[27 February 2006]
I find it appropriate that most of my memories and associations of Duke Ellington, often revered as the greatest composer and bandleader in jazz, seldom relate to the man himself. In terms of signature compositions, I think of “Take the A Train,” a composition by his main songwriting partner Billy Strayhorn. In terms of memorable recordings, I best remember the La Mirada Community College Jazz Band’s rip-roaring rendition of “Cottontail,” mostly because that was the first time I heard Duke’s music in recorded form. And in terms of notable performances, tenorman Paul Gonsalves’ stunning 27 choruses still make my eyes well. Yet, everything that I have learned about the man himself tells me he wouldn’t have it any other way. For all the apparent regality surrounding Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, he surrendered the “I” in favor of the “we.” His signature concert send-off, “We love you madly,” summed up his nature: giving to the whole.
More appropriate then that two public television films documenting the man in the twilight of his years would best capture his essence. These two Emmy-nominated works, Love You Madly and A Concert of Sacred Music at Grace Cathedral, first aired in 1965, but have finally been issued as one DVD. With the help of celebrated music critic and Ellington aficionado Ralph J. Gleason and in cooperation with public television networks KQED and NET, Love You Madly and A Concert of Sacred Music at Grace Cathedral, the films take a casual behind-the-scenes look at Ellington and capture his group’s famous performance at the San Francisco church, respectively. Both obviously contain performance highlights, but they encapsulate Ellington by framing the man not through himself or through gads of screen-time, but through his actions and his music.
In the liner notes, Ashley Kahn accurately calls Love You Madly a part of a “long-overdue valentine from Ralph to Duke.” Loosely based around a series of conversations between the two, the film nonchalantly captures the many facets of Ellington’s character by capturing him in action. As composer, he runs through the stories behind writing a smidgen of his 3,000-plus compositions, as well as working out compositions in front of the camera. As performer, he proves why he was, as Dizzy Gillespie said, one of the best compers as he drives his band on at San Francisco’s Basin Street West club. As producer, he sits patiently with musicians in the studio to work out parts before retiring to the booth to take the whole picture in. As gentleman, he charms an audience of sophisticated ladies by leading them through a lesson on effective finger snapping and how to “attain a state of nonchalance.” And, finally, as bandleader, he plays puppet-master guiding the band through all material imaginable, from standards (“Jeep’s Blues,” upon audience request) to the brand new (“Impressions of the Far East” is introduced as a piece inspired by the group’s tour of said “neighborhood”). Taken as a whole, Ellington’s seemingly “clairvoyant, clair-audient, omnipotent and omniscient” gift for juggling the gargantuan responsibilities becomes clear. While longtime fans will no doubt relish the material—candid moments like Duke reading his lyrics to “Love Came” over a demo reel of Strayhorn’s piano is positively sublime—the footage emphasizes actions over ideas, making the film accessible to a broader audience.
That such phenomenal feats are presented in such a casual manner can be attributed to the unobtrusive style of the film. Consisting of long shots of performers, spare edits and few glamour frames/close-ups, the film keeps its subject—the music!—at central focus. When the camera breaks from the musicians, it often captures the music’s context, be it within a club or at a festival. Ladies who lunch under the canopy of their wide-brim hats, men who comb their long hair, SNCC posters and posh hotels make up the backdrop, subtly making clear the social changes brewing about. However, the film follows Ellington as he glides through club dates, moments for composition, interviews, once-in-a-lifetime performances, recording sessions and festival dates, an embodiment of his own idea of “organized chaos.” With laconic grace, vulnerable humor and a band to illustrate any idea he puts forth, he demonstrates a pure love for his craft.
If Love You Madly captures Ellington the artist in a day-in-the-life-type snapshot, then A Concert of Sacred Music at Grace Cathedral captures Ellington’s art on one day of his life, 16 September 1965. The film contains the premier performance of his Grammy Award-winning “Concert of Sacred Music” within one of San Francisco’s most famous edifices. The massive, Gothic structure in the posh Nob Hill neighborhood and seat of the Episcopal Bishop of California had been damaged in the city’s 1906 earthquake, but reopened in 1964. In celebration, the year-long Festivals of Grace was planned, which subsequently brought in Martin Luther King, Jr., a theatrical production of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Lalo Schifrin and a 68-member chorus and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, among others. Such a progressive program could perhaps be attributed to the church’s leaders. Dean of the Cathedral C. Julian Bartlett was a native of New Orleans who loved jazz and Reverend John S. Yaryan proposed the Duke’s invitation. Yaryan himself approached Ellington backstage after a concert in 1962, but two years passed before Ellington finally agreed, thus setting off a litany of responses in the press and even making the pages of Time. The hesitance perhaps stemmed more from awe over such a humbling request, as Ellington notes in Love You Madly that the offer made him feel “eligible.”
The film forgoes much of this pre-show hoopla and spectacle in favor of documenting solely the performance, which is a highlight in itself. A combination of older and newer compositions, the program revisits Ellington’s works like the overture to “Black, Brown and Beige” and “New World A-Comin’”; show tunes like “Ain’t But the One” and “David Danced Before the Lord” (from My People); and newer works like “Come Sunday” and the centerpiece “In the Beginning, God,” a fifteen-minute performance that features Jon Hendricks (of vocal trio Hendricks, Lambert and Ross), trumpeter Cat Anderson, Gonsalves and a choir. Viewers will find plenty to laud: Johnny Hodges’ time-stopping solo on “Come Sunday,” which contrasts well with Esther Marrow’s powerful reprise in the second half of the concert; Hendricks’ rap about the true New World in “In the Beginning, God”, “No birds, no bees, no Beatles”; Gonsalves trading his trusty blue wail with a choir reciting Biblical names—never before has “Deuteronomy” sounded so hip; Duke demonstrating his tremendous sense of texture and emotion on his solo turn, “New World A-Comin’”; and, of course, Bunny Briggs driving the band to the beat of his taps while Hendricks scats through “David Dance Before the Lord.” Taken in context, the concert is a holistic composite of Ellington’s work: mature, sophisticated and soulful.
The commercial availability of these two films actually deviates from my Ellingtonian experience, in that they receive strong endorsements from the artist himself. Hardly one to overstate importance, in his autobiographyMusic is My Mistress
, he calls Love You Madly “the best film about Duke Ellington ever made”, while at the Sacred Concert show’s end, he concludes, “I’m sure that this is the most important statement we’ve ever made.” Nevertheless, in true Ellingtonian fashion, both films give more than they demand. What better way to show them how you love so?