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Final Chorus: Inside the Ellington Band

Ruby Braff used to say that when he was very young, he entered the Louis Armstrong University, an educational institution from which you could never graduate because there was so much to learn. Duke Ellington’s sidemen-those who stayed and those who left-felt the same way. And now, in the Jazz Oral History project of Mark Masters’ American Jazz Institute (Claremont McKenna College, Pasadena, Calif., 626-795-6413), a reunion of Ellington alumni provides further illumination of what it was like to be inside that band where, as Clark Terry told me, the music was always in a state of becoming. According to Terry, “Duke didn’t like endings.”

“I think,” says trombonist Walter van de Leur about the arrangements of Duke and his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn, “what made the music sound so very special was that you could be the second trombone and have the evening of your life.” Another trombonist, Art Baron, adds that in all the other bands he played in, “I felt like anybody could sit in that chair.” But the way Duke and Strayhorn wrote, “it really mattered what your personality was. You had to have an individual sound in your horn.”

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Originally Published
Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

Over more than 60 years, Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) wrote about music, politics, and many other subjects for a variety of publications, including DownBeat (which he edited from 1953 to 1957), the Village Voice (where he was a weekly columnist from 1958 to 2009), the Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes, to which he regularly contributed the Final Chorus column from 1998 to 2012. Of the 32 books that he wrote, co-wrote, or edited, 10 focus on jazz. In 2004, Hentoff became the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award for jazz advocacy.