Having made dozens of arrangements of this tune himself, he would undoubtedly enjoy hearing Dwayne Wiggins' hip-hop version included here.