Duke Ellington & George Wein: Civilizing New Orleans

Tom Reney connects the legendary bandleader with the festival promoter and the roots of Jazz Fest in New Orleans

Here’s a timely bit of audio for Duke Ellington's 113th birthday anniversary today: Duke’s appearance at the 1970 New Orleans Jazz Festival and Louisiana Heritage Fair. It was the third annual jazz festival in New Orleans, but the first that George Wein produced under the Jazz & Heritage banner, and for the occasion Ellington was commissioned to write a new work, The New Orleans Suite. The audio file from Wolfgang's Vault includes only the suite’s opening movement, “Blues for New Orleans,” a showcase for Johnny Hodges and organist Wild Bill Davis. Ellington was notorious for completing new works minutes before deadline, but it would seem that most of the suite must have been ready at the time of the festival appearance on April 25 since its recording for Atlantic Records was completed only 18 days later on May 13. Then again, maybe not.

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Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner, and George Wein c/o George & Joyce Wein Collection

In any event, the set begins with Wein’s introduction of Duke, and his announcement that the festival would be returning the following year despite a loss of $40,000 in its inaugural presentation under his stewardship. (This weekend marks the 42nd consecutive presentation of Jazz and Heritage. The content has changed considerably from Wein’s original conception of a fest devoted almost exclusively to music from New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, but attendance remains an annual rite for tens of thousands of pilgrims to the Big Easy.) Highlights from the Ellington concert include a customary Hodges mini-set that includes “Blues for New Orleans," Billy Strayhorn's “Passion Flower,” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” Mercer Ellington's classic blues; “In Triplicate,” a tour de force flagwaver for saxophonists Paul Gonsalves, Russell Procope, and Harold Ashby; and Wild Bill Davis playing his famous arrangement for Count Basie of “April in Paris,” with Duke crediting the original “one more once” orchestration for “establishing a majestic way of monumental cool."

At the conclusion of “Blues for New Orleans,” Duke hails the band as “Buddy Bolden’s Second Line.” “King” Bolden was the New Orleans trumpeter whom legend regards as the pivotal figure in the transition from ragtime to what later came to be called jazz, but his institutionalization for “acute alcoholic psychosis” in 1907 resulted in his near total absence from the historical and musical record. Officially, about all that exists on Bolden are records from the New Orleans City Directory and the Insane Asylum of Louisiana, but a photo of the trumpeter with his six-piece band and the published recollections of Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet give considerable support to Bolden’s stature as what Morton called “The blowingest man ever lived since Gabriel.”

A “second line” of New Orleanians, clarinetist Barney Bigard and bassist Wellman Braud, provided Ellington with an early and essential stylistic foundation, and trumpeter Bubber Miley, a South Carolina native, emulated another New Orleans legend, King Oliver, in developing the growling, “wah wah” brass style that became a signature element in Ellington’s tonal palette. Bechet, who’d dated Hodges’s older sister when the great reedman was playing in Boston around 1920, toured with Ellington during the band’s summer sojourns in New England in the mid-‘20’s. He never recorded with Duke, but Ellington praised him as a player whose music was “all soul.” Credit New Orleans jazz, its origins and its legacy, with playing a vital and ongoing role in the imagination of Edward Kennedy Ellington.

The New Orleans Suite was one of the most fully-realized of Ellington’s latter-day works, offering portraits of Bechet, Braud, Louis Armstrong, and Mahalia Jackson, and evocative pieces like “Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies” and “Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta.” While its themes were historical, the music was in tune with jazz in the early ‘70’s, and it won the Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Big Band in 1971. Alas, it was the last recording to feature Hodges, who died on May 11, 1970; reputedly, he was poised to play soprano saxophone for the first time in almost 40 years on “Portrait of Sidney Bechet.”

A poignant footnote that goes unmentioned in Wein’s introduction is that the road to a jazz fest in New Orleans was fraught with cancellations and postponements due to racism and Jim Crow customs that remained in effect through most of the ‘60’s. Crescent City officials first approached Wein in 1962, but when the impresario met with them in a private dining room at the Royal Orleans Hotel, he made it clear that his fest would include integrated ensembles, and that Duke Ellington, who’d be part of anything Wein produced, “is accustomed to being treated as royalty wherever he goes. He stays only in the finest hotels.” Wein detailed the saga of establishing Jazz & Heritage in his memoir, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, and reports that the lunch ended with a consensus view “that the time had not yet come for a jazz festival in the South.” (Among the bizarre customs still in force in NOLA in the 60’s were ones that permitted blacks and whites to be in the same place only out-of-doors, not in an indoor facility; and black and white groups could appear in succession, but not together, on the same stage.)

By the time a fest was presented in 1968, it was Willis Conover, the renowned jazz host of the Voice of America (and a longtime emcee at Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival), who was hired to produce it. Wein learned through the grapevine that his own marriage to an African American, Joyce Alexander, “might be a political embarrassment to [New Orleans] Mayor Schiro if [he] were given the job,” so it went to Conover. It took only two years for the festival to become mired in local politics before the New Orleans Hotel Motel Association brought in Wein to run it once and for all. The festival is now owned by the non-profit Jazz & Heritage Foundation which is chaired by Quint Davis, the New Orleans native who’s been involved with the festival since its inception under Wein. But credit the respect Duke Ellington had earned elsewhere in the world with making it necessary for New Orleans to begin getting its act together before a bonafide jazz festival would be presented in the city of its birth.

Happy Birthday, Duke!

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