Jazz pianist and composer Billy Taylor's career has spanned five decades and included more than two dozen albums. He has played with jazz legends including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson, Morgana King and Billie Holiday. In his spare time, he is a music contributor to CBS News Sunday Morning.
Now, in a first-person narrative, he shares one of his most cherished experiences: his friendship with jazz legend Duke Ellington. Taylor's segment on Ellington airs on CBS News Sunday Morning on April 25.
Duke Ellington was my friend and mentor. To me, he was the greatest composer of the 20th century. No other musician has so thoroughly left a mark on American music. Duke Ellington is what American music is all about.
A native of Washington, D.C., Ellington moved to Harlem in the 1920s and caught the public's fancy with his dance band.
Jazz critic Nat Hentoff first met Duke Ellington in the 1940s. "I used to go to the dances, and I didn't dance, but my chin was on the bandstand," Hentoff remembers. "And he told me once that he liked to play the dances. I mean sure, he liked the concert hall prestige and all. But he said, 'You know, we're playing a dance and I can hear a soft sigh in the audience as Johnny Hodges plays a balladÂ…That sigh becomes part of our music.' I mean, the guy was always alert."
As Duke told Edward R. Murrow, "I would say that we try to capture the natural sounds of just the people, that's all."
Ellington wrote music nearly every day of his life.
"There are 200,000 pages of material, half of that unpublished music," says John Edward Hasse.
Hasse is curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institutio and author of an acclaimed Ellington biography.
"Here is an arrangement of Take the A Train, which was written by Ellington's longtime collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, in 1941," says Hasse. "This has both Ellington's hand first nine measures, and Strayhorn's hand …and you see how they personalized the music."
What made the Ellington Orchestra so distinctive from all others was Duke's ability to blend the completely different sounds of his star players into a cohesive and attractive mix.
Billy Strayhorn mastered Ellington's style so well that even members of the orchestra had difficulty telling who wrote what.
A man who hated to hurry, Ellington led a life on the move, traveling 10 million miles and giving 20,000 performances in his 50 years as a bandleader. But Ellington, always elegant, loved the limelight.
Off-stage, Ellington was a private man. Few really got to know him.
"Well, he wasn't what you would call a regular grandfather type of guy," says granddaughter Mercedes Ellington.
Mercedes, daughter of Duke's son, Mercer, is a dancer and choreographer. "We think that he had a very private life. I don't think that I was very aware of that private side of him. I know that we had a certain relationship and he was concerned with me and my career. You know sometimes I'd get a phone call four o'clock in the morning from the other side of the world. And he just wanted to say hello."
Duke Ellington had a special fondness for women., "and especially the women in his family," Mercedes remembers. "I mean, he had a certain way of talking to people. And it didn't really limit itself to women. But you will understand that anybody today who ever spoke with Duke Ellington, they have a completely personal feeling of how Duke Ellington was to them."
He was one of the most honored people in American music. I was there when he was given a medal by the president of the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"Here is one of my favorite artifacts in the Ellington collection, the Star of Ethiopia, presented to Ellington by former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie," says Hasse.
Welcomed by kings, queens and presidents, Ellington was still subjected to the laws of Jim Crow.
"The band had come back from a triumphant tour of Europe, and then they were on the road here," Hentoff remembers. "And about 20 miles outside Chicago, the bus pulls into a gas station. And there's a little convenience store. So he goes in and says to the young woman behind the counter, 'I'd like a stick of gum? A package of gum.' And as he told it, she was a very nice young woman, she said, 'Sir, I can't sell you gum.' And he said, 'Imagine that, I couldn't get Wrigley gum.'"
Always deeply religious, Ellington, in his later years, would finally say in music what he had been saying on his knees. His sacred concerts, he said, were among his most important works.
This ear, in celebration of his 100th birthday, Duke's legacy is carried on by younger players who have come to recognize his genius.
"I never listened to Duke Ellington when I was growing up, ever," says trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. "I considered Duke Ellington to be old ballroom music, had a strange hairdo."
Marsalis is leading the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in an entire year of concerts devoted to Ellington's music.
"I think the main thing I've learned from Duke is that you don't have to be one way," says Marsalis. "His music has great optimism and joyÂ…and another thing I learned from him is really the importance of simplicity."
Ellington endures because his music stands for the thing we hold dear: freedom of individual expression. He endures because he epitomizes the best, and brings out the best in us.
"Nobody led a life like Duke Ellington," says Hasse. "Nobody led a band like Duke Ellington. And nobody made music like Duke Ellington. He was beyond any category, one of a kind."
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