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Great Performances on PBS
... Suggested reading:
with Duke, produced by Oren Jacoby (The Irish in America, Benny Goodman:
King of Swing), is a rarity: a documentary that really swings. Jacoby flip-flops back
and forth between old black-and-white footage of Duke Ellington's band, and Wynton
Marsalis's modern Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, created to celebrate the 100th
anniversary of Ellington's birth. The songs, some of which are more than 60 years old,
sound as hip and danceable as they were in Duke Ellington's day. But Swingin' With Duke
is about more than just music. We are privileged to watch a 90 minute tribute to the man
who helped mold America's only true native art form.
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington is to many jazz musicians the absolute master, the man who, in Marsalis's words, "created the whole vocabulary for the jazz big band." He wrote more than 2,000 songs and left a catalogue of music that every musician comes to sooner or later. He is important not only in terms of his art, but also because he taught an entire generation of jazz performers "how to dress, how to look, how to present ourselves, and also how to play jazz. He was our leader." This last statement is made by legendary tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, an Ellington veteran, and still a standout in Marsalis's jazz orchestra.
There is a pleasing rhythm to this documentary: it swings, too. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which is currently touring the world with Marsalis, seems to have no weak points. Wynton Marsalis is arguably the best music teacher in America, and he would be so even if he weren't as erudite a scholar as he is. The man can play. He says nothing that he does not illustrate on his horn, and his band follows right along. Cyrus Chestnut on piano, Victor Goines on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, and Dianne Reeves, vocalist, are four of many who give expressive, soulful performances here. Reeves's version of Rocks In My Bed is wonderful, as well as both original and current versions of Sophisticated Lady and Take the A Train.
We get to see into the past: Ella Fitzgerald singing; Ben Webster growling and Johnny Hodges romancing their saxophones; Betty Roche, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney - people who were just sidemen with the Duke Ellington band, but became themselves noted names in the pantheon of jazz greats.
Above all, this is Duke's story. A black man living in a segregated era, he was born in Washington D.C., came to New York as a young man, and helped to define New York in terms in which it still sees itself. As Marsalis says: "The Duke loved the sidewalk, the street, the extreme interactions of many people. He hated grass. He loved New York." And New York loved him.
Once, shortly before Duke's death in 1974, I was riding on a crosstown bus in New York City, when the bus driver spotted Ellington walking slowly across 96th St. He stopped the bus dead in its tracks, in the middle of the crowded rush hour, and ran across the street to shake the man's hand. He wasn't alone. There were a crowd of people surrounding the Duke, small children and wizened old men, each wanting to share a few seconds in his presence. He handled it as only Duke Ellington could, with supreme grace and absolute cool.
Marsalis says Ellington was the codifier, "our Homer." He took what he saw around him and turned it into art. Along with a very few others, like the great improviser Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington helped create what we call jazz today. It is this legacy in which
the rest of the world rejoices, sometimes even more so than here in the Duke's home country.
Watch this beautiful documentary. You'll learn something and your toe will never stop tapping.