As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly
Ellington in Private
by Irving Townsend
DUKE ELLINGTON and I faced each other alone for the first time in a tent in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1956. He was waiting go on stage to play at George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival. It was an appearance that Ellington had his doubts about, and with good reason; an appearance important to him, and therefore one for which he had carefully prepared. He had not been drawing large audiences. The lucrative college dates had been going to the Brubeck Quartet, Miles Davis, and Erroll Garner. The Basie band was riding high. The jazz impressario Norman Granz, Duke believed, was ignoring him in favor of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Even George Wein was not sure enough of Ellington's drawing power to make him the star attraction.
Ellington the composer was also in limbo. His best writing was, according to his ever-present critics, fifteen years behind him, and he was reminded of it wherever he went. All anybody wanted to hear was "Sophisticated Lady" and "Mood Indigo." Jazz writers reminisced in print about the old band. They lamented the loss of Cootie Williams and "Tricky Sam"; of Barney Bigard and Lawrence Brown; of Ben Webster. They blasted the pyrotechnics of Cat Anderson and the trifles Ellington called his latest compositions.
Also, and unfortunately for me since I represented Columbia Records, Ellington was not feeling kindly toward record companies. His years of hits during the big-band days were long gone. His last Columbia contract had produced neither sales nor distinguished albums, and record executives sought only new versions of the same old tunes. He was anxious to record Night Creature, a work written and scored for a symphony orchestra and the Ellington band, but the project was too expensive. No record company wanted Ellington plus a hundred men playing music "out of his category," which, of course, was jazz.
But there was reason to hope for better things. Ellington at fifty-seven had survived the collapse of the rest of the bands by being willing to accept low prices, by accepting all one-nighters. Staying home did not appeal to him, and he was writing every day. Johnny Hodges had returned to the sax section, and Duke, sitting opposite me in that dressing tent, was willing to listen to my proposal: a three-year contract at regular royalties with a thousand-dollar advance for each recorded side. That, like all advances, appealed to him. One record session would meet the band payroll for a week, and there had been too many weeks recently when Duke had met the payroll of the highest-paid band anywhere out of money he made as a writer and publisher of his own music. Also, long experience with the vagaries of record royalty statements had convinced Ellington to get all he could in front. "But my loot comes from publishing," he reminded me. "We have to make new things. Don't talk to me 'bout no 'Sophisticated Lady.'"
I agreed. I shared the opinion of Columbia's Goddard Lieberson that it was a record company's responsibility to introduce and to preserve new music. My boss had been financing a distinguished series of music by contemporary American composers out of the profits of Mitch Miller's hits. These hits could also pay for the new music of Ellington, who, I happened to believe, was the greatest of American composers. "What have you got in mind?" I asked.
I heard the warning tromp of Harry Carney's foot on the platform above us, then two beats and the opening of Ellington's theme, "Take The 'A' Train," muffled by the folds of canvas around us. Duke lit a cigarette. "Did you know," he asked me, "that a drum is a woman?"
"'A' Train" was building. I knew Duke would walk across the stage only at the final, extended chord, precisely late as always. I knew that if I did not have his agreement before that chord, I might not see him alone again for weeks. "Is that the first album?" I asked. I was not going to take his bait.
He laughed. His laugh was an explosive crack, nasal and slightly suggestive, followed by a swallowed afterlaugh. "Man, that's not only the first album, that's the mother of all albums. That's the story of Madam Zajj."
The band blew on. "'A' Train" was entering its endless ending. Ellington stood up. "Madam Zajj," he stretched the words. "She was always a lady, you know, but she was also a drum."
"Do we have a deal?" I asked as he turned toward the stage.
"Record companies don't like me," Duke warned. "Are you sure you won't get fired?"
I assured him I wouldn't.
"See you in New York next week," he called, disappearing through the tent flap.
I remained in the tent, listening to the soft purr of Ellington's traditional greeting to his audience, the credit to Billy Strayhorn as the composer of "'A' Train," the assurance that he loved them all madly, the modesty joke as he called upon "the piano player" for the next number, "Satin Doll." I had no doubts about the success of my deal with Duke. Nor did I have a suspicion that both his life and mine were about to change dramatically. Before Ellington left Newport he was to introduce a new suite, written and named for the festival, including a section in which tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves was to play one hundred and twenty-eight choruses that would cause a near riot in the audience and would give Duke his first best-selling album. And I did not realize that Duke was about to begin a decade in which he would write more new and more widely acclaimed music than he had in years, would win a worldwide audience and receive more honors than had ever before been bestowed upon an American composer. I did not realize either that I was to be a part of that decade of Ellington.
THE recording and editing of Ellington's A Drum Is A Woman took up most of three months, a period which established my relationship with Duke and made possible a fairly intimate knowledge of this fascinating and complex man. I learned about Ellington in a trial by fire, in night after night of working until dawn; and although we were to be associated in many other projects, and to be friends ever after, those first months were never surpassed for concentrated study of the paradoxes that made up Duke Ellington.
I learned quickly that Ellington had a passion for privacy. I soon understood that he revealed small parts of himself to many different people, thereby satisfying his need to be close to what he called his family, while at the same time denying a complete and too revealing portrait of the whole man to any one person. It would take a convention of Ellington friends and relatives, pooling their knowledge of him, to put Ellington together, and even then, like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, he would emerge with patches of empty space in crucial places.
And it did not take long to understand his pride. He did not underestimate himself and realized, of course, that nobody else did either. He could relish the turning of understatement into Ellingtonian exaggeration when he referred to himself as "the piano player." He alternated between the royal "we," the modest "we," and the plural "we" with ease, and often in the same sentence. He was fond of cliche, but only his own, and even the dialects of his conversation were polished.
A Drum Is A Woman is one of Ellington's most complicated fantasies. It is also one of his most self-revealing works. It is an allegory paralleling the history of jazz, as he described it, in which an elaborately fabricated drum is turned into a very sophisticated lady who travels from Africa to the Caribbean to New Orleans to New York City and finally to the moon, meeting in each place a simple man always named Joe, and touching him with her spell before leaving him for the next Joe. The idea was first suggested by Duke to Orson Welles in 1941, set aside, but never forgotten. One explanation of Ellington's prolific output is that he never abandoned an idea just because nobody reacted favorably to it. Only time kept all his dreams from being realized, and there was never enough of that. He used to tell me about a ballet idea he had involving an ex-beautician from Harlem who became the queen of a West Indian island. She dazzled her subjects by changing the color of the ocean around them as often as she had once changed the colors of her customers' hair. The story had every Ellington element in it.
To understand and to work with Ellington, it was essential to understand the members of his band, who were, like all who were close to Duke, extensions of himself. Each to Ellington was a sound in the mosaic of his music. Each, in an odd way, personified a part of the total Ellington personality. The longer I knew Duke, the more convinced I became that he needed many bodies, many separated minds and fingers, to reveal himself. This multibodied personality was most apparent in the Ellington-Strayhorn unity. Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's only co-writer, was a classically educated musician, small in stature, quiet in his ways, shunning the spotlight and the grand manner. He was both antithesis and metaphor to Ellington. He knew Ellington's mind so well that he could and often did compose sections of the same suite, sections indistinguishable from Ellington's contributions. Yet I was intrigued by the musical difference between them. To me, Strayhorn expressed the feminine side of Ellington. There is a delicately blended mixture of male and female in all of us, and in the music they created together Ellington and Strayhorn completed this balance.
Duke Ellington's beginning our association with his story of jazz was surprising to me. Ellington by the mid-fifties had been winning jazz polls for years, had been so firmly categorized by critics and the businessmen of music that the very word jazz angered him. As Whitney Balliett has observed, Ellington's music was "based squarely on the rhythms and harmonies and structures of jazz." and certainly Duke was proud that he and jazz had had similar origins, just as he was always most comfortable in music when his band settled down to a cooking beat and the shared excitement of improvisation. I do not believe he fought jazz as music, or as a musical cage in which he felt himself to be trapped. The music represented qualities of freedom, of humor, and of invention exemplified in his own work. He often left jazz behind, just as he left Harlem for the cities of the world, but he was never ashamed to be home again.
Ellington fought the word jazz because it had come to represent an economic ghetto for musical minorities, and Ellington had had his share of discrimination. When his band played Las Vegas in the fifties, they were not allowed to enter the casino whose stage they graced. When they played Miami Beach, they could not stay in the hotel that hired them. In music all categories are restrictive, but for much of Ellington's career jazz was surrounded by economic and even social walls. He used to introduce his trumpet player, Clark Terry as "a musician beyond category." Each time he said the words he was silently including himself.
A Drum Is A Woman is Ellington's "parallel" of jazz, written, composed, narrated, and performed by a man who saw himself as the one "Joe" that Madam Zajj could not leave behind. To the end of his life he thought of Drum as one of his supreme achievements.
ELLINGTON got his first break as a bandleader at the Cotton Club audition. He arrived late by mistake. But the boss who was to hire a band that day also arrived late; too late, in fact, to hear Ellington's competitor for the job. Duke's band was hired, and Duke was never late accidentally again. Afterwards he timed his lateness, and turned it into a performance as polished and climactic as his music.
At the first recording session for A Drum Is A Woman, I was introduced to this Ellington style. As the hour for the recording approached, one man, Harry Carney, was in his chair in the sax section. Carney's place in the Ellington hierarchy was second to none, but Harry just could not be late. During the next hour Russell Procope, another veteran with a penchant for promptness, arrived to sit beside Carney. John Sanders, the conscientious librarian for the band, passed out new music, and Sam Woodyard wandered idly through the studio looking for his drums.
During the first two hours of the allotted three-hour session, while the engineer and I sat in the control room wondering if we would ever begin, the band arrived one at a time. The last sideman to sit down was Johnny Hodges, the highest-paid member of the band. The group, now in place, began to complain loudly about wasting all night just sitting around. At that moment Ellington walked into the room, stopping to kiss his female visitors, chatting with everybody as he worked his way slowly toward the piano. Then, with a bow toward the control room, he asked, "Am I late? Oh, dear. What time is it anyway?" He never wore a watch.
Ellington's formula for avoiding anger was as carefully considered and studiously followed as his pattern for lateness. He told me once how to avoid the corrosive effects of dispute. "Never talk to anybody on the telephone unless you're lying flat on your back in the bed." Over the years I often witnessed strong provocation for Ellington outrage, but rarely did I see him angry. There was the time, for instance, when a member of the band quit and took the entire first-trumpet book with him, a loss that would have put the average band out of business and sent its leader off to a rest home. Duke simply faked it until a new book could be prepared.
While we were recording a new version of his "Happy-Go-Lucky Local" in a Hollywood studio, he mentioned that the piece had been stolen, re-titled, and turned into a well-known hit by another musician. "You can sue for every cent of royalties," I reminded him. He turned to me and said, "We must be flattered and just go write something better."
But anger could flare up in Ellington. When, on rare occasions, a band member arrived for an Ellington date later than he did, Duke was furious. We were in his suite at the Warwick Hotel in New York City one afternoon when his publicist, Joe Morgen, arrived with a copy of one of the now defunct picture magazines in which there was a feature article by a reporter who had discovered that Duke's legal wife, from whom he had long been separated, was living in Washington, D.C. Ellington took one look at the caption and the photographs, then stared silently at the traffic on Sixth Avenue. This was a penetration of his privacy. I have never seen him so angry.
Ellington heard the advice of many, listened to the advice of few, took almost nobody's. Before his appearance at one of the Monterey Jazz Festivals, West Coast counterpart of the Newport Jazz Festival, Jimmy Lyons, who coordinated the nightly programs, entered the Ellington bus to discuss Duke's part of the nightly program. Lyons had one favor to ask: that Duke not include his now famous Newport Festival Suite in the Monterey program. Any reference to Newport, Lyons felt, was unnecessary on his competitive stage. Ellington listened, made no comment while he continued to choose his wardrobe from his traveling closet. No sooner had the last sounds of "'A' Train" faded into the gathering fog, however, than Duke announced as his opening number a section of the Newport Suite. Whether it was petulance, or good programming, or just Ellington, the message to Monterey's master of ceremonies was clear.
Duke used strange methods for disciplining his band of unruly stars. I never heard him fire anybody. He tolerated the intolerable from his musicians, both because he respected their right to exercise their idiosyncrasies as he did, and because confrontation was bad for his digestion. He reserved his anger for those outside his circle, and that anger, while durable, was seldom explosive. It arose always from what he considered to be unjust treatment of himself and those he was fond of, and the subjects of his rages were always out of sight. His way of punishing a band member for an infraction of his almost nonexistent regulations, or for any deviation from the normal casual behavior, was typically oblique. He would call upon the culprit to stand for endless solos (I have watched Duke keep Paul Gonsalves or Hodges or Cootie thus in front of the band), calling out every number that featured him, meanwhile lavishing high praise upon him, encouraging calls of "Encore!" from the audience over the breathless protests of the victim. It was punishment indeed.
DURING one of the long nights of editing Drum, a subject came up in our conversation that revealed a side of Ellington I had never known before. "You're a lucky man," he said, "because you have a family." That was also the night Duke told me he included me in his family, a flattering announcement that took me a long while to understand.
Duke Ellington was seldom alone except in bed, and not always there. Yet he was the most solitary and secretive man I ever knew. His prescription for privacy was as elaborate as every other precept for his peace of mind. He surrounded himself with what he referred to as circles of family. One of the innermost circles was made up of his son, Mercer, his sister, Ruth, and their families, who were his only relatives. Close friends, such as Billy Strayhorn and Arthur Logan, Duke's doctor, formed another inner circle, as did members of his band and their wives. As the series of concentric circles widened, they included Ellington's oldest friends around the world, fans, other musicians, mistresses and old girl friends, a few business associates: all very special people to Duke. But he not only carefully separated these circles from one another, he separated the segments of each circle, so that each of us who was included somewhere in his revolving family shared with him an exclusive part of his life. Rarely were even his closest friends gathered with him at the same time. Seldom have I seen his relatives together in one room.
An example of Duke's separated relationships was his strange treatment of a woman who undoubtedly saw more of him than any other in the last half of his life. He called her Evie, and often introduced her in my presence as Mrs. Ellington. She shared his only permanent address, a West Side apartment in New York City, and while never married to him, Evie performed many of the duties of a wife even though she was never seen with Ellington in public.
And Evie, a dark-haired, handsome woman, a former dancer with a dancer's long legs and grace of movement, not only remained in an almost impenetrable background, but was completely separated from the rest of Duke's family. When he was in New York, she drove him to his appointments in the black Cadillac he had given her, her prized possession. She joined us for late-night "breakfasts" in the Hickory House on Fifty-second Street, sitting quietly beside Ellington, seldom joining the conversation. Most of the time Evie lived alone, because most of the time Ellington lived in hotel rooms around the world. But I saw Evie often during these lonely periods, and came to understand both how much she loved him and how painfully insecure she felt her position in his life to be.
Then there was Arthur Logan, a distinguished Harlem surgeon and civic leader, who was much more than a doctor to Duke. He never missed a recording session and would sit with his attractive wife, Marion, on the sidelines until all hours of the night, somehow managing to appear in his clinic at eight every morning. Arthur was the doctor for the entire Ellington band, and included me among his patients, but it was to Duke that he gave his time and his devotion. Ellington, who appeared to many to lead a life which defied all the rules for good health, was in fact scrupulously cautious about taking care of himself. He traveled with an overnight bag filled with various pills and medications; usually spent half of each day in bed, although it was always the half when everybody else was up; and called Arthur Logan from every city to ask, "How do I feel?" Logan could usually reassure him, for, as Arthur often told me, Duke was a medical marvel, with the physique of a man half his age.
The sudden death of Arthur Logan in a fall from a bridge over New York's West Side Highway in 1973 was one of the greatest losses Ellington had to sustain. To the end of his life he had the best medical care the doctors of the world could offer, but Arthur Logan was an indispensable segment of one of Duke's closest family circles.
ELLINGTON'S relationship to his band was a carefully orchestrated affair. He spent at least three or four hours a day on the bandstand, and the rest of each day in the same city with his fifteen or more traveling companions. But he never stayed in the same hotel with them for Ellington at ease was Ellington once removed. The band members could always find him. On the other hand, there were occasions when he could not find the band.
Among band members Harry Carney was closest to Duke, not only because he had been with the band longer than anyone else, but because it was Harry who drove Duke from city to city, who sat beside him in Carney's big Chrysler during those special hours of Ellington's day, the hours between two A.M. and dawn, when Duke did his most creative thinking. Carney, whose baritone saxophone was the foundation of the Ellington band, served as a rocklike presence for Ellington on the road. Duke, who would not fly until finally he had to, who would not ride in the band bus where he would be vulnerable to every complaint, sat beside Carney through the night, watching the road map, confident of Carney's driving and of his silent friendship.
Duke's family was also separated geographically. There was no large city, no small town in the country where an old friend or an old girl or both did not wait for the next one-night visit. These friendships too were for life, but they suited Ellington best because they were renewed, enjoyed, and suspended again, usually within a twenty-four-hour period. The secret of Duke's security was constant movement. He never owned a house. A thousand hotel rooms, a thousand room-service waiters ready to push his breakfast table in on cue, a thousand loyal friends waiting to handle any local problems he might have: these made up the Ellington menage. Except for daily calls to Billy Strayhorn or to Arthur Logan or to his sister, Ellington was out of town to most of his friends and family.
Still, I believe Duke Ellington was the most sentimental family man I have known. He kept in touch with all of us and never lost one of us. Each came to understand, as months and even years divided our reunions, that our place in his family was secure. We also knew that every now and then the phone would ring between six P.M. and six A.M. A dark, sleepy voice would say, "Good morning. Did I wake you? I'm so sorry. What time is it anyway? What's happening?"
Duke was back. Our day with him began.
A few months before Duke's sixtieth birthday, Arthur Logan called me to a meeting with himself and Billy Strayhorn. Arthur felt that something special should be done for the occasion. Ellington birthdays were always reasons for celebration, and always the celebration was encouraged by Duke himself, who sent out birthday cards to hundreds of friends. It was one more Ellington paradox that while he refused to recognize his own mortality, he loved birthdays. Arthur had an idea for this special birthday, and he needed our help.
Logan was horrified by the state of Ellington's music files. Much that Duke had written, even as recently as A Drum Is A Woman, was either lost or had never been properly written down. It was Arthur's idea that the three of us should spend the months before April 29, Duke's birth date, gathering up everything ever written by him, making clean copies of it, and presenting to Ellington a complete set of Ellington in bound volumes.
It sounded like a fine idea. We considered it not only a unique gift for a man who owned only his music and his wardrobe, but also a valuable contribution to future Ellington archives. But, as Billy pointed out, a lot of the original manuscripts had been lost. They would have to be taken down from records still in the hands of collectors. Also, much of the music Duke had written over the years never did have lead sheets, single-note copies of his melodies. All the scraps and bits and remembered themes must be taken down again. It was a prodigious job.
We hired John Sanders, trombonist and copyist for the band, later to become the only Ellington alumnus to enter the priesthood, and certainly one of the best-equipped members of that body to deal with the frailties of his fellow man. We swore Sanders to secrecy, set to work gathering the product of more than thirty years, and patted ourselves on the back.
The final stack of leather-bound volumes was impressive. I could not be present on the night in Logan's apartment when the presentation was to be made by Arthur and Billy, so I waited anxiously for Arthur's call the following day.
"He was impressed," Logan told me on the phone. "He made polite noises and kissed us all," he continued, his words coming more slowly, "but, you know, the son of a bitch didn't even bother to take it home."
So much for Duke Ellington's interest in his yesterdays.
The agenda of complexities of this twentieth-century genius is long and frustrating to any student of Ellington, particularly because Duke seemed such a public man and was in fact such a private one. Suave, well-mannered, literate, elegant, all these he was. Secretive, vain, suspicious, superstitious he was also. Perhaps the right word to describe my relationship with him is "parallel." a word Ellington liked to describe his own relationship with the world he moved through. And he and his friends moved together, never quite touching, never far apart.
Copyright © 1975 by Irving Townsend. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1975; "Ellington in Private"; Volume 235, No. 5; pages 78-83.
Permission to post online granted by J.N. Townsend Publishing, Exeter, NH, publishers of Irving Townsend's Separate Lifetimes and The Less Expensive Spread.