He stood five feet, two inches tall, and his musical colleagues dubbed him “Swee’ Pea,” after the little character in the Popeye cartoons. But Billy Strayhorn ranked with the giants that composed enduring standard popular music. He was also nobody’s cartoon character. The handle was a reverent tease, applied by Strayhorn’s musical associates in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Duke Ellington didn't consider himself a jazz musician.
He said he was a musician who played jazz. And what a musician: pianist, bandleader, composer of more than 1,000 songs including standards like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Satin Doll" and "Sophisticated Lady."
In 1944 big dance bands were all the rage. They were so popular that to gain additional revenue for World War II, a 30 percent "cabaret tax" was enforced on the gross receipts of any "public place where music and dancing privileges...except instrumental or mechanical music alone, are afforded the patrons in connection with the serving or selling of food, refreshment, or merchandise."
Duke Ellington was a fascinating figure—so much so that quite a number of books and shorter profiles of the man came to be during his time, and well after his passing. Writers were always peering over his shoulder, trying to get a fix on how he operated his band and made it so successful; they even attempted to poke into his personal life, which the Duke managed to keep fairly secret.
Duke Ellington added more than 3,000 songs to the American music vault before his death in 1974. He also started composing what he hoped would be a great American street opera — which composers have spent 40 years adapting, trying to figure out what the Duke wanted for his unfinished opus.
But before you imagine soothing arias or boisterous trills and vibrato, let me stop you: Ellington's opera is very much a work of jazz.
Some of the big-name jazz pianists will have their compositions played Big Band Jazz style this week. You'll hear Duke Ellington plays George Shearing's "Lullaby Of Birdland," Gil Evans plays a Thelonious Monk classic, and more. Sunday, January 19th, 7 to 8 pm on WRTI. Join us!
Some of the popular Big Band Classics from the 1940s get a 21st-century makeover on Big Band Jazz - this Sunday, November 24 at 7 pm. You'll hear a brilliant reworking of Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train" by the 2013 One O'Clock Lab Band from North Texas State University, Jeff Hamilton and the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble with an update on Woody Herman's theme "Blue Flame," and lots more. Join us!
Duke Ellington played piano, but it was his intertwined roles as bandleader and composer that propelled him to greatness. He wrote over 1,700 songs, as well as longer orchestral suites and film scores. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, a new book explores the man behind the music.
With the help of Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, Christian McBride, and others, it's nothing but the sounds of summer on Big Band Jazz, Sunday June 23rd at 7 pm. Bob Craig dials up songs about the birds, songs about the bees, and maybe even songs about the flowers and the trees!
Happy Summer from Bob Craig and all of us at WRTI on Big Band Jazz with Bob Craig, every Sunday night at 7 pm.