Duke Ellington - A Personal Reminiscence

Duke Ellington - A Personal Reminiscence

by Ron Sweetman
copyright © 1999 Ron Sweetman

In England, people name their houses. "Dunromin" and "The Nest" are favourites. When my wife and I bought our first house in 1964, there was no argument - we named it "Ellington House." When the Duke heard of this, he added us to his extensive Christmas card list, and those cards came every year, including 1974 - the year he died - when he insisted that his office send the cards out early; ours arrived the very day he died.

I bought my first Duke Ellington records almost by mistake. 1947 England was still on a war economy footing, and record stores paid 6 cents to people who returned records for recycling. Don't forget we're talking 78rpm's here, when a new record cost between 48 and 60 cents. The sympathetic owner of the record store in my hometown took pity on this poor schoolboy whose enthusiasm for this strange music grossly outmatched his financial resources. He offered to put aside all the used H.M.V. "Swing Music" and "Parlophone Rhythm Style" series recordings that came into the store, if I would guarantee to buy them all at 6 cents each. To get 6 cents, I had to work for one-and-one-half hours digging someone's garden, so I looked these gift horses closely in the teeth, subjecting them to the very strict criteria proposed by the 'purist' jazz writers of the time - today I think we'd call them fundamentalists. To these pundits, the only 'pure' jazz was a three-piece front line [of trumpet, clarinet and trombone] improvising freely over a four-piece rhythm section [of piano, banjo, bass and drums], and any deviation had to be immediately condemned as heresy. Ellington, with his big band, including the abominated saxophone and a deviant form of life called an 'arranger,' whose role was to thwart the free improvising frenzy of the 'pure' artists, was anathema. I regretted my deal with the record store, and my hard-earned 6 cents.

Having hypocritically thanked my benefactor and shelled out my earnings, I wondered what to do with these unwelcome purchases. Of course, I could take them around to another record store and recoup my money, but that blessed voice of temptation suggested "Why don't you take them home and play them, see what they're like, and then re-sell them?" To cut a long story short, I never re-sold a single Ellington disc, and those 78rpm records are on my shelves today more than fifty years later.

I moved to Paris in 1957, and a year or so later got to see and hear the Ellington Orchestra in the flesh. I recall in particular a concert in 1958 or 1959, I think at the Salle Pleyel, while John Kendall [of Dobell's notoriety] and Teresa [now married to John Chilton] were staying with me. We somehow got backstage, along with the local jazz fraternity, and Teresa took a celebratory photo of a group, including Harry Carney, Mezz Mezzrow and Hughes Panassie, which some of you will have received on my Christmas card some years back. I think that this was the first and only time that I asked the Duke for his autograph.

Later in the 'sixties, the Ellington Orchestra toured England. Because of my jazz writing and general jazz activism, I knew the agency that brought them in, and when they put extra seating on the stage of a concert hall, they knew to keep the two seats nearest Sam Woodyard's drum kit for Ron and Jennifer. From this vantage point I could take photos of the band, and Duke in particular, we could chat with Sam Woodyard, and I could recover his discarded drumsticks whenever he broke one. Our friendship, unhappily, did not survive our naming our pet rabbit "Sam Woodyard" after his habit of drumming on his cage floor, and the broken but historic drumsticks did not survive an over-zealous cleaning lady.

When we moved to Canada in 1969, we could not understand why the Ellington Orchestra did not play at the spiffy new Place des Arts in Montreal, but in the distinctly scruffy Esquire Show Bar, but there at least access to the band members was facilitated. We were yet to learn to cope with the innate racism in North American society, where the genius of a person such as Ellington could be obscured by the colour of his skin.

In 1974, I was driving out of Quebec City towards Valcartier when I heard on the car radio that the Duke had died. I pulled the car over and sat hunched over the wheel, recovering from the shock. I wondered what I could do or contribute from so far away, and an idea formed itself. When I got to my client in Valcartier, I rang my friend Jean-Pascal Souque, who hosted a jazz radio show at Laval University, told him the bad news, and said that if he'd be putting together a tribute program, my large Ellington collection was at his disposal. He invited me to put together the tribute program, and to put it out on his program the following week. So, the first radio program I put together was a Duke Ellington tribute, in French. When I started my own radio program in 1976 at Radio Carleton in Ottawa, the name of the program and the theme music was his "In A Mellow Tone."

The last time I saw and heard the Ellington Orchestra was in the early seventies when they played in a trade convention centre near to the Berri De Montigny bus station in Montreal. The hall had been cleared for dancing, and at the back of the hall, zinc baths filled with ice and beer bottles. Teenage girls plunged their hands into these icy depths to retrieve the beer bottles, which they opened with metal openers. Streaming cold bottles and numb hands made for difficult openings, and before long, not a hand was undamaged by either ice or opener. After the show, I went backstage, where the Duke was holding court in his dressing room. He was only superficially listening to the compliments of his courtiers. "Where are those beer girls?" he demanded, and shortly thereafter, the girls were ushered into the Ducal presence. "You poor dear young women" pronounced Duke in terms of real concern, "I watched you all evening hurting your hands serving that beer. Come here and let me kiss each one of your hands," and the line of girls shyly passed before the Duke, who caringly kissed each cold damp bruised hand.

Most Dukes inherit the title by accident of birth; Duke's natural aristocracy was apparent in everything he did.

Ron Sweetman - February 9, 1999

C o m m e n t s

Duke Ellngton Death 1 of 1
Kedric Green
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February 11, 04

I am doing a project on Duke Ellington and I needed to know where he died.

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