Updated: Dec 5, 2020
In the summer of 1972, i found myself attending a 2 week music program at the University in Madison, Wisconsin. My drum teacher, Jim Latimer, a wonderful and inspiring man, had been giving me drum lessons at my mom's home just outside of Boston for several years. He got me playing to my favorite records as part of my formal lessons,a transformative experience for me...so different than the stale, rigid instruction i had recieved at school which nearly killed my enthusiasm... ...and now he felt it was time to kick things up a notch.
Jim was the first African American percussionist with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and now was a professor at UWis. He hooked me up with the program, which provided me an opportunity to expand beyond my usual boundaries as i approached my senior year in High School and prepped for my life in music. As part of that summer program, Jim arranged for a week long residency with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. There would be, among other things, master classes, and rehearsals for the concert finale featuring, classic Duke material, plus new music. And this was all part of the much larger festival he launched, featuring multiple Ellington concerts around Madison, a declaration by the Gov. Of Wisconsin of Duke Ellington Week, and more. I really didn't understand, at the time, that this celebratory event was a crowning moment in the already illustrious life of Mr. Ellington and his Orchestra. I was busy taking classes and only just awakening to what was swirling around me.
As Jim's student, i was invited to hang with the band, attend a small group masterclass with Duke's drummer, watch rehearsals, and more.
I remember sharing a cab ride with Leonard Feather, the noted jazz critic and historian. He had just published a book on Ellington, i still have a signed copy he gave me. Listening to him speak, i realized this whole jazz world was new to me: i was a kid from the suburbs rocking with the Beatles, Hendrix, Cream, jefferson Airplane,Led Zep, The Who. What did i know? But, i was open and receptive and eager to learn new things, plus I was already gravitating towards improvisational music, like the Grateful Dead. So, I didn't know a lot about jazz or Ellington but, i knew he was a much revered giant in music, and i recognized that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
(He in fact died just a few years later.)
I was impressed with Duke's music but also his graciousness and noble elegance, his kindness, and his leadership ability as a bandleader. He certainly was nice to me, this awkward, young, white hippie kid who was suddenly hanging around him and his band. Branches of the same tree of human expression. I remember being in his hotel suite once afternoon while he ate a meal from a beautifully set dining table, everything lush in the room, he in a smoking jacket, it was kinda like being in a movie from the '20's, or maybe at the Cotton Club. In the hallway after the show, an older woman came up to him to gush about seeing him years ago and about how tonight's show was so good... he was so nice to her, i am sure he couldn't remember the show she attended so long ago, and he was clearly exhausted, but he made he feel like a million bucks. It's just the way he was.
Seeing the Duke in action as a band leader was something, too. I rode on the bus with the band on the way to rehearsal. When we arrived, i watched them unload a seemingy endless number of music chartsout of the bowels of the bus, all boxed up and on dollies. Looking back, now, i realize that bus and those players with their instruments and music charts had many, many tales to tell of driving across America and the globe. It is so inspiring to me to realize that human beings could be so creative and lovable in the face of so much racial hatred, as the world evolved slowly and painfully into a better, more conscious and just and compassionate place in the 20th Century... ...and Duke was definitely an ambassador for peace and love and goodwill among all people ~
Inside the audirorium, the band set up on stage and began running thru the show, Duke zeroing in on weak spots to fix. I was sitting up in the audience, almost the only one there. At one point, Duke was clearly frustrated, and asked one of his sax players to sit out the session. Chastized, Paul Gonsalves sheepishly made his way up thru the darkness to take a seat...right near me!...he was totally drunk, could barely walk, and now he sat there, fingering his parts along with the band, quietly blowing his notes to make the best of it. Duke had handled this smoothly, there was no drama, no extra humiliation heaped on top of the necessity of being jettisoned from the session. I think Duke respected and valued him, and so, was quietly stern and professional... but, also sad. ( synchronicity: while i was driving around for lyft and pulling together my memories for this piece, who's music comes on the radio? ~ Paul Gonsalves...!) I learned later that Paul died of alcoholism soon after this Festival, which certainly added context and depth to what i had witnessed. Another dimension of band life, band leadership, and human tragedy right before my eyes.
One of the sweet spots of the week, for me, was when the concert finally happened and i got to see the entire band and show performance, after so much build up. Duke played many of his most famous classics, debuted a new peice written just for this very special occassion, and rocked the house with some new, original gospel music. Looking back, i understand that Duke was, by expressing a religious sentiment, prepping for his own departure from this earthly realm. And, it was coming soon... His song, Mood Indigo, especially touched me, and i remember the feeling , enhanced by purple stage lighting with bright, white highlights... it was like sugarplums, and very deep... the only other time i have experienced similar was when the Grateful Dead performed Stella Blue or China Doll. My world and the jazz world were not so far apart, it turned out, actually very alike in many respects, even as they differed aesthetically. And, The Greats are timeless ~
JAF 11-Jan- 2020