In the 1930s Ellington’s orchestra became established as the greatest black band of its day.
This wonderful compilation – exclusively available here as in instant download – includes ‘Ko-Ko’; originally intended for an unfinished opera, it has been called ‘one of the monumental events in jazz music’.
“Only death could retire him” said Hentoff when Duke Ellington died in 1974, still composing, still thinking about music. More than 12,000 people attended his funeral.
When Miles Davis said, “I think all the musicians should get together on one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke”, he was voicing the jazz fraternity’s debt to Edward Kennedy Ellington, forever known as ‘Duke’. Unwittingly perhaps, Davis was also speaking for a wider constituency, the mass of listeners and enthusiasts who have been impressed or moved by Ellington’s extraordinary catalogue of musical achievement.
There can be few who will dispute Ellington’s claim to be one of the most significant composers of the twentieth century. He was indisputably among the most prolific, with something like 2,000 compositions to his credit, including hundreds of three minute instrumental pieces (like those heard on this collection), popular songs, large scale suites, and film scores. All were created against a backdrop of constant movement: in the band bus, on trains and planes, in hotels and recording studios, or around bandstands. Other composers may have enjoyed cloistered solitude in which to create their work; Ellington seems to have thrived on bustle and clamour, stimulated by daily contact with his audiences and surrounded by his sidemen, many of the jazz soloists of the highest calibre. However, he knew how to distance himself from distraction when he needed to – while his musicians were enjoying themselves after a performance, Duke would often retire to his room and write through the night.
Duke remained a bandleader throughout his active career, playing club engagements, appearing in films, making dance dates and theatre jobs, somehow finding the time and energy to write and arrange new work. Billy Strayhorn, his collaborator, once said, “the man is a constant revelation. He’s continually renewing himself through his music”. Duke himself always claimed that he enjoyed the chance to hear his new music played back to him by his own orchestra within hours (or minutes) of its composition. “You write it tonight and play it tomorrow, and that’s it”, he told writer Nat Hentoff.