Duke Ellington: 5 Essential Performances (To Celebrate His 114th Birthday)

Five defining performances to celebrate the 114th anniversary of the jazz great's birth

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American big band leader and legendary jazz composer Duke Ellington on arrival at Heathrow Airport, London, on Nov. 26, 1969

To call Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington inimitable is to actually downplay his mythic role in world culture, as no American figure — be he from the realm of jazz or any other musical idiom — has ever matched his spectacular and ceaseless creativity. Born 114 years ago this week, Ellington was a composer, arranger, bandleader and pianist whose omnivorous talent saw little let up from his artistic maturity in the late 1920s until his death in May of 1974. There was no one remotely like him during his lifetime and there has been no one to challenge his status since.

You can spend a lifetime exploring Ellington’s music — between official recordings and informally captured performances there are thousands of hours of what has come to be called Ellingtonia — and it would be a worthy and joyous existence. For those who are unfamiliar with this musical titan here is a tip-of-the-iceberg overview of highlights from his extraordinary career.

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”   If the Swing Era of the 1930s and ’40s had a theme song it was this rousing number. This 1943 performance features a mere handful of the brilliant soloists (listen for trombonist “Tricky Sam” Nanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster) who made their names with the Ellington Orchestra. Over a decade after the song was originally recorded, it could still get the band jumping.

“Take the ‘A’ Train”   Ellington’s actual theme song, played every night by his big band, was written by his longtime musical partner Billy Strayhorn and initially recorded in 1941. In this scaled-down trio performance, we get a chance to appreciate Ellington’s utterly personal and often overlooked approach to the piano.

Live, 1958  The 1950s generally saw the big bands on the wane, but from the evidence of this 1958 live concert, no one had informed Ellington. In fact, two years earlier, Duke had revitalized his career at a historic, tumultuous performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. Among the Ellington Orchestra stalwarts to be heard here are trumpeter Cootie Williams, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney who literally gave his entire musical life to Duke, staying with the maestro from 1927 to his death just weeks before the Duke’s passing.

“Isfahan”  Ellington was a master of mood and atmosphere who could turn the most fleeting of impressions into indelible musical grandeur. This 1960s gem (co-written with Strayhorn) displays this uncanny talent as well as his brilliant utilization of individual instrumental voices to embody a melody; in this case, the majestic alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, another mainstay who spent the majority of his life in Ellington’s band.

“In a Sentimental Mood”  Ellington composed or collaborated in the writing of hundreds of pieces, among them such popular songs as “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good”), “Solitude,” “Mood Indigo” and “Satin Doll.” This superb version of his ballad, “In a Sentimental Mood,” finds Ellington collaborating with the iconic saxophonist John Coltrane three decades after the song was first recorded. That the grand old man of jazz and the youthful innovator could make such beautiful music together was little surprise to anyone who appreciated Ellington’s scope as a visionary musician.

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