Monday, August 06, 2007

A Duke Named Ellington

A Duke Named Ellington
Council for Positive Images

In his youth, Edward Kennedy Ellington would play in the streets of Washington, D.C. as the former president Teddy Roosevelt sometimes looked on. Late in his life, Duke Ellington would befriend Pres. Nixon, then occupying the White House, who would award him the Medal of Freedom while hosting Duke’s seventieth birthday party. In between a very public life was lived by a very private person. Ellington was indeed an American master, so he was a fitting subject for the PBS series of the same name. Originally aired as an installment of Masters in 1988, A Duke Named Ellington is now available on DVD.

While Duke Named does cover the basics of Ellington's career, it is more concerned with his music, than simply stringing together a list of dates and places. While they do miss some important elements of the Ellington story, like his innovative use of Jimmy Blanton’s bass, the focus on the music serves their subject well, showing the confidence to include some performances in their entirety, like “The Opener,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Solitude.” In effect, filmmaker Terry Carter is content to let Ellington’s music speak for itself, as opposed to Ken Burns’ Jazz, which would show a short excerpt, and then cut to a talking head to tell viewers how brilliant it was.

Duke Named features extensive interview footage with band members including, Clark Terry, Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope, Louis Bellson, Cootie Williams, and vocalists Herb Jeffries, Alice Babs, and Adelaide Hall. (Leonard Feather serves as the designated commentator, which might be a drawback for some.) Most milestones in the Duke canon are covered, including the “Black Brown and Beige” suite, and “Creole Love Song,” featuring Hall, described as “the first wordless jazz vocal.”

Duke’s deep religious conviction is often overlooked, but Ellington’s Sacred Concerts are given their due here. Jeffries provides perspective, telling his interviewer: “he also, in my mind’s eye, was truly a very Godly human being.” Perhaps even less known were his ballet collaborations with Alvin Ailey. The River, commissioned by the American Ballet Theater is featured, and the music is certainly interesting, if the least Ellingtonian sounding in its brief clip, perhaps for the strings. (It would be fascinating to see the entire work released.) Another Ailey collaboration “Night Creature,” most definitely has that Ellington swing.

Duke sidemen repeatedly make the point that Ellington composed for the musician’s personality not their instruments. In fact, we get to know their personalities more than that of the maestro himself. This is not to fault the film, which makes an excellent case for Ellington’s genius. It is well put together by producer-director-narrator Terry Carter, perhaps best known as Col. Tigh on the original Battlestar (which should give it additional cred with sci-fi geeks out there).

Ellington, who moved so many with his music, still defies attempts to delve beneath the surface of his persona. He projected a suave, debonair image, while privately he was devout individual, dedicated to his mother and sister. The depth and extent of his work though, is still inspiring musicians and listeners. With its archival interview footage of Duke himself, his sidemen, and some excellent, uninterrupted performances of his band, Duke Named is a worthy introduction to an American genius.