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When Duke Flirted With The Queen

Sep 9, 2013
Originally published on September 10, 2013 9:35 am

In 1958, at an arts festival in Yorkshire, Duke Ellington was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. They tied up the reception line for a few minutes, exchanging royal pleasantries; our Duke politely flirted with Her Majesty. Soon afterward, maybe that very night, Ellington outlined the movements of The Queen's Suite. He recorded it with his orchestra the following year, sent it to Her Majesty, and declined to release it to the public in his lifetime. It's not clear whether Queen Elizabeth has listened to it.

Ellington devoted special attention to The Queen's Suite, which in the end hewed closely to his original sketch. Its six episodes were inspired by natural phenomena encountered in his travels: bird calls of two continents ("Sunset and the Mocking Bird," featuring clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, was based on a bird call Ellington overheard in Florida), the Northern Lights seen from a Canadian roadside, and a ballet of hundreds of lightning bugs, accompanied by a chorus of bullfrogs, along the Ohio River. Ellington's alter ego Billy Strayhorn wasn't there that night, but composed "Lightning Bugs and Frogs" from Ellington's description.

The suites Duke Ellington wrote with Billy Strayhorn were sometimes loosely tied together. The Queen's Suite is unified by prominent use of clarinets, their woodiness reinforcing the nature theme. Ellington ties that back to his royal subject via the movement "Apes and Peacocks." Those were among the annual tributes bestowed on the Bible's King Solomon — natural wonders presented for a monarch's delight. It's on a new edition of The Ellington Suites, which has three of them.

The Goutelas Suite was recorded in 1971, after Strayhorn's passing. It commemorated a ceremony Ellington had participated in years earlier, in which the restored wing of a medieval chateau was unveiled in the French hills. In a journal, Ellington wrote warmly of how the countryside's aristocrats and commoners — its intellectuals, artisans and laborers, its Catholics and communists — had all banded together on the project. Ellington's orchestral concept was based on a similar idea, which he'd learned hanging around a D.C. pool hall as a kid: "All levels could and should mix."

The album The Ellington Suites also contains the Uwis Suite of 1972, composed for a University of Wisconsin festival. It's best remembered for Ellington's novelty polka, "Klop." But it also includes "Loco Madi," the last of the many train songs Ellington recorded, in a tradition that began with his inaugural session in 1924. A new edit gives us three more minutes before the fadeout. There's also a previously unreleased tune from the Uwis session, although not part of the suite; "The Kiss," like "Loco Madi," adds electric bass to the rhythm section. Neither of those performances is a model of ensemble polish. But all posthumous Ellington is of interest — even if it can't all be The Queen's Suite.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Throughout their working relationship, starting in the 1940s, Duke Ellington and his composing partner, Billy Strayhorn, collaborated on well over a dozen jazz suites for Duke's orchestra - sets of loosely related pieces to be performed together or separately. A new reissue brings together three suites Duke Ellington wrote with and without Strayhorn: "The Goutelas," "The Uwis, and "The Queen's Suite." Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "QUEEN'S SUITE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: In 1958, at an arts festival in Yorkshire, Duke Ellington was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. They tied up the reception line for a few minutes, exchanging royal pleasantries. Our Duke politely flirted with her majesty. Soon after, maybe that very night, Ellington outlined the movements of "The Queen's Suite." He recorded it with his orchestra the following year, sent it to her majesty, and declined to release it to the public in his lifetime. I'm not clear whether the queen has listened to it yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SUNSET AND THE MOCKINGBIRD")

WHITEHEAD: Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet for "Sunset and the Mockingbird," variations on a bird call Ellington once overheard in Florida. Duke devoted special attention to "The Queen's Suite," which, in the end, hewed closely to his original sketch. Its six episodes were inspired by natural phenomena encountered in his travels: bird calls of two continents, the Northern Lights seen from a Canadian roadside, and a ballet of hundreds of lightning bugs, accompanied by a chorus of bullfrogs along the Ohio River.

Duke's alter ego Billy Strayhorn wasn't there that night, but composed "Lightning Bugs and Frogs" from Ellington's description.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LIGHTNING BUGS AND FROGS")

WHITEHEAD: The suites Duke Ellington wrote with Billy Strayhorn were sometimes loosely tied together. "The Queen's Suite" is unified by prominent use of clarinets, their woodiness reinforcing the nature theme. Duke ties that back to his royal subject via the movement "Apes and Peacocks." Those were among the annual tributes bestowed on the Bible's King Solomon, natural wonders presented for a monarch's delight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "APES AND PEACOCKS")

WHITEHEAD: This regal music comes from a new edition of the album "The Ellington Suites," which has three of them. "The Goutelas Suite" was recorded in 1971, after Billy Strayhorn's passing. It commemorated a ceremony Duke had participated in years earlier, unveiling the restored wing of a medieval chateau in the French hills.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE GOUTELAS SUITE")

WHITEHEAD: In a journal, Ellington wrote warmly of how the countryside's aristocrats and commoners - intellectuals, artisans and laborers, Catholics and communists - had all banded together on the project. Ellington's orchestral concept was based on a similar idea, which he'd learned hanging around a D.C. pool hall as a kid. As he put it, all levels could and should mix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "UWIS SUITE")

WHITEHEAD: The album "The Ellington Suites" also includes the "Uwis Suite" of 1972, composed for a University of Wisconsin festival. It's best remembered for Ellington's novelty polka, "Klop." But it also includes "Loco Madi," the last of the many train songs Duke recorded, a tradition that began with his inaugural session in 1924.

A new edit gives us three more minutes before the fadeout. There's also a previously unreleased tune from the Uwis session, although not part of the suite. Like "Loco Madi," it adds electric bass to the rhythm section. Neither of these performances is a model of ensemble polish, but all posthumous Ellington is of interest, even if it can't all be "The Queen's Suite."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE QUEEN'S SUITE")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, DownBeat and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "The Ellington Suites" on the Original Jazz Classics label. You can follow our blog on Tumblr, where we have a couple of interviews our producer Ann Marie Baldonado just recorded at the Toronto International Film Festival with Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men" and Gia Coppola, Francis Ford's granddaughter. They both have new movies. That's at freshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.