Duke Ellington and Paris Part 1: Busy Winters

“I think this is the only band of its kind in the world… the equivalent to… a jazz festival that stays organised most of the time. Well, 52 weeks a year, anyway. We would do 53 weeks but there aren’t 53 weeks…”

— Duke Ellington, February 1963

Duke Ellington loved Paris à la folie.

The epitome of the 20th century man of the world, Ellington composed suites inspired by Latin America, Liberia, the Virgin Islands, New Orleans, Togoland, and the Far East. He wrote La Plus Belle Africaine and ‘Serenade to Sweden’. But none of these places was Paris.

Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography:

“My first trip… changed the way I looked at things forever… I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren’t prejudiced.”

American bands toured constantly in the ’50s and ’60s. More importantly, Paris was permanent home to many black musicians. The most notable were Bud Powell, Don Byas, and Kenny Clarke. (Dexter Gordon, Our Man In Paris according to his 1963 Blue Note LP, actually lived most of the time in Copenhagen.)

Duke Ellington never really lived anywhere. His organisation — the 14 cats in his famous orchestra and assorted entourage — was on the road with hardly a break for 50 years, in endless transit by bus or train or boat or jet-plane. Ellington thrived as a composer in this circus, working in Pullman cars or in the backseat of Harry Carney’s Imperial or in hotel suites in telephonic collaboration with Billy Strayhorn.

Why live this way, even when the band wasn’t turning a profit? Ellington once joked that he was happy to give the musicians all the money. “I just take the kicks,” he said. He had the luxury of a working orchestra on call. A new idea could be tried out on the bandstand within hours of conception. That was fortunate, because Ellington churned out new pieces. The hundreds of 78s and LPs released in his lifetime only document a fraction of the work. In later decades he would rent a studio at his own expense to tape new compositions for what he called “the stockpile”, an archive of private recordings that have been drip-fed to the public since Ellington’s death, gradually deepening our understanding of his scope.

In Paris, Ellington was a major celebrity. The city was more of a refuge for Billy Strayhorn, a quiet gay man who gave Ellington credit for much of his work. Strayhorn’s former lover Aaron Bridgers was the house pianist at the gay-friendly Mars Club on Rue Robert Estienne near the Champs-Elysées. Bridgers appeared as a pianist in the film Paris Blues (miming to Ellington or Strayhorn’s track). The Mars Club hosted Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Eartha Kitt, and many others. It was also visited by expatriate novelists James Baldwin, Irwin Shaw, and James Jones. When in town, Strayhorn sat in at the piano. He’d often remain in Paris during the band’s annual European tour.

Still, Paris was no utopia of racial peace. On 17 October 1961 — a few weeks after Paris Blues premiered in the USA — as many as 200 peaceful Algerian protestors were massacred by Paris police, some driven into the Seine. By that time Ellington was back in the US re-recording excerpts from his Paris Blues score for the stockpile (these versions were finally released in 1984 on the French five-LP set Duke: 56/62).

In the first installment of this two part feature, I’ll survey Ellington’s activities in Paris during the band’s busy European winter tours of the 1960s.


“Left Bank cafe

strolling the quays

watching the boats on the Seine

Come back again…”

— Billy Strayhorn and Harold Flender, lyrics to “Paris Blues”, 1961

Ellington and Strayhorn spent much of the winter of 1960-61 working in Paris on pre-production for Paris Blues. The film was directed by Martin Ritt, the script based on Harold Flender’s 1957 novel. The project so occupied Ellington and Strayhorn that the orchestra, as always on the payroll, was sent on a European tour with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges as nominal leader (see At Sportpalast, Berlin). The Paris work involved pre-recording performances to be mimed by the actors. Ellington’s hotel room was below Louis Armstrong’s. Ebony magazine reported that Duke was kept awake by Satch practicing his feature numbers “Battle Royale” and “Wild Man Moore”.

Krin Gabbard provides a superb account the film’s troubled history in his chapter “Paris Blues: Ellington, Armstrong, and Saying It With Music” from Uptown Conversation: the New Jazz Studies. During production the script was revised from an accurate depiction of the liberated Paris jazz scene (mixed race couplings, homosexuality) to a more conservative Hollywood narrative that actually derided jazz as an art form. According to Gabbard’s interview with producer Sam Shaw, Ellington was disappointed that the initial black-white romantic pairings of Sidney Poitier with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman with Diahann Carroll were discarded; this progressive depiction of inter-racial romance was the key reason Ellington wanted to be involved in the project.

The plot: Ram Bowen (Newman) and Eddie Cook (Portier) are expatriate musicians who play at a club called The Cave. Eddie is content to work within the jazz idiom. The humourless Ram aspires towards classical music. Ram asks the legendary “Wild Man” Moore (Louis Armstrong) for help. “Wild Man” sets up a meeting with René Bernard (André Luguet), a Nadia Boulanger type from the conservatory. Monsieur Bernard looks at Ram’s score and points out the distinction between “a jazz piece of certain charm and melody” and “an important piece of serious music”. Accepting this authoritative rejection, Ram is tempted to return to America with the tourist Lillian (Woodward) but ultimately decides to pursue his classical career in Paris.

It must have been a frustration to score a movie that tacitly endorsed Bernard’s conventional aesthetic view. Nobody had done more than Ellington and Strayhorn to establish the serious credentials of jazz. In any case, Ellington hated the restriction of labels like “jazz”. The highest praise he had for his own musicians was “beyond category”. Krin Gabbard points out the ways that Ellington and Strayhorn “engage in a dialogue with the film at a few critical moments”, subtly subverting the film’s aesthetic outlook with their music — not the least, I might add, in providing a score that is an important piece of serious music itself. In their background score, Ellington-Strayhorn adopt Eddie’s discarded suggestion that Ram’s “Paris Blues” theme from his classical work-in-progress be scored for oboe to avoid “heaviness”. The finalé drowns out Ram’s theme under a brassy big band cacophony. Jazz triumphs. Sort of.

For all its cowardice and conservatism, Paris Blues is a world away from the artifice of Funny Face (1957) and Irma La Douce (1963) by which contemporary Paris was represented to the wider American public. Christian Matras’s cinematography captures the wintry city with a cold monochrome precision. There is a great scene of Louis Armstrong invading the Cave for a jam session. But the film fails to tell the truth about the liberated jazz scene in Paris. This must have deeply disappointed Ellington and Strayhorn. Bertrand Tavernier’s ’Round Midnight (1986), starring Dexter Gordon, is the Paris Blues concept revisited and done right.

The complete Ellington-Strayhorn Paris Blues soundtrack has never been properly released. Approximately 50 minutes of background score — including the cues ‘Autumnal Suite’ and ‘Nite’, beautiful developments of the Paris Blues theme — was recorded in New York City in May 1961. An expanded reissue of the original LP is needed to make sense of this complicated, conflicted project.

Midnight in Paris

After the disappointment of Paris Blues, Ellington-Strayhorn resumed their Parisian romance with the Midnight in Paris album of 1962. Ellington recorded the tracks in New York City in January and June. Strayhorn plays piano on about half the titles.

This fine LP seems to have been packaged by Columbia Records for that era’s easy-listening dinner music market. Have you ever found Leo Chauliac’s Dinner at Maxim’s or Ray Tico’s Fiesta En Rio at a thrift shop? In the ’60s Ellington embraced all kinds of artistically dubious projects to keep the band afloat — a Mary Poppins LP, Duke at Tanglewood with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, sessions for Reader’s Digest. The sleeve of Midnight in Paris depicts a fantasy Paris strangely not at midnight but at dawn: a fountain in a haze of blue light.

There are no new compositions apart from the otherwise unreleased Strayhorn title track, a pretty slow-paced groove for the sax section and Duke’s minimalist piano. The LP contains new versions of two Paris Blues pieces: “Guitar Amour” and the “Paris Blues” theme. There are Ellington-ized French songs such as “Under Paris Skies” and “Comme Çi Comme Ça”. Jimmy Hamilton’s performance of Charles Trenet’s tender “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?” (“I Wish You Love”) is the highlight of the record.

It’s a shame the album is not currently available on CD.


The next winter in New York Ellington taped the excellent Afro-Bossa LP and a set of classic big band charts, then took the band back to Europe. As Jazz A&R director at Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records, Ellington was free to record at his own discretion. He recorded constantly. Even so, the feverish activity in Paris in early 1963 was pretty typical for the Duke.

On 31 January he took his full band to the (empty) Salle Wagram concert hall near the Arc de Triomphe for a collaboration with the Paris Symphony. They recorded the “Dazzling Creature” movement of Night Creature (a work from 1955), as well as a concerto grosso version of the 1950 Tone Parallel to Harlem. The next night there was a gig at the Olympia on Boulevard des Capucines in the ninth arrondissement. The band performed the bulk of what was released a decade later as The Great Paris Concert. It’s one of Ellington’s best live records, as important as The Complete Legendary Fargo Concert (1940) and Ellington at Newport (1956). This makes it one of the best big band albums ever.

The band’s line-up circa 1963 was more or less stable through the ’60s. Cootie Williams was back from 1962 after a 22-year break to complete the trumpet section of Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, and Roy Burrowes. On trombones Ellington had Lawrence Brown, Buster Cooper, and Chuck Connors. The woodwind section was unbeatable: Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, and Russell Procope. Ernie Shepard played bass and Sam Woodyard was the drummer.

The Great Paris Concert begins with the 1953/1930 pairing “Kinda Dukish”/”Rockin’ in Rhythm”. This medley was recorded dozens of times but never swings harder than here. For 24 bars we’re in a caravanserai as Jimmy Hamilton’s bluesy clarinet snake-charms over Duke’s syncopated comping and a trombone groove. It’s cartoon orientalism of the highest order. Cat Anderson blasts the finalé to shreds.

The Great Paris Concert works so well because it includes vintage Ellington charts as well as longer works. Johnny Hodges gets three features: “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “The Star Crossed Lovers” from Such Sweet Thunder, and “All of Me”. Cootie Williams performs both his classic “Concerto” of 1940 as well as a fine new “Tootie for Cootie”. The other new pieces are superb, too. There’s Ellington’s “gut bucket bolero”, called “Bula” before it was retroactively renamed the title track of Afro-Bossa. There’s the great theme from the short-lived 1961 TV series The Asphalt Jungle. The ambitious side of Ellington is represented by the full Suite Thursday from 1960 (inspired by the nearly eponymous Steinbeck novel) and the band version of the Tone Parallel to Harlem.

The band toured Western Europe through February (tracks from some of these concerts feature on a Pablo record called In The Uncommon Market). At various stops Ellington continued to contract local symphonies to record his long-prepared orchestral works — or if there was nothing at hand, something more spontaneous like La Scala, She Too Pretty To Be Blue. These jazz/classical hybrid pieces would eventually be released on The Symphonic Ellington LP.

By the 22nd Duke was back in Paris. Over the next few weeks he was involved in a spate of recording. Ellington invited Stéphane Grappelli and Svend Asmussen into Barclay studios to meet with his own star Ray Nance for a Jazz Violin Session. Another full band concert at the Olympia added the final tracks to The Great Paris Concert album and furnished another LP’s worth of live Greatest Hits. On the marathon night of the 24th Ellington produced an LP (A Morning In Paris) with the South African singer Sathima Bea Benjamin and supervised the first LP by her husband Abdullah Ibrahim (Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio). He’d met the couple on tour in Zurich. At the end of the month Ellington invited Swedish singer Alice Babs to Studio Hoche to record 15 tracks with a small ensemble. That album was later released as Serenade to Sweden.

It had been a busy tour. Most of these sessions were not released till years later.

Back in New York that April a reduced version of the band took part in another of Ellington’s self-funded recording sessions. Duke and Strayhorn each debuted a new tune apparently inspired by their recent Paris adventure and featuring Ray Nance on cornet. Ellington’s “Bloussons Noir”, named for the youth subculture in France (the Black Jackets), is a gentle blues chart led by Ernie Shepherd’s fluttering bassline. Strayhorn’s “Elysee” is a mid-tempo gallic dance melody with a close woodwind arrangement in a high register. After Nance’s introductory melody, Paul Gonsalves solos.

Typically, “Bloussons Noir” and “Elysee” were never revisited. Their first release came posthumously in 1986 on The Private Collection Vol. 7.

1965 and 1966

Much less known but an equal contender for the title of Duke’s Great Paris Concert is a two-CD set called En Concert Avec Europe 1. This recording is drawn from radio broadcasts from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in late January 1965. It’s a perfect compliment to the 1963 concert because it hardly duplicates material.

Once again ambitious works sit alongside the obligatory ’30s classics. The album contains the entire Black movement of Black, Brown and Beige (1943) as well as an early version of Ad Lib on Nippon. Harry Carney’s baritone sax features on ‘Sophisticated Lady’; circular breathing lets him extend his final note into eternity. Ray Nance blasts through “Perdido” with a quote from “The Donkey Serenade”.

On 25 February 1966 Ellington performed a solo piano concert at the opening of the restored Château de Goutelas in Loire in the south of France. He played New World A-Comin’. The experience was so inspiring that Ellington composed a Goutelas Suite, recorded in April of 1971 and released posthumously. The suite is a bit of a hodge-podge, but the movement “Something” is a major late period work, with its close ensemble writing for the flutes of Norris Turney and Harold Minerve.

Billy Strayhorn died on 31 May 1967. Ellington would continue to tour Paris almost annually. The French were ever-more rapturous in their adulation, awarding the Légion d’Honneur in 1973, a year before Ellington died.

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Read “Duke Ellington and Paris Part 2: An Interview with Laurent Mignard”, director of the Duke Orchestra in Paris. This world-class repertory big band performed a sell-out concert at the Alhambra Theatre in March 2011.