The Eastbourne Performance
Duke Ellington hated endings, as I’ve noted in previous entries. He dreaded his own mortality the most, as many of us do. In 1971, he was probably already suffering early symptoms of the cancer that would ultimately take his life. By 1973, those symptoms were ever-present. He tired easily. His legendary patience flagged. And on top of that, more of his longtime band mates had departed.
Despite all that, the Orchestra went on a grueling tour in the fall of 1973 to Ethiopia and Zambia, to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Spain, France, and Belgium, as well as to the United Kingdom. In London, he presented his third and final Sacred Concert. Haggard and pressed for time, he was overheard saying prior to that performance at Westminster Abbey that he had never felt so unprepared for a performance. Son Mercer Ellington commented that his father was never satisfied with it.
In addition to his declining health, Duke Ellington was also very troubled by the sudden and mysterious passing of his longtime friend and physician Dr. Arthur Logan, who fell to his death from a pedestrian bridge over the Henry Hudson Parkway. Mercer Ellington believed Dr. Logan had been driven to suicide because of debts he accrued with loan sharks. “I won’t live six months!” Ellington exclaimed after hearing the news while still on tour.
About a week after that tragedy, on December 1, 1973, the show went on in Eastbourne as the Orchestra’s final overseas tour wound down. The liner notes describe the men in the band as being in “high spirits,” perhaps having warmed themselves with various drinks after the snowy bus ride to their destination.
In terms of classic personnel, only Harry Carney and Russell Procope remained. Trumpeter Cootie Williams was still officially with the Orchestra, but ill health caused him to miss many dates during this long tour. Paul Gonsalves, the hero of the Newport Jazz Festival, as Duke announced him during the Togo Brava Suite concert, had sadly become unreliable and missed gigs, including this one. Ellington tolerated a lot from his cats, but absenteeism was one of the few unforgiveable sins. However, Gonsalves held such a special place in Duke’s heart, because of Newport, that he never fired him. Drug and alcohol abuse bedeviled the great tenor sax master; he would ultimately pass away exactly ten days before Ellington in May 1974.
The Piano Player played on, opening the set with a tune carrying that self-deprecating name for himself. Stanley Dance, again writing the liner notes for this recording, quoted “Fatha” Earl Hines as saying, “A lot of people didn’t realize how much piano [Ellington] could play.” True. I’ve always felt that Duke was highly underrated as a piano player. He accompanied brilliantly, sometimes providing the perfect snatch of music between choruses, and he soloed well, showing introspection and deep musical knowledge, as well as a deft sense of time.
Unlike on Togo Brava Suite, there are not a lot of new numbers in this collection. Other than perhaps “The Piano Player,” “New York, New York,” written in 1972, is the only tune that could be called contemporary. However, “Don’t You Know I Care,” written in 1944, received a revamped treatment in this recording, reflecting the “Continental” big band sound the Orchestra cultivated in the 60s and 70s. Geezil Minerve provides the solo on alto sax, at times sounding like his illustrious predecessor on that instrument, the late Johnny Hodges.
In the late 60s, Duke made the Vernon Duke, Ira Gershwin standard “I Can’t Get Started” part of the repertoire for the Orchestra. I have a recording of the tune featuring Paul Gonsalves as soloist. At Eastbourne, Harold Ashby provided the solo, playing in a lush meditative style, with a playful, up-tempo interlude. As Stanley Dance notes, he sounds a bit like former Ellingtonian Ben Webster, particularly during the slow parts.
An interesting way-back journey is “Pitter Panther Patter,” which Duke original wrote in 1940 to highlight bassist Jimmy Blanton. Because it is so closely associated with Jimmy, it was rarely performed after his tragic death at the age of 22 from tuberculosis in 1942. Other throwbacks include “Basin Street Blues” and “Tiger Rag,” numbers not normally associated with the Orchestra. “Tiger Rag” of course dates back to Duke’s youth.
These choices are interesting when one considers that Duke hated retrospectives, perhaps because they reminded him of endings. Earlier in 1973, a show was put together to celebrate Duke’s 50 years as a bandleader. He hated it. Former Orchestra members, including trumpeter and violinist Ray Nance, came for the event to participate, but were left waiting in the wings, never to be called on stage. Ellington rushed through old numbers, in a hurry to get the whole thing over with, it would seem. When asked by interviewers what his favorite composition was, he’d often reply, “The one I’ll write tomorrow.”
On this occasion, though, maybe the appreciative, receptive crowd in Eastbourne softened his attitude towards looking back. Maybe performing in the UK, the place of his first overseas triumph some 43 years earlier, caused him to reminisce in tempo. Though ever wanting to push forward, perhaps that evening he could not help thinking of the mountains he had already climbed, looking down and remembering sights along the way.
So Duke Ellington ended this final concert on his final overseas tour with “Meditation,” the dedication to himself. As Scott Yanow notes in his review on All Music Guide, “A fitting ending to a truly remarkable career.” The final chord to “Meditation” sounds unresolved, as if he were saying, yes, but. . . . Indeed, after the lush performance, the Maestro comes back to the mic to tease the audience:
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re encouraging us! We haven’t left here yet, you know. We may be here next week.”
This was how Duke Ellington ended his final recording, 49 years after his first. He has indeed returned, repeatedly, for many next weeks to come. Though he would pass away less than six months after this performance, as he feared he would when Dr. Logan died, his music has continued well into the 21st century. And like his predecessors Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy, his music will remain for many centuries more, so long as music plays a role in the life of humanity.
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.