Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Duke Ellington: Maker Of American Music

The always elegant Ellington in a photo from the early years
Today marks the birthday of the legendary American musician, arranger, and composer, Duke Ellington (1899-1974). He was born in Washington, DC and spent his early career there while learning the trade. He wrote what he called "American music," a unique blend of his creative genius and elements of jazz, blues, classical, swing, bop, and popular song. Ellington appealed to a wide audience, but the appeal was compartmentalized and so broad that you would be hard pressed to find someone who liked everything he composed. I think the one element that unified his work was elegance. Early on, that came from his training as a pianist and was bolstered later by impressionistic classical influences. Also, much of that elegance came from his long-time association with the classically trained composer, arranger and pianist, Billy Strayhorn.

I discovered Ellington "late" most likely because I was immersed in his '40s sound at an early age and grew up thinking there was nothing new. That changed in 1968 when I began listening to the music of the British composer, Frederick Delius. His music left me spellbound. Delius's music is rich, melodic, and complex, so much so that it is considered some of the most difficult to realize in the classical catalog. As early as the 1880s, his compositions incorporated motifs and melodies from the songs of ex-slaves working on the orange plantations he managed along the St. Johns River in Florida. Those musical themes would appear frequently throughout his career.

Later, I learned that the impressionistic music by Delius had a deep influence on Ellington. In fact, Ellington eventually composed and recorded a tribute - In A Blue Summer Garden - to Delius. That was all I needed to move into an exploration of the Duke I did not know.

Listening to Ellington is akin to attending a lavish banquet featuring an array of fine courses, good wines and pleasant company. Very satisfying. For the past thirty years, it's been a joy to grow in the understanding and appreciation of Ellington as one of the nation's most innovative musical entertainers.

Here are two of Ellington's finest moments. The first one is universally recognized and comes from the orchestra near its peak in the early '40s. The second, from 1965, is lesser known , but still full of all the magic the master and his orchestra possessed.

Monday, April 7, 2014

NRO Tribute Captures Mickey Rooney Perfectly

Rooney in 1945

National Review publisher, Jack Fowler, captures the essence of Mickey Rooney's 84 year career in the American experience of our time, our parents' time, and their parents' time.  That's entertainment! Make 'em laugh, Mickey.