Duke Ellington - piano, composer; Cootie Williams - trumpet; Frank Stone - trumpet; Money Johnson - trumpet; Al Rubin - trumpet; Cat Anderson - trumpet; Booty Wood - trombone; Julian Priester - trombone; Malcolm Taylor - bass trombone; Chuck Connors - bass trombone; Russell Procope - alto saxophone, clarinet; Johnny Hodges - alto saxophone; Norris Turney - tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute; Harold Ashby - tenor saxophone, clarinet; Paul Gonsalves - tenor saxophone; Harry Carney - clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone; Wild Bill Davis - organ; Joe Benjamin - bass; Rufus "Speedy" Jones - drums; Tony Watkins - vocals
To kick off the inaugural New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1970, impresario George Wein addressed the crowd at Municipal Auditorium: "This particular festival, along with the Newport Folk Festival, has moved me more than any festival I've been involved with. We've struck a chord here in the city, mostly with the performers and the artists. It's something that I think can really develop into one of the major festivals in the world." Indeed, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, now in its 42nd year, continues to be a preferred destination for music lovers all over country and throughout the world.
While the major headliners performed in Municipal Auditorium that first year of the festival, local gospel, blues, zydeco, cajun and jazz bands were showcased outdoors at Beauregard Square (renamed Congo Square the following year). Today the whole sprawling enterprise - 12 stages of music spanning a wide stylistic spectrum -- takes place at the Fair Grounds Racetrack and draws crowds upwards of 650,000 over two consecutive weekends. From it's humble beginnings - the inaugural festival drew small crowds and operated in the red - the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has grown to become one of the premier attractions on the international festival circuit.
The Ellington Orchestra kicks off it's New Orleans performance with a spirited reading of the Duke classic "C Jam Blues," which features some exuberant blowing from clarinetist Russell Procope, trumpeter Cootie Williams, tenor saxophonist Harold Ashby and trombonist Booty Wood. Trumpeter Williams is next featured on "Take the A Train." Ellington opens this Billy Strayhorn tune with an unusual waltz-time piano trio arrangement before segueing to the standard 4/4 swing vibe. The powerhouse horns kick in on the familiar theme and Williams leads the way with his loose, high-note trumpet solo.
"Blues for New Orleans" (one of the pieces from Ellington's New Orleans Suite, which George Wein had commissioned for this inaugural New Orleans Jazz Festival) is a laid back and earthy, organ-fueled showcase for some gospel-tinged testifying by alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, in one of his last performances with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (he passed away three weeks after this New Orleans Jazz Festival concert, on May 11, 1970). The great Hodges follows with an inspired, tender reading of Strayhorn's sublime ballad "Passion Flower" before leading the band through a swaggering rendition of Mercer Ellington's bouncy blues shuffle, "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." Hammond organist Wild Bill Davis is next featured on his own orchestral arrangement of Count Basie's "April in Paris," accompanied only by the rhythm tandem of bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Rufus "Speedy" Jones through the piece, until the horns kick in on the final jubilant chorus. Ellington sounds elated here as he twice calls the band back for "One more time!" in traditional Basie fashion. And he concludes the piece by giving the spotlight to a whirlwind Jones drum solo.
The three tenors -- Paul Gonzalvez, Norris Turney and Harold Ashby - battle it out on the uptempo burner "In Triplicate," which had been a highlight of Ellington's 70th birthday concert the previous year. Singer Tony Watkins then performs the easy swinging pop trifle "Making That Scene," an Ellington tune written for Tony Bennett and which would later appear on Duke's 1971 studio recording Togo Brava Suite on Denmark's Storyville label. Watkins then leads the band through a contemporary soul-jazz boogaloo, "Be Cool and Groovy for Me," which is strangely co-credited to Ellington, Cootie Williams and Tony Bennett and includes some hip spoken word rhymes by the rapping Duke. (Jazz critic David Hajdu called it "the worst song ever written by a great and important composer," and while it does smack of a 70-year-old trying to remain 'relevant' by picking up on the hippie flavor of the moment, it's more just some good-natured fun with a beat being played out on the bandstand). They close their New Orleans Jazz Festival set with a buoyantly swinging rendition of Ellington's classic "Satin Doll" that prominently features organist Wild Bill Davis. Duke bids the Municipal Auditorium adieu with his usual hipster farewell: "I don't have to tell you, one never snaps one's fingers on the beat. It's considered aggressive. Don't push it, just let it fall. And if you would like to be respectably hip, then at the same time tilt the left earlobe. Establish a state of nonchalance. And if you would like to be respectably cool, then tilt the left earlobe on the beat and snap the finger on the after beat. And then, you really don't care. And so by routine-ing one's finger snapping and choreographing one's earlobe tilting, one discovers that one can become as cool as one wishes to be. We want to remind you that you're very beautiful, very sweet, very gracious, very generous…and we love you madly."
One of the most famous names in jazz history, second only to Louis Armstrong, Edward Kennedy Ellington (aka Duke) was the most prolific composer and important bandleader for a span of over 50 years. 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 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 sacred 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 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. (Bill Milkowski)