Duke Ellington’s Birthday

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.”

Ellington 115th # 1We 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.

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  1. Wayne Tucker says

    This is certainly one thing “Tricky Dick” did correctly. Gershwin was, and is, great, but The Duke was, and is, the Beethoven of American music. Happy Birthday, Duke…

    • Jim Brown says

      I’ve always seen Bach, who if he had lived in the 20th century would certainly have been a jazz musician, and can be perceived as a jazz musician in the context of his own time, as the musical giant who is the closest parallel to Duke. Both were among the most prolific of composers (more than one composition a week during their adult lives), both wrote for the individual players who would perform their music, and Bach even wrote very differently for the acoustics of the very different spaces where each piece would be performed.

  2. Charlton Price says

    Small brag: I guested with a Palestinian DJ friend on an FM station in Ramallah — to celebrate the Ellington centennial (1999). The show was heard all over Israel, the occupied West Bank, the virtually blockaded Gaza Strip, and — on car radios — in Amman, Jordan..

  3. John Bartholomew says

    Edward K. was indeed an elegant man, with a band full of lover/magicians, disguised as musicians.

  4. says

    Hi there, Duke —

    Thanks for all the beautiful sounds from Ellingtonia, your musical land of love … as I’ve found out: All your work is almost exclusively about the mystery of love.

    That’s why I’ve dedicated my first article in “My Year Of Ellington” to this, your eternal theme:

    — You will live forever!

  5. Don Conner says

    Wonderful posting. For once Nixon seemed almost presidential, but outranked in all facets of life by the Duke.

  6. says

    Absolutely thrilling to watch and listen to!

    Especially moving was the always elegant and eloquent Duke citing the “Four Freedoms” after accepting the Freedom Medal from President Nixon!

    In the 1930 movie, Duke’s band not only swung the “businessman’s bounce” but went on to a brilliant toe-tapper with Cootie and the brass section workin’ their magic with the hats!

    I actually had the immense pleasure of playing with Duke’s band at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. I was invited to sit in the section between Cat Anderson and Cootie and play the entire evening!
    It was an audition of a kind since the band wanted to replace one of the trumpet players who will remain nameless. Duke was known to not only keep the same musicians for decades but also unwilling to fire a musician.
    Well, needless to say, I had a ball, with Cat and Cootie encouraging me to not try to follow the music which was decrepit from age, tobacco stains, etc. They just kept saying “just listen and play harmony to what you hear us doing”‘
    One of the highlights of the evening was when these legends gave me a nod of approval after I soloed!

    Typically, it took Duke over two years to fire the trumpet player that I was to replace!

    Many thanks to Irv Kratka from Music Minus One for steering me to this site!

    Bob Zottola

    Naples, Florida May 1, 2014