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Duke Ellington, Live at the Aquacade


ISSUE:  Spring 2019

 

Fate’s being kind to me. It doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.
— Duke Ellington

A paycheck. A nadir. Hired as accompaniment
for sequined swimmers in an amphitheater in Queens.
To keep the band working. A footnote.

I was born at Newport in ’56, Ellington was fond
of saying. Born again, to be fair, ushered
by Paul Gonsalves’s twenty-seven-chorus solo

and a white woman’s dance. Born aloft a tritone,
tethered to the breath of the thirty-six-year-old’s
tenor sax.Though just months earlier,

Sir Duke was made to descend to the speckled stage
of the Aquacade, in the heart of Queens. For six weeks,
Ellington and his orchestra—minus Gonsalves

and Willie Cook, minus Rick Henderson, Dave Black,
and Britt Woodman, each replaced by members
of the Local 802—played medleys behind a forty-foot

screen of water. “Mood Indigo” bleeding into “Solitude,”
“The Mooche” giving over to “Perdido,”
then “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a rose to the stitching

of Bed-Stuy to Harlem, to black modernity.
Picture it: the nearly all-white crowd, working men
and wives, their sons and daughters, cheering

every lift and gasping at the fireworks filling
the night sky. 1955. A boy shifts in his seat.
His eyes dart from the divers to the dancing waves

pink as cotton candy. His mind wanders.
And Ellington, tired and aloof, pushes his way
through an old arrangement of “Sophisticated
Lady.” He won’t return for a second set, excused
while another conductor leads the band
augmented by strings. To hell with it,

Ellington mutters, lighting another cigarette
in his dressing room, Newport still an undiscovered country.
America’s Debussy, alone, unaccustomed,

wiping the sweat from his forehead with an embroidered
handkerchief, four miles and four years
from the East Elmhurst home of Malcolm X.

Here are the relics of our future. Here is the future
of us all, the new face of a nation. In thirty years,
a museum guide tells us, students today, their children

will be the first generation raised in the US,
we nod our approval, his smile blooming,
where white is no longer the majority, as it hasn’t been

here in Queens since the nineties.
The dancing woman was Elaine Anderson,
a thirty-three-year-old socialite,her image printed

on the back jacket of the Columbia LP—
The gal who launched 7,000 cheers. Whose father
was made rich by a shipwreck. Ellington’s Helen

in a cocktail dress, platinum-blond bringer
of glad news, who danced in ecstasy
as the cameras turned away from the stage to find her.

They tell me I saved the night for the Ellington band.
It’s how you look at it, she said, her memory
held like a clutch. The glass was half-filled—I caused it.

Half-empty—Gonsalves did.

 

2 Comments

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Samuel Duarte's picture
Samuel Duarte · 1 month ago

Love, love, love

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Geoffrey James's picture
Geoffrey James · 4 weeks ago

What a terrific poem. My own Duke Ellington sightings were rich and varied.  The first time at a concert in London. where Gonsalves misbehaved in spectacular fashion. He had had to coaxed out of a toilet,  hopelessly high,  emerging after several tunes had been played,  Duke's displeasure was apparent.  It was the first time I had heard the band live, a sound of incomparable richness,  barrel-aged.   (Not long ago,  Adam Gopnik,  Jacques of all trades,  wrote a piece about Duke and the Beatles in which he called the band's sound tinny,  which raises a question about his ear or  his hi-fi set up.)  A bit later,  early 60's, I was a night city reporter for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin,  where there were very few gaps in the general ignorance of black culture,  jazz especially.  The view of Blackness was pretty uniform. "Geoff,  I have a slaying for you," would come the word from Eph Gorenstein,  the New Jersey reporter whom we once convinced to check out the Turnpike in search of an escaped Papal Bull. "It's two grafs.  A colored slaying." 

In the late 60's.  I was a writer in Montreal for the Canadian edition of Time Magazine and one Sunday we were flown to New York for a dinner at the Rainbow Room,  where the Managing Editor,  the aptly named Otto Feuerbringer,  was being dumped because his hawkish position on Viet Nam was no longer sustainable.   Bored by the corporate speeches, I wandered down the hall to the Rainbow Bar and Grill,  where by chance Duke was playing for dancing with an eight-piece band,  with Johnny Hodges,  Cat Anderson and Harry Carney.  It was at some point recorded on vinyl.  Everything medium tempo.  

And then in Montreal, Duke was again playing for dancing, this time  at the Moose Lodge in the Plateau. It was winter,  and I was in the middle of writing a piece on Ellington and Basie for a magazine I cannot at this point put my hands on,  but it was one of those publications,  quite good,  that was supported by the CIA. It was not a dishonorable gig -- I was subbing for Whitney Balliett, who had recommended me.  One of the other contributors was Ralph Ellison,  who had once auditioned on trumpet for the Ellington band.  In the intermission, I went up to Duke and asked him,  in my best English accent, if he would allow himself to be interviewed.  "I would love to,"  he said. "But you know, I am so busy that I have a dentist's appointment on Christmas Day."   

    

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