Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

Photo courtesy of the
Smithsonian Archives
Duke Ellington Tribute with John Edward Hasse

In this special tribute, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of great bandleader, composer and pianist, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. For over 50 years, up until his death in 1974, Ellington and his band were at the heart of American music. Dr. Taylor and his trio are joined by Ellington biographer John Edward Hasse, an accomplished pianist who also serves as musical curator at the Smithsonian Institutionís Museum of American History. The Billy Taylor Trio set the stage for a night of Ellington with "It Donít Mean a Thing If It Ainít Got That Swing."

Hasseís book, Beyond Category, draws on over 200,000 pages worth of material that have been acquired by the Smithonianís Ellington Archive. Though a private person, Duke had his own memoirs published in a book called Music is My Mistress. Hasse notes that "he wrote [his memoirs] very guardedlyÖthereís not a negative word in there about anything." To gain additional insights, Hasse delved into the archives during 4 to 5 years of intensive research.

Hasse and Dr. Taylor discuss the environment in which Ellington grew up. Ellington was born in Washington, DC on April 29, 1899. His parents were warm and loving, and protected him from the discrimination and bigotry that seemed to escalate during his youth. With the largest African-American population in the country, DC had a well-established and self-sufficient black middle class community. The quality of this environment and his parentsí pride in their son may explain Ellingtonís ability to move past racial barriers and succeed as a great composer and entertainer.

Ellington was a very generous bandleader who always sought to bring out the best in his musicians. Dr. Taylor notes that Duke composed specifically for his musicians, not for the musical instruments. Hasse attests to the fact that Ellingtonís manuscripts note the band membersí names, such as "Johnny" or "Cootie" rather than using generic notation for instrument parts like "alto sax" or "trumpet". Ellington encouraged his musicians to develop their personal style and used their unique sounds to expand his musical palette. He rewarded his players with eloquent praise when he introduced them to an audience.

At one point, Dr. Taylor demonstrates how Ellington would invent harmonic variations that meshed perfectly with one of his musicianís riffs or melodies. He would develop these riffs into complete compositions. For example, "In A Mellow Tone" is derived from one of saxophonist Ben Websterís riffs. After Dr. Taylor fondly recalls working with Webster, he rejoins his trio for a version of "In A Mellow Tone" that highlights a call and response technique between piano, bass and drums.

Ellington was a mentor to Dr. Taylor, his fellow DC native. Dr. Taylor recalls how Ellington introduced him when he was backing up the Ellington Orchestra at the famous New York club, Birdland. At the end of bandís set, the crowd was roaring. Ellington gradually subdued the audience and announced that he would like to hear the young pianist, Billy Taylor, play. He thus focused the audienceís attention on Billy, who was following his orchestra as a soloist.

Hasse notes that Ellingtonís lack of formal music training may have contributed to his unique and personal approach to composing, saying, "I think the [music conservatory] system would have ironed out his individuality." Dr. Taylor then demonstrates a beautiful example of Ellingtonís signature sound with a gorgeous solo rendition of Ellingtonís "In A Sentimental Mood."

A member of the audience asks if Ellingtonís collaborator Billy Strayhorn received enough credit for his contribution to the Ellington legend. Hasse admits that there remains some mystery about this complex relationship. But Strayhornís contribution is widely acknowledged in some cases, such as "Take the ĎAí Train," "Lush Life" and "Satin Doll." Dr. Taylor recalls playing a solemn, slow-tempo rendition of "Take the ĎAí Train" with trumpeter and violinist Ray Nance at Strayhornís funeral. He recreates this moment at the piano for the Kennedy Center audience.

Musical demonstrations of Ellingtonís genius abound on the bandstand. Dr. Taylor plays a ragtime rendition of Ellingtonís "Drop Me Off in Harlem" and a moving version of Dukeís spiritual "Come Sunday." In Ellingtonian style, Billy also highlights the outstanding abilities of his band members. Among their many memorable performances, bassist Chip Jackson shines on "In A Mellow Tone" and drummer Steve Johns creates a rhythmic journey on "Caravan," rounding out our journey through the life and music of Ellington.