Duke Ellington - piano, composer
Russell Procope - clarinet
Paul Gonsalves - tenor sax
Harold Ashby - tenor sax
Percy Marion - tenor sax
Harold Minerve - alto sax
Harry Carney - baritone saxophone
Cootie Williams - trumpet
Johnny Coles - trumpet
Barry Lee Hall - trumpet
Mercer Ellington - trumpet
Money Johnson - trumpet
Jimmy Cleveland - trombone
Chuck Connors - trombone
Vince Prudente - trombone
Art Baron - trombone
Joe Benjamin - bass
Quentin White - drums
Anita Moore - vocals
The maestro was 74 years old at the time of this special "Jazz and Soul on the Island" concert that also featured Tito Puente, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin on the bill. Ellington would continue touring with his great orchestra, performing classic tunes from his timeless repertoire up until his death the following year, on May 24, 1974.
This edition of the Ellington Orchestra comes out strong with "C Jam Blues," a Duke staple written in 1942 that features a stellar clarinet solo at the dynamic peak of the tune by longtime band member Russell Procope. Next up is Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," a signature tune of the band since 1940. "A Train" is rendered here at the outset as an unusual waltz-time arrangement for piano trio before the full band kicks into the more familiar 4/4 theme that drives along with the momentum of a subway car traveling up to Harlem. Between songs, the ever-elegant Mr. Ellington says to the assembled jazz fans at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, "You're very beautiful, very sweet, very gracious, very generous, and all the kids in the band want you to know that we do love you madly." (Some of those 'kids' included 48-year-old Harold Ashby, 53-year-old Paul Gonsalves, 62-year-old Cootie Williams, 63-year-old Harry Carney and 65-year-old Russell Procope.)
A gorgeous rendition of "Sophisticated Lady" serves as a showpiece feature for Ellington's longtime baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, who had been with the band for 44 years at the time of this performance. Along with delivering the poignant melody in robust tones, Carey also delves into his signature circular breathing technique at the end of this familiar piece. Sadly, Carney too would pass away the following year, just four months after Ellington's death. The frantic uptempo romp "Up Jump" is a trumpet battle between Barry Lee Hall, who had just joined the Ellington aggregation a month before this concert, and Johnny Coles, a longtime trumpet star from the '40s who had spent time with the likes of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Earl Bostic, James Moody, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Ray Charles before joining Duke's band in 1971.
An easy swinging rendition of Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used To Be" highlights tenor saxophonist Harold Ashby. Then Duke introduces Houston vocalist Anita Moore, who opens with Duke's midtempo love letter to the Big Apple, "New York, New York" (not to be confused with the Kander and Ebb tune that later became associated with Frank Sinatra). The dynamic Ms. Moore then delivers "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" with more sass and decibels than this torch song is usually associated with before launching into a spirited scat showcase over a swinging blues refrain from the Ellington Orchestra. While cruising through a mellow rendition of "Satin Doll," Duke explains to the Nassau Coliseum crowd how to be respectfully cool while finger snapping ("One never snaps one's fingers on the beat, it's considered aggressive. Don't push it, just let it fall."). And for an encore, they jam on the raucous boogaloo "One More Time for the People," another showcase for vocalist Moore.
Ellington would only make two other recordings after this performance at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island - his Third Sacred Concert was recorded at Westminster Abbey in London on October 24, 1973 and his Eastbourne Performance was recorded live in England's Congress Theater on December 1, 1973. Within five months of that last command performance, the most prolific composer and important bandleader for a span of over 50 years would be gone.
The son of a White House butler, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 and grew up in comfortable surroundings. Beginning piano lessons at age seven, he was writing music by his teens, later dropping out of high school in 1917 to pursue a career in music. He was a member of a five-piece group called The Washingtonians, which relocated to New York in 1923 and took up residency in a Times Square venue called The Kentucky Club. The group made its first recordings in November 1924 and later came under Ellington's leadership, playing a raucous brand of jazz that was dubbed "jungle" style" and featured the growling trumpet work of James "Bubber" Miley (perhaps best exemplified on their 1927 recording, "East St. Louis Toodle-oo"). In the wake of the success of that single, the Ellington band took a job uptown at The Cotton Club in Harlem on December 4, 1927. Their residency at the famed club lasted more than three years and live radio broadcasts made Ellington a nationally known musician. In 1930, Ellington took his band to California to appear in the film Check and Double Check. During his absence, his spot at The Cotton Club was filled by Cab Calloway's big band.
By 1931, Ellington scored a Top Five hit with an instrumental version of one of his standards, "Mood Indigo" and the following year scored a Top Ten hit with "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," featuring the vocals of Ivie Anderson. He followed with a succession of hits in "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude" and "Reminiscing in Tempo."
In early 1939, a young composer-arranger-pianist from Pittsburgh named Billy Strayhorn joined the organization and became Ellington's composing partner and right-hand man. The subsequent addition of bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster fortified the ensemble. Their impact on Ellington's sound was so significant that this aggregation has been dubbed "the Blanton-Webster Band" by jazz historians. In the summer of 1941, this unit recorded Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," which became the band's theme song and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The Ellington band remained a powerhouse through the '40s, churning out such hits as "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me" and "I'm Beginning to See the Light." After experiencing something of a decline in the early '50s, the Ellington band made a major comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival on the strength of a dazzling performance on July 7 that featured a long, show-stopping solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalvez on "Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue." That historic performance, which essentially revived Ellington's career, led to him being featured on the cover of Time magazine on August 20 of that year and also resulted in him being signed to a new contract with Columbia Records, which released Ellington at Newport, the best-selling album of his career.
In 1959, Ellington scored the film Anatomy of a Murder and two years later was nominated for an Academy Award for his next score, Paris Blues. He released the first of his scared concerts in 1965 (performed at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on September 16), winning a 1966 Grammy for best original jazz composition for "In the Beginning, God." His 1967 album Far East Suite, inspired by a tour of the Middle and Far East, won the best instrumental jazz performance Grammy that year, and he took home his sixth Grammy in the same category in 1969 for And His Mother Called Him Bill, a tribute to Strayhorn, who had died in 1967. Ellington followed with such ambitious works as 1971's New Orleans Suite 1972's Togo Brava Suite and the posthumously-released The Ellington Suites.
Ellington continued to perform regularly with his orchestra up until he was overcome by illness in the spring of 1974. He died on May 24, 1974 at age 75. His son Mercer subsequently led the Ellington Orchestra until his own death in 1996.
In 1999, during celebrations of the Ellington centenary, he was hailed as one of the most important composers of the 20th century by scores of critics and historians. Today, the Duke Ellington Orchestra still tours, under the direction of Duke's grandson Paul Ellington. (Milkowski)