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Edward "Duke" Ellington
Edward "Duke" Ellington
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records largely came to an end, but unlike other big bandleaders, who disbanded as the swing era passed, Ellington, who predated the era, simply went on touring, augmenting his diminished road revenues with his songwriting royalties to keep his band afloat. In a musical climate in which jazz was veering away from popular music and toward bebop, and popular music was being dominated by singers, the Ellington band no longer had a place at the top of the business; but it kept working. And Ellington kept trying more extended pieces. In 1946, he teamed with lyricist John Latouche to write the music for the Broadway musical Beggar's Holiday, which opened on December 26 and ran 108 performances. And he wrote his first full-length background score for a feature film with 1950's The Asphalt Jungle.
The first half of the 1950s was a difficult period for Ellington, who suffered many personnel defections. (Some of those musicians returned later.) But the band made a major comeback at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956, when they kicked into a version of "Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue" that found saxophonist Paul Gonsalves taking a long, memorable solo. Ellington appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and he signed a new contract with Columbia Records, which released Ellington at Newport, the best-selling album of his career. Freed of the necessity of writing hits and spurred by the increased time available on the LP record, Ellington concentrated more on extended compositions for the rest of his career. His comeback as a live performer led to increased opportunities to tour, and in the fall of 1958 he undertook his first full-scale tour of Europe. For the rest of his life, he would be a busy world traveler.
Ellington appeared in and scored the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, and its soundtrack won him three of the newly instituted Grammy Awards, for best performance by a dance band, best musical composition of the year, and best soundtrack. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his next score, Paris Blues (1961). In August 1963, his stage work My People, a cavalcade of African-American history, was mounted in Chicago as part of the Century of Negro Progress Exposition.
Meanwhile, of course, he continued to lead his band in recordings and live performances. He switched from Columbia to Frank Sinatra's Reprise label (purchased by Warner Bros. Records) and made some pop-oriented records that dismayed his fans but indicated he had not given up on broad commercial aspirations. Nor had he abandoned his artistic aspirations, as the first of his series of sacred concerts, performed at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on September 16, 1965, indicated. And he still longed for a stage success, turning once again to Broadway with the musical Pousse-Café, which opened on March 18, 1966, but closed within days. Three months later, the Sinatra film Assault on a Queen, with an Ellington score, opened in movie houses around the country. (His final film score, for Change of Mind, appeared in 1969.)
Ellington became a Grammy favorite in his later years. He won a 1966 Grammy for best original jazz composition for "In the Beginning, God," part of his sacred concerts. His 1967 album Far East Suite, inspired by a tour of the Middle and Far East, won the best instrumental jazz performance Grammy that year, and he took home his sixth Grammy in the same category in 1969 for And His Mother Called Him Bill, a tribute to Strayhorn, who had died in 1967. "New Orleans Suite" earned another Grammy in the category in 1971, as did "Togo Brava Suite" in 1972, and the posthumous The Ellington Suites in 1976.
Ellington continued to perform regularly until he was overcome by illness in the spring of 1974, succumbing to lung cancer and pneumonia. His death did not end the band, which was taken over by his son Mercer, who led it until his own death in 1996, and then by a grandson. Meanwhile, Ellington finally enjoyed the stage hit he had always wanted when the revue Sophisticated Ladies, featuring his music, opened on Broadway on March 1, 1981, and ran 767 performances.
The many celebrations of the Ellington centenary in 1999 demonstrated that he continued to be regarded as the major composer of jazz. If that seemed something of an anomaly in a musical style that emphasizes spontaneous improvisation over written composition, Ellington was talented enough to overcome the oddity. He wrote primarily for his band, allowing his veteran players room to solo within his compositions, and as a result created a body of work that seemed likely to help jazz enter the academic and institutional realms, which was very much its direction at the end of the 20th century. In that sense, he foreshadowed the future of jazz and could lay claim to being one of its most influential practitioners.
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