An early music man’s memories of Duke Ellington

A reminiscence by Joel Cohen of the Boston Camerata, exclusive to Slipped Disc:

 

I had the enormous good fortune of meeting Duke Ellington backstage at the Newport Jazz Festival, about an hour before his history-making set and the famous Paul Gonsalves solo. Ellington played his Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, Gonsalves took a long, long white-hot solo, the crowd went wild, and Ellington’s career was re-launched.

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I was a socially immature fourteen and I watched him charm into helplessness the middle-aged, Jewish-liberal lesbian lady whose charge I was. “Well, I could never have imagined,” said the Duke, “that my good friend Judge Handel had such an elegant, magnificently beautiful daughter.” He crooned this to her before offering me his signature on the Festival program book [How I wish, how I wish, I still had that book. There were autographs as well from Basie and Jimmy Rushing, who wrote “Thanks for asking,” and others].

Wide-eyed, I took all of this in and filed it away for future reflection.

I must have 15 Ellington CD’s in my collection, but oddly enough not the Newport concert. I think the near-riot in the audience must have scared me — I was only a little kid after all.

I guess along with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen, Ellington ties as the most powerful musical personality I ever managed to encounter. But neither of those two French worthies ever gave me a lesson in how to seduce a pretty woman.

I did not realize at that point in my life what an incredible privilege I was exercising. Ms. Handel was welcomed backstage, and greeted with affection, because her B and B was one of the few to lodge black musicians and to treat them with exactly the same dignity and respect as the white guests. The guests at her Bella Vista Lodge, where my family stayed, included pianist Hazel Scott, and the Basie drummer Sonny Payne, whose dynamism and rhythmic energy fascinated me.

The beautiful, elegant Ms. Scott, who was married to Harlem preacher/politician/power broker Adam Clayton Powell, confided to my mother that she preferred when on the road to go on Sunday mornings to Catholic mass rather than to a Protestant service, where she risked being turned away because of her color.

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  • Dear Joel, This is a wonderful reflection. To have met Ellington must have been a moment like yesterday for you. If you’re not busy on Sunday the 23rd in the early afternoon and can travel from Beantown to Providence, please let me know. I don’t have your contact information and apologize for bringing this to you here, but coincidentally, I am performing Ellington’s New World A-Coming (Ellington said ‘coming’ with a hard ‘g’) with the Brown University Orchestra at Brown since we are recording it this week and Saturday. Thanks to the brilliant and late jazz pianist, Sir Roland Hanna, I play his own cadenza which he improvised on his recording with Maurice Peress. I wrote it out and Sir Roland approved. It’s a beautiful composition. The jazz chords in Ellington’s music is profound and catches us by surprise. That you met him is a dream come true!

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