Part 1 of my new two-part feature on Duke Ellington and Paris has appeared at PopMatters.com:
The article begins:
Duke Ellington loved Paris à la folie.
The epitome of the 20th century man of the world, Ellington composed suites inspired by Latin America, Liberia, the Virgin Islands, New Orleans, Togoland, and the Far East. He wrote La Plus Belle Africaine and ‘Serenade to Sweden’. But none of these places was Paris.
Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography:
“My first trip… changed the way I looked at things forever… I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren’t prejudiced.”
American bands toured constantly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. More importantly, Paris was permanent home to many black musicians. The most notable were Bud Powell, Don Byas, and Kenny Clarke. (Dexter Gordon, Our Man In Paris according to his 1963 Blue Note LP, actually lived most of the time in Copenhagen.)
Duke Ellington never really lived anywhere. His organisation—the 14 cats in his famous orchestra and assorted entourage—was on the road with hardly a break for 50 years, in endless transit by bus or train or boat or jet-plane. Ellington thrived as a composer in this circus, working in Pullman cars or in the backseat of Harry Carney’s Imperial or in hotel suites in telephonic collaboration with Billy Strayhorn.
Part 2 (forthcoming) is an on-the-spot interview with Laurent Mignard, conductor of the Duke Orchestra of Paris. This world-class repertory big band performed a sell-out concert at the Alhambra Theatre in March 2011.
Here’s Duke and Strays’ ‘Battle Royale’ for the 1961 movie Paris Blues with a special appearance by Louis Armstrong: