PORTRAITS DUKE ELLINGTON
Iíve been writing African music for 35 years, Duke Ellington said in 1966
on a visit to Senegal. Randy Weston has been playing and writing African
music for nearly as long.
To Duke this was just a simple statement needing no elaboration or
embellishment. But, for Randy, a strong advocate of African music,
culture, and history -an interest provoked by his Panamanian dad, Frank
Edward Weston- this is, even now, a profound revelation.
Duke's impact upon world music is simply outstanding. He named his band
the, "Jungle Band" in the early 20s. Duke wrote many songs about Africa
and about African people. But, he also wrote about calypso, about the
Caribbean, about Asia, he even wrote music for Shakespeare -Such Sweet
Thunder, based on characters from Shakespeare's plays -and he was a master
blues player. That's the foundation of our music. Through music Duke
Ellington wanted to show that the whole world was his.
Indeed, much of the music written and played by Duke Ellington and his
Orchestra reflected, in addition to his own personal experiences or that
of the Orchestra's musicians, the travel and audiences which were
privileged to hear them which included the Middle East, Africa, and the
Far East in 1963 at the request of the U.S. State Department, the branch
of U.S. government that is responsible for America's relations with other
countries. Duke's band's own tours of Europe and Japan followed. Duke
Traveled all over the world in the 1960s and 1970s delighting audiences
everywhere. Unwittingly, he became, like Louis Armstrong, one of America's
most effective ambassadors. Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, their music,
gained international love and respect.
I was listening to Ellington when I was nine or ten years old. I had no
idea, then, that somehow I would later be involved in playing Duke's
music. It was on the radio, you know, Take the A Train, Perdido, songs
like that and Black, Brown, and Beige, the story of Black people. All of
Duke's music had something relating to Black people in there somewhere.
But, he was so sophisticated nobody quite realized what a revolutionary
this man was.
For me personally, as a pianist, I discovered Ellington last, ironically.
My first influence was Count Basie, master of the blues with a unique
touch on the piano. Second, was Nat King Cole, a master of sheer beauty.
The third piano player who influenced me was one we called "God" - that
was Art Tatum. He was just simply a master piano virtuoso. His technique
was flawless and he was 80% blind! Then came Monk. Monk, again, was the
master of space, but mysticism and magic for me - different sounds. He
created sounds that weren't even on the piano. A real mystic.
Then after Monk, I discovered Duke Ellington. I was trying to play funny
things in between notes, trying to get sounds on the piano, but I hadn't
heard anybody do that yet until I heard Monk. Ellington had been doing it
all the while - before Monk, before me, before any of us. Duke in the 20s
was already doing this but he had his full orchestra and he was so
creative that it was hard to catch up to Ellington.
How I met Duke -I became very close to the Ellington family in the 70s -I
played at a reception for him. His sister, Ruth, had heard me play and she
wanted Duke to hear me.
Duke had done a concert at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York
Philharmonic Orchestra with his trio and they had a reception for him at
which I played the piano with a bass player named Peck Morrison.
We were playing. The room was crowded. I looked over and I saw Duke way in
a corner, he gave me this kind of look that said, "You're okay"
I met him. He heard my compositions and my music. Then, he wanted to form
a new publishing company with half of my compositions and half of his,
which was a tremendous honor. The other great honor was that he asked me
to do a recording for him. Eventually, this album was sold to Arista
Freedom records called, "Berkshire
Blues" I still have about 20 compositions with the Ellington
With Duke. I rediscovered Monk, rediscovered the piano, and rediscovered
myself. From him, I learned commitment. I also learned the importance of
the Blues. I learned that the world is one universe.
If we had more bandleaders today like Duke Ellington it would be a
different scene entirely; Randy insists, because he took great pride in
his people and he always projected that. He never left his people.
The worth of the Duke, his music, and his most valuable appendage, his
Orchestra, to Black or African musicians like Randy Weston, cannot be
Specifically while modern musicians struggle to find work, even
sporadically. Ellington kept his musicians working regularly. He paid them
even during times when they were not engaged in performance. Just as
importantly, the Duke brought to Black musicians, and particularly to
All-Black bands or orchestras, a respect, a prominence, and an elegance
that has never been equaled! The Duke Ellington Orchestra, which began in
the 1920s, is the only jazz orchestra that ever existed that has, to this
day, never disbanded, and nearly always worked 52 weeks a year, when Duke
Duke also understood the value of apprenticeship and very often hired
young geniuses, such as, Jimmy Blanton, a musical wizard who
revolutionized the way a bass is played forever, and Harry Carney, 17 when
he joined as a master of the deep-voiced baritone saxophone. Blanton was
just 18 when he joined Duke's Orchestra and died at 20 of tuberculosis.
Carney however, stayed with Ellington for 47 years until his friend and
leader's death on May 24th, 1974. The prolific
composer/arranger/bandleader also knew that by using such geniuses that
his over 2,000 compositions took on a new brilliance that would make them
- and him - immortal.
For me, Duke was so fantastic because not only was he great pianist, he
was a great composer/ arranger/bandleader and he was a great master of
being able to get this wonderful combination of talents together. Duke
Ellington is one of the first that I know of to write music according to
the musician, not according to the instrument.
In other words, like Harry Carney. he played baritone saxophone, but he
had a sound that was so unique. Duke would write music based upon Harry
Carney's sound. He'd write music based upon Johnny Hodges' alto sound
-very high, very beautiful. That's why they say that the Ellington
Orchestra is an extension of Ellingtonís fingers. When you hear the
orchestra you're really hearing that piano.
ABOUT THE MUSIC
Randy Weston has taken
Ellingtonís music a step further. Playing Ellington's songs with Randy
Weston, musicians Idris Muhammad, drummer; Eric Asante, African
percussionist, and virtuoso bassist, Jamil Nasser become an extension of
Randy's percussive style imbued with the omnipresent drum rhythms
characteristic of Randy's music. This tribute to Duke Ellington celebrates
the indelible African roots of jazz - of all music, regardless of how or
what it is labeled.
Caravan written by Duke Ellington and Juan Tzol reminds me of
Africa. The caravans would travel from Africa below the Sahara to Africa
north of the Sahara. Many things took place in caravans, the transport of
gold, salt, silver, even human beings; even slavery took place in
caravans. This piece features the talented and creative Ghanaian drummer,
Heaven is the Ellington genius of writing music about God. Duke was
very religious. He wrote many songs about God. I do this one as a piano
Sepia Panorama - again, Black, sepia. That was an expression for
Black people for a long time. It featured originally Jimmy Blanton, the
young bassist. It's a blues. Jamil Nasser is featured on this one.
Limbo Jazz is simply a calypso. Duke always had songs featuring things
from the Caribbean. This piece showcases the extraordinary musicianship of
Idris Muhammad. Idris is from New Orleans and he blends New Orleans style
drumming with the island rhythms.
C Jam Blues is a classic Ellington blues. And this is a piece that
we all used to play as kids because its so easy to play. Like my
composition, Hi-Fly, it's based on a simple rhythm.
Chromatic Love Affair was a very beautiful ballad originally
featuring saxophonist, Harry Carney. For me, Harry Carney and Cecil Payne
are the two greatest baritone saxophonists I ever heard. What chromatic
means is that each note is going up one half step each. There's a half
step between each note.
1989 by Randy Weston as told to Rhashidah E. McNeill