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Traveling with 'The Duke': Scenes from a Legendary Life

Duke Ellington composing scores. Photo courtesy Bettman Archive.

A childhood friend nicknamed him "Duke" and Edward Kennedy Ellington lived up to that royal title. His personal air of grace and refinement comes across both in his music and his memoirs.

 

The sheer volume of Duke Ellington's lifetime musical output is remarkable. With 2,000 compositions to his credit he wrote hundreds of pop songs, jazz tunes, musical comedy scores for theater, and film scores for hit movies like Anatomy of a Murder. He composed three concerts of sacred music and several large-scale orchestral suites, including his Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.

 

Dick with Scores

Dick Hyman. Photo courtesy of the artist.

But many believe that he was at his best composing short, three-minute pieces tailor-made to fit the ten-inch record disc, the commercial standard of the era. From his early works like the 1927 recording of "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" and his 1930 hit "Mood Indigo" to later pieces, including the 1940 classic "Cotton Tail," Duke Ellington used the three-minute form mandated by the recording studio to create dynamic miniature works of art.

 

This week on Riverwalk Jazz The Jim Cullum Jazz Band and special guest Dick Hyman present a program of these jewel-like short jazz pieces from the Duke Ellington repertoire. And Broadway actor Vernel Bagneris brings to life scenes from Ellington's legendary life in first person accounts.

 

VernelTux

Vernel Bagneris. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Duke Ellington published his memoirs in Music is My Mistress. And in the 1970s jazz writer Stanley Dance collected more Ellington recollections in The World of Duke Ellington. Script material on this broadcast draws on excerpts from both publications. This excerpt is from Music is My Mistress:

 

"Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to none. To hear her speak, you can’t believe your ears. She is ten thousand years old. Yet, she is as modern as tomorrow, a brand new woman every day, and as endless as time mathematics. I look forward to her every gesture."

 

Photo credit for Home Page: Duke Ellington at work. photo courtesy finishmysong.com

 

 

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