Duke Ellington: We Love You Madly

In “The Second Set” this week we are going to feature some of the music of the immortal Duke Ellington.

To use the phrase he himself used to describe really good performances, Duke Ellington was “Beyond Category.”

He was a distinguished composer.  Working on his own or with others in the band, he wrote or helped shape many of the tunes which have become classic standards: “Mood Indigo,” “Satin Doll,” “In a Mellow Tone,” “Do Nothing Til You Hear from Me,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Perdido,” “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” “Sophisticated Lady.”  He wrote well over a thousand songs.

He also led one of the most distinctive of the big bands.  Ellington had a knack for gathering individual stylists.  Some of them–Jimmy Blanton on bass, Bubber Miley on trumpet, Tricky Sam Nanton on trombone–influenced the way their instrument came to be played by other musicians.   Many of his musicians stayed with the band for a long time.  Harry Carney, baritone sax, was with Ellington for about 45 years.

These artists were great in their own right, but they worked together so well that their collective sound became the Ellington sound.  Some times Duke didn’t write out the individual parts of an arrangement, but let his artists find their own role.  And several of his songs were actually composed with a particular soloist in mind: “Concerto for Cootie” (which later became “Do Nothing Til You Hear from Me”) for the trumpeter Cootie Williams, “Jeep’s Blues” for Johnny Hodges.

When I was about 12, my parents took me to see Duke Ellington.  That was a lasting gift.  I still think of the leading alto sax of the incomparable Johnny Hodges.  

We also like to feature the songs associated with a particular singer in “The Second Set.”  This week we have picked Bobby Darin.

Like Ellington, Bobby Darin was both a composer and a performer.  It was a confusing time in music when Darin launched his career.  Musical tastes were changing.  There was soon to be a “British Invasion” (four young guys from England–can’t remember their name).  Consequently, Darin tried several different modes–rock, folk, standards.

He seems most interesting now in the way he took over the big band style and made a place for himself.  He did both standards and originals.  He had a very strong, contagious sense of the beat, and he drew strong responses from his audience.

His most famous record was “Mack the Knife.”  One of my own favorite songs, which I first heard when Eddie sang it, was on the flip side of that record: “Was There A Call For Me?”

I enjoy every song we play, everything we do.  But “The Second Set” is a special moment for me.  It reconnects me to my personal past and all of us to our common musical past.  And it gives us a chance to pay tribute where it is fully deserved.

Image Attribution Follows:

Photo by U.S. Embassy New Delhi

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