Duke Ellington a true roots man


By  Norman (Otis) Richmond aka Jalali
Sunday, 11 May 2014 00:00

Published: The Nation, Colombo Sri Lanka
Click to: The Nation
1901941_692996490743665_1711604104_nNorman (Otis) Richmond aka Jalali

Malcolm X used to shine Duke Ellington’s shoes when he was a youth in Boston. In fact, Malcolm says in his autobiography — Ellington’s alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges forgot to pay him for a shoe shine because he got into a friendly argument with the drummer Sonny Greer. Says Malcolm. “I wouldn’t dare to bother the man who could do what he did with’Daydream’by asking him for 15 cents.”

Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974 after making music for 56 years. He was born in Washington D. C. on April 29, 1899. Music lovers around the world are celebrating the 115th anniversary of this towering music legend. After Ellington’s death, notes were found of an unfinished opera, Boola, narrating the travails of an African slave in this hemisphere.

Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke Ellington, at the 115TH birth anniversary

Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke Ellington, at the 115TH birth anniversary

It is important to note, African people and the world never lose sight of the fact that Ellington was more than an ‘American original’. The New Yorker magazine pointed out in 1969 that Ellington was ‘the unacknowledged but undeniable master of Western music.’ Let the record reflect that Ellington was an African-American original. He never denied ‘everyday African people’ in the United States, the Caribbean nor Mother Africa.

While Ellington has been gone for forty years, his memory has been kept alive by African American artistes in the decades before and after his passing.
The hip-hop generation was introduced to him in the 1990s with the film Love Jones, when Larenz Tate seduced Nia Long with Ellington and John Coltrane‘s ‘In A Sentimental Mood’. In the 1980s, Prince used to break into Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The Train” regularly during concerts. Stevie Wonder evoked Ellington’s memory in the 1970s with the song ‘Sir Duke’. When Ellington was still in the land of the living in the 1960s, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden and Fred Cash (The Impressions) recorded a beautiful rendition of Ellington’s “Satin Doll”.

Still many of the readers of this essay are asking: Who was Duke Ellington and why is he important today? The dictionary of global culture says this about Ellington: “African American jazz musician. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, he was a pioneer of the’ big band’ sound in jazz, introducing complex arrangements that required both improvising and the ability to read scores. Renewed for his extended, abstract compositions, which employ such techniques as irregular phrasing, chromaticism, and unresolved modulations, Ellington is often considered the first jazz composer.”

Ellington was down with black consciousness before it became it become in vogue in the 1960s, long before James Brown sang, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Ellington commented on taking pride in your roots. In the 1930’s Ellington pointed out, “We must be proud of our race and heritage, we must develop the special talents which have been handed down to us though generation, we must try to make our work express the rich background of the Negro.”
Don’t let the word “Negro” fool you. He composed the song “Black Beauty” for actress Florence Mills in 1928, 40 years before it became fashionable to be black. Ellington knew what the Black Panther Party and others would later find out later, that culture was necessary but not sufficient.”

In 1944, Ellington composed works commemorating black freedom fighters: Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Ortiz M. Walton pointed out in his 1972 book, Music: Black, White & Blue, “None of the latter group has been recorded, since the record industry is not concerned with portraying black history as much as making a profit.” Very little has changed since 1972. Danny Glover was given money by the then President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez to do a film on Haiti’s Toussaint L’Ouverture. It never saw the light of day.

Ellington journeyed to Africa four years earlier than the Black Panther Party. He brought his orchestra to Dakar, Senegal to perform at the World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966. The Black Panther Party opened an office in Algeria on September 1, 1970. While Ellington grew up in the United States, he traveled to over 60 countries and was a “roots” man. In describing his first experience on African soil, Ellington, says, “After writing African music for 35 years, here I am at last in Africa.”

Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes pointed out that during one of Ellington’s visits to England in the 1930s Ellington discovered King George had a bigger collection of his records than he had. However, Ellington’s embraced by royalty never made him lose sight of common people. Here is how Ellington described what happened at the concert. “When the time for our concert comes, it is a wonderful success. We get the unusual diplomatic corps down front, but the cats in the bleachers really dig it.” That was important to Ellington.

Ellington’s band was a Pan-African orchestra almost from the beginning. When his band begins in Washington, DC in 1918 many of the members had Southern roots. However, when he later brought his band to New York he drafted Juan Tizol, a Puerto-Rican-born trombonist. He also added another trombonist Joe ‘Tricky Sam” Nanton who was a New Yorker with both Caribbean and Garveyite roots. Years later Ellington would recruit Paul Gonsalves tenor saxophonist with Cape Verdean roots.

The late John Norris the co-founder of Coda magazine reminded me that New Orleans musicians were an important part of Ellington’s organization. In Ellington’s book, Music is My Mistress, he talks about soprano saxophonist. Sidney Bechet, Clarinetist/tenor saxophonist, Barney Bigard. Bassist Welman Braud and guitarist Lonnie Johnson all hailed from Louisiana. It must never be forgotten that Johnson lived the last part of his life in Toronto. “I have always felt indebted to him,” says Ellington, “because his guitar added a new luster to my adolescent orchestral attempts on the records we made in 1928.”
Ellington had a special relationship with Canada: His book includes a chapter on Toronto where he jokes about Local 149, AFM sending him a telegram stating, ‘IF’ YOU EVER PLAY A PROGRAM LIKE THAT AGAIN, WE ARE GOING TO TUNE YOU ON AGAIN”. Ellington’s band used to broadcast some of their performances over the radio and he once played other composers’ music and the Toronto posse hated it and let him know. He mentions the names of some of his Toronto friends like Jack Baker Robert Favreaux, Helen Oakley, Ron Anger and his mother Mrs Anger, Louis Applebaum, Norman Symonds, Gordon Delamont and Ron Collier.

Ellington recalled Collier conducted a recording session entitled “Duke Ellington, North of the Border”. This album has been digitally remastered by Attic Records. In addition to that, The Ron Collier’ Orchestra featuring Joe Sealy performed at the “Dett Does the Best of the Sacred Concerts”, where The Nathaniel Dett Chorale paid homage to Ellington on April 29, 1999. This 100th birthday of Ellington celebration was a wonderful experience. It is fitting that Canadians would remember Ellington.

While Ellington was ‘black and proud’ he was neither into Yankee Doodle Dandyism or African American chauvinism. He recognized other people’s rights to be themselves.  Ellington summed it up in these words ‘Canada has a character and a spirit of its own, which we should recognize and never take for granted.”



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