Thanks for the memories, Duke Ellington

Thanks for the memories,  Duke Ellington. By Peter Burrows 3/5/15

Clark Terry died.  He was 94. The name doesn’t mean anything to most of you, but it does to anybody who played, or tried to play, a trumpet in the last 60 years or so.  Clark Terry was a great jazz trumpeter.

When I read of his death, what immediately popped into my mind was his great but brief solo on Duke Ellington’s Perdido, recorded way back in 1952:  The rapid staccato notes up and down the scale and then a burst of “pretty notes,” as Satchmo would say, that blended back into the orchestra’s theme. Great stuff.

I hadn’t played it in years, so I dug out my “Ellington Uptown” CD and sure enough, the solo hadn’t changed. (That’s a joke folks. I’m not THAT old.) Ever had times when a tune runs through your head for an hour or even longer?  Clark Terry’s little riff is in my head FOREVER.  Fine by me.

I couldn’t just play Perdido, so I relistened to “Take the A Train,” with Betty Roche’s terrific vocal, and “The Mooch” with it’s fantastic duets.  Oh Lord, Duke was such a treasure.

This got me to thinking of how lucky I am to be able to listen to something recorded over 60 years ago with such great fidelity.  My father couldn’t have listened to an Enrico Caruso aria of such quality, if at all, if he would have lived to my age.  Of course, it’s not just music from years ago that we can enjoy, but movies, too.  Some of those old ones are still pretty good. I especially like the Fred Astair, Ginger Rogers movies.

The downside of some of those old and not so old movies is age-shock, a term I just coined to describe how you feel when you watch Dirty Harry right after seeing Clint Eastwood on some news show talk about his latest movie. (Or, for that matter, when you watch yourself from years ago.  I’m trying to get my wife to throw out some old, old tapes from our curling years.  Once again, not something my parents could have done.)

Well, one memory led to another and I got to thinking about the first time I saw the Ellington orchestra live, and how, in some ways, race relations are worse today than 60 years ago.  The year was 1957 or ‘58, and the venue was some long forgotten dance hall between Chicago and Detroit. The big bands of the era would make a one night stand there as they over-nighted between the two cities.

My home town of Dowagiac was only an hour or so away, so four of us kids made the trip. (I remember the oldest looking buying a case of beer for the occasion. He was about 18. Legal was 21. Great fun.)

I still remember some things from that evening.  After a number, Duke would thank the audience for their applause with his great line, “Thank you, thank you, we love you all —madly.”  I also remember a little man playing the piano, who must have been the great Billy Strayhorn.  Especially memorable was the drum solo “Skin Deep,” where the entire band walked off the stage leaving the drummer all alone, pounding away.  After a few minutes, they wandered back in, casually picked up their instruments, put out their cigarettes and BAM! hit the opening note. Great theater.

One other memory that night brings me to today’s distressing political/racial environment. In particular, it is a common opinion amongst otherwise sane people that voter ID laws reflect white voters’ fears of losing their political power to “people of color” or some such nonsense.   One of my favorite professors over at WNMU, an Hispanic man, even made that statement at a forum last year.

I think this is very sad.  In my 75 years on earth as a white person, I believe I have spent maybe a billionth of a second worrying about white people losing political power. No, even less than that.  However, I got to thinking that I really don’t know what it’s like to experience life as a member of a racial minority.   I can sympathize, but I really can’t relate.

It outrages me that people would ever suffer from racial prejudice, from having different “packaging,” as Dr. Ben Carson would say.  You really can’t love music and be a bigoted moron.  There is no way you can tell the race or sex of a musician by listening to a CD.  Furthermore, some of the GREATEST jazz musicians were pure African, e.g. Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Duke’s fabulous baritone sax player, Harry Carney, and many, many others.

However, I do recall one instance in which I was a minority of one white in a crowd of black faces. It was at the aforementioned Duke Ellington one-nighter.  As was common at an Ellington dance hall performance, a crowd would form in front of the bandstand, centered on Duke’s piano. I was in the crowd that night, and, you guessed it, I looked around and was the only white person.

I wish I could relive that moment. I was in good company.

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