Sunday, June 29, 2014

Duke Ellington Can't Sleep

It's morning, still dark, early June, 1967, and world-famous Duke Ellington can't sleep.

I'm only reading between the lines of Terry Teachout's biography Duke, but I look at the tired face and "mood indigo" tint to the book's cover and get the impression that the man had a lot to keep him awake at night.

What worries him? He has "made it."  Since the 1920s when his publisher Irving Mills promoted him as a " Ravel or Stravinsky," Ellington has long been more than a popular jazz musician. But after his heyday in the 1920s and 30s, his orchestra was nudged into irrelevance first by the Swing band craze, then pop and rock.  Bebop jazz made Duke a relic until a gutsy performance at Newport in 1956 brought renewed respect and attention.  Suddenly, he was a national treasure, a cover-of-Time celebrity, and a guest on TV variety programs.

Yet esteem doesn't pay the bills.  He owes over a half million dollars in back taxes.  He has no record contracts, no regular gigs. Relying heavily on royalty payments for his hit songs, he has always paid the "expensive gentlemen" of his orchestra more than they could earn in any other band. 

He has always paid for his musicians in other ways, too.  Touring in the 1930s and 40s, he rented private train cars and chartered buses to shield his African-American personnel from the indignities of Jim Crow restrictions at hotels and restaurants.   By 1967, some of these players, in Terry Teachout's words, have "passed their sell-by date," including the so-called "Air Force" (i.e., the musicians who came to work high).  Because Ellington avoids confrontation, he keeps the deadbeats on. 
All along, Ellington has cared more for music than for the money, and it's the future of his music that worries him.  The immediate crisis is the death of composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn, whom he called "his right arm."  Strayhorn died of cancer May 31st, 1967.  (I reflect on their complicated relationship in a blog post In the Mantle of Duke Ellington). 

Strayhorn once explained that Ellington "played piano, but his true instrument was the orchestra."  In each chapter of Teachout's book -- before the one about Strayhorn's death --  some new player expands Ellington's "palette." Ellington and Strayhorn blended and contrasted the distinctive sounds of the musicians in ways that no other bands did, and they left their soloists lots of room to be creative.  Ellington listed names in his scores,  not instruments, and he didn't always assign notes.  He told one player to "rise like the sun" over the music. Asked for more specifics, Ellington said, "Start in B-flat."

By 1967, a society dance orchestra no longer attracts the kinds of soloists whose distinctive sounds have inspired Ellington's compositions for decades.

He's also lonely, though he's probably not alone.  That's what his son Mercer observes in Teachout's biography. Married early, Ellington left his wife but kept her, so that he could tell his other girl friends, "Sorry, I'm married."  He strung along a series of three mistresses over five decades. (On the cover of Teachout's book, we see a scar on Ellington's left cheek from one of these ladies.)  As for his musicians, he'd stopped being their buddy when he started being a "genius," and some weren't even friendly. Some had reason to resent Ellington, because he earned royalties from songs he based on tunes they improvised.  Strayhorn was his closest collaborator, and now he's gone.
Perhaps it's in this early morning that Ellington imagines a tribute to Strayhorn that he and his band will record in the late summer and fall of 1967, "...and his mother called him Bill,"  words excised from a draft of Duke's eulogy for his friend.  In it, we hear what was best in Ellington's world, and we can hear why he might stay awake, afraid that it's all passed.

We hear numbers written across decades for the orchestra, tailored to soloists long gone from the band, and some solos played soulfully by those present.  Famed jazz artist Clark Terry returns as guest to the orchestra he left years before.  Others that we hear are men who were with Duke from the start, and some, like saxophonist Johnny Hodges, have left and come back. 

Johnny Hodges is featured in "Blood Count," Strayhorn's last piece, composed in his hospital room just in time for Ellington to use at Carnegie Hall.  Ellington's habit of completing projects at or beyond the last minute is a recurring motif in Teachout's biography.   In "Blood Count," the basic melody is like a sentence in two parts:  a long phrase for the soloist that ends in a sigh, followed by short, quick phrases that curl upward, as if a question is being repeated.  On the bridge, the sax wails, building to the final chorus when the whole orchestra swells under punching jabs by the sax. It ends with a long sigh. It's Ellington's "instrument" in a painful, beautiful expression.

The five-dollar word in the title of "Intimacy of the Blues" is an indication of its contents.  The scaffolding is the same twelve-bar blues you'd hear in any backwoods juke joint, but the effects are refined:  rapid-fire staccato notes in the tune, mostly quiet dynamics punctuated by sudden swells in the orchestra.  Near the end, Ellington's piano plays some embroidery that sounds to me like it's in a different key:  Ravel, anyone?

Ellington gets to play melody on Strayhorn's perky old tune "Rain Check," varying the melody largely through his accenting of odd beats -- "Rite of Spring" for a night club.

The final number on the album, though, is a heart-tugger.  After the session was over, as the men were laughing and packing up their instruments, the microphone captured Ellington playing solo through Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom."  The liner notes tell us, "The studio quieted down as the feeling came through. That is what he most liked to hear me play, Duke said afterwards."

Looking out at his horizon in June 1967, Ellington can tell us what Ecclesiastes says: you never do "arrive."  You can only extend yourself for someone else, as Duke did for this tribute to Billy Strayhorn.   I'm thankful for that record, and the biography by Terry Teachout that has helped me to appreciate all that went into it.  

Reflection on Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout, read on Amazon Kindle.  Also, a compact disc reissue of an album by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, "...and his mother called him Bill"  originally recorded in 1967, issued by RCA Victor in 1968; reissued by BMG 2001. Liner notes by Stanley Dance. 

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