NPR logo Duke Ellington Has His Way

Duke Ellington Has His Way

Duke Ellington in 1946. William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress hide caption

toggle caption William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress

Duke Ellington in 1946.

William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress

From time to time, I've linked to the blog Jazz Backstory. It's run by Monk Rowe, who serves as director of the jazz archive at Hamilton College in upstate New York; he presides over a (searchable) collection of over 300+ long interviews, fully transcribed. His latest post is a real doozy.

Many of the jazz greats of yesteryear spent formative time in big bands. And the Hamilton archive has interviews with several who were with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Their anecdotes of life in the band are priceless: (white) drummer Louis Bellson on pretending to be Haitian in order to make gigs in the segregated South, bassist John Lamb on ostensibly failing his audition and being hired anyway, trombonist Grover Mitchell on how Ellington disciplined his delinquent band members with a bit of musical stink-eye.

My favorite, though, is how Ellington poached trumpeter Clark Terry away from Count Basie by offering him nearly $100 more per week, which was big money for him at the time. Here's Terry:

So Duke finally he comes around and he says "I'd like to discuss things with you." So he says "okay?" He says "but we can't do it out in public, so later on I'll have to come to your hotel." So I says "okay, I'm at the Southway." He says "all right, I'll come by and I'll call you when I get in the lobby and I'll hurriedly get out of the lobby and meet you in your room." So I says "okay." So he comes to the hotel, and he calls up and I says "oh, all right." So he says "I'll meet you on your floor and I'll meet you at the elevator and show me where it is." So Duke gets off the elevator about the same time I come out my door. And just as I walk out of my door and Duke steps off the elevator, and next door to me is Freddie Green. Freddie Green opens his door and steps out. He says "woah," and went back and slammed the door. So of course Duke and I went on with our business. But that night on the gig, Freddie, I walked in and you know, Pep [Freddie Green] would look at you like this, he didn't even say hello. "If you don't you're a fool."

Speaking of cutting away from Count Basie, Rowe writes that the next installment from Jazz Backstory will focus on stories from the Basie band. [Jazz Backstory: Tales of the Big Bands: Ellington]

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.