Today is the 115th anniversary of the birth of Duke Ellington, whose standing among the world’s great figures in music grows with each passing year. Miles Davis long ago summed up Ellington’s importance when he said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.”
We see Ellington on the left at a 70th birthday gala in Paris in November of 1969. Seven months after the anniversary he was still being feted at celebrations around the world. The most notable of the parties was on April 29 at the White House. Leonard Garment and Charles McWhorter of the White House Staff and Willis Conover of the Voice of America persuaded President Richard Nixon to honor Ellington by throwing a party and awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The United States Information Agency, disbanded in the 1990s by the Clinton administration, made a short documentary about the affair. Evidently, only a snippet of the film is available. It is invaluable as a reminder of the occasion and of the bond between Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Conover put together the band for the tribute concert. Below you see its members rehearsing in the East Room the afternoon of the party, April 29, 1969. From left to right: Hank Jones, Jim Hall, Milt Hinton, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Louie Bellson, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, Bill Berry, Urbie Green. Guest artists included Dave Brubeck, Billy Taylor, Earl Hines and the singers Joe Williams and Mary Mayo.
Excerpts from my notes for the album of the evening’s music that finally came out in 2002:
Sitting behind Ellington, I heard him remark to Cab Calloway as Hinton appeared, ‘Look, there’s your bass player.’ Hinton hadn’t been in Calloway’s band for twenty years. When Desmond did a perfect Johnny Hodges impression during ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,’ Ellington sat bolt upright and looked astonished, a reaction that pleased Desmond when I decribed it.
Urged onto the platform, Ellington improvised an instant composition inspired, he said, by ‘a name, something very gentle and graceful—something like ‘Pat.’ The piece was full of serenity and the wizardry of Ellington’s harmonies. Mrs. Nixon, who looked distracted through much of the evening, paid close attention. The host and his wife turned in, but he invited us to stay for dancing and a jam session…The party lasted until 2:45 a.m.
As he left, Ellington said, ‘It was lovely.’ At 8:00 a.m. he and his band were off to an engagement in Oklahoma City. For Duke, it was back to business as usual but, as Whitney Balliet wrote in The New Yorker, the maestro ‘was finally given his due by his country.’
Addendum: Ellington’s motion picture career started early. Here’s the band in the 1930 film Check and Double Check.
Duke Ellington & his Orch.: Arthur Whetsol, Freddie Jenkins, Cootie Williams (t) Joe Nanton, Juan Tizol (tb) Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney (reeds) Duke Ellington (p) Fred Guy (bj) Wellman Braud (b) Sonny Greer (d) & The Rhythm Boys—Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, Harry Barris.