Duke Ellington, Part I

By George Michaud

George MichaudAs my guests and I settled into our seats at the International Hilton Hotel’s vast lounge, decorated with windows and rooftops all built around the entire show-room giving you the impression as though you were sitting on one of those rooftops gazing down upon the town that one might see in Switzerland close to the Swiss Alps. In other words, the ambiance was just outstanding.

We were there, along with approximately 550 others awaiting the curtain to open and enjoy one of the giants in the entertainment industry. Duke Ellington nearly 100%, easy listening jazz, whose Star of Fame is located at 6535 Hollywood Boulevard between Wilcox and Hendrix Streets, very close to Hollywood and Vine where the famed Brown Derby was.

It was a rare thing to be able to see Duke Ellington in Las Vegas since he performed concerts all over the USA and other countries for decades. I had him booked at one of my concert venues following Buddy Rich and his Orchestra in the Anaheim area near Disneyland…I had had him booked a few months earlier in the San Fernando Valley area where I thought he would do great. As it turned out the seating was 750 seats and the moment we put tickets on sale we found that I could have easily booked him at the Hollywood Bowl and had filled it.

dukeThe lounges in Las Vegas were always headlining someone like an “Elvis” and the main lounge with another semi-big name to ensure traffic for the casino. The acts that might fill a main show-room would bring crowds but the younger the crowd the less would be spent by them on gambling. Now, if Frank Sinatra was the headliner he was known to fill the casino before each show and after each show with real gamblers. Streisand, Cher, Rickles, especially Johnny Carson brought in the high-rollers, as they called them. That’s one reason why new acts they brought in were for very short stays because the name of an artist could cost the casino lots of money and not bring in gamblers. On the other hand, two weeks with a Sinatra could make literally millions for the casino. Sinatra and Carson were the biggest draws of high-rollers.

Surprisingly enough Ellington did bring in some high rollers because of the age category his music catered to. Count Basie and his Orchestra who often times would be the orchestra that Sinatra would use to accompany him during his shows. Willard Alexander in New York also used the Basie Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and other venues because Sinatra loved his sound. Sinatra usually used his own conductor by the name of Castro. His first name escapes me at the moment but I may have it before I’m done with this week’s Part I of DUKE ELLINGTON.
Duke Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. and became one of America’s greatest bandleaders, conductors, composers, musician and songwriters of the 20th century. His main instrument was the piano. Unlike Oscar Peterson, Ellington did not go around the world doing concerts just a pianist, although he could have easily filled that bill. His name at birth was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.

The “Duke” was his own business manager. For example, when I made an agreement with him to appear at a venue I would have the contract already for him to sign and he always made sure that his son Mercer was present to learn the business how to handle these matters, what to do with the money, etc. After being all set with the deal, usually most artists, especially the bigger names would insist on 50% down and 50% before they begin the concert. Some are 25% down 30 days prior, 25% after the first show or concert and 25% at the end of the evening, all in cash. Only if we’d done business before would they accept Cashier’s Checks.

Ellington gained national prominence through his appearances at the famed “Cotton Club” in Harlem through the 1920’s. During the 1930’s he toured Europe for large amounts of money. The musical genre of jazz was not acceptable to “Duke”. He preferred “the category of just plain ole “American Music” in his own words when I asked
him. That was his reply for an ad in The L. A. Times. “Everyone labels me jazz, jazz, jazz. It’s American music”, he said, “But, call it what you wish, I just play it.”

During the Harlem Cotton Club days Ellington put together what was later labeled by music critics as The Ellington’s orchestra, without a doubt some of the finest players that could be found, and he put together the most “together and best known orchestral groups of musicians in the country.”  After being invited to the highly respected Newport Jazz Festival, Duke and his orchestra created the most successful career revival in modern times. After his passing, Ellington was a awarded a very special Pulitzer Prize for music in 1999.

Next week we’ll get to know more about one of the greatest jazz geniuses of our time, why his compositions are still standards even today and why he received so many honors. Believed it or not Ellington wrote one of his famous “fun songs”, as he called it “Soda Fountain Rag” during the time he worked as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe. It is sometimes referred to as “The Poodle Dog Rag”.

Another one of our American Treasures we shouldn’t ever forget. Sophisticated Ladies, you’ll find next week that this is only one of a thousand compositions this man wrote in his short 6 to 7 decades of activity.

Have a great week, and Stay Happy….

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