Duke Ellington in your pocket?

While some of my friends are collecting the whole set, I’ve been a little lukewarm about the states-of-the-union quarters set that’s been in circulation for nearly a decade. I’ve paid attention when a new one came out, but that quarter would find itself in a vending machine or bus fare box eventually.

I did make sure to grab a few of the quarters and hang on to them: California, Arizona, Nevada, South Carolina, and Tennessee were my “keepers,” as these were places where I’ve lived or worked, and places that hold a piece of my heart. The Hawaii quarter was a keeper, too — I fell in love with the Big Island after spending a week there for a family reunion. Too bad I can’t drive there with a U-Haul.

I was surprised to see that Washington, D.C. — not a state, really — has its own quarter. I received one in change a couple of days ago, and that went into a different pocket, separate from the bus change. That’s because, instead of the Washington monument or something governmental on the back, it had a rendition of Duke Ellington, who hailed from D.C.

The Duke.

As far as I know, this makes Ellington the first jazz artist to be depicted on our money. About time. Jazz has been called the only purely American art form. We had a series of postage stamps with jazz performers in circulation a few years ago, but never on coins or currency.

There are some other viable candidates for such an honor. Louis Armstrong (who has an airport named after him). John Coltrane (who had a church in San Francisco named after him). Jelly Roll Morton (who claimed to have invented jazz in 1902). Dizzy Gillespie. Charles Mingus. Charlie Parker. Miles Davis. Art Tatum. Fats Waller. Even Duke’s contemporary Count Basie would have been a good choice. But the Duke — that man was what jazz is all about.

Duke wasn’t the best piano player ever, or even the best of his time. In a one-on-one piano showdown with Basie at high noon, I’d have to give my vote to the Count, with his leaner, stripped-down attack and ability to “feed” chords to his band. And Count had the foresight to deploy Hershel Evans and Lester Young together on tenor sax, letting the contrast speak for itself. Evans was from the Texas tenor school, a brawling tone, all bluster and power, kind of a Coleman Hawkins on steroids. Young, who’d recorded some great stuff with Billie Holiday, was soft-focus, lyrical. He tried to whisper on tenor while everyone else was shouting on theirs.

But Duke was absolutely the best at working a whole band. He’d had falling-outs with his personnel, but it seemed they always came back to work with him. Nobody could arrange music to his players’ strengths as Duke could. And few had the kind of influence on jazz that Duke Ellington had.

Even Mingus — a maverick bassist whom Duke once fired — went through his Ellington period. On the album “Oh Yeah,” Mingus played piano, put Doug Watkins on bass, and put trombonist Jimmie Knepper to work, playing lines that reminded me of Lawrence Brown. If you listen to the song “Invisible Lady” from that album, you can hear how it was influenced by “Satin Doll.”

My parents and I are in general agreement about jazz, though our approaches are different. They love to dance to it, while I love to listen to it. And we all consider Duke’s “Take The A Train” as one of the best songs ever recorded. But then, nothing wrong with “Satin Doll” or “Black And Tan Fantasy” either.

I was fortunate to come across a recording of Duke’s band at the 1956 Newport Festival. Not the strongest rhythm section he’d fielded, but all of his best players were there. Johnny Hodges, who has one of the most recognizable sounds on alto sax. Lawrence Brown, who redefined trombone as a lead instrument. Cat Anderson, who learned trumpet at Charleston’s Jenkins Orphanage. And a tenor sax player named Paul Gonsalves.

Duke’s show at Newport didn’t start off well. The weather was crappy. People were leaving. Duke had trouble finding all his musicians. The band wasn’t at its best. Duke was losing relevance. Until he called for one of the oldest songs in his book, “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue.”

That piece, Duke told the audience, was actually two songs, with a sax interlude tying them together. His band first performed it in 1938.

Not quite four minutes into the piece Gonsalves stepped up to the microphone — the wrong one, it turned out — for his solo during the interlude. And blew.

And blew.

And blew.

For six and a half minutes, over 27 choruses, Gonsalves blew. Swung like mad. And the solo built on itself. Since he was on the wrong mic, his solo sounds kind of muted. But you can hear every nuance of what he’s doing. You can hear Duke shouting encouragement. Three minutes into the solo you can hear some real audience response. They’re clapping, cheering, and getting louder.

It’s one of those moments that every human being should experience. It’s crunch time, and you’re called to perform at something — a job, dealing with family, facing the outside world. And you’re performing at a level that you didn’t know you had and you don’t remember how you did it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described one of those moments during the closing seconds of a playoff game when he was at the baseline, in the corner, those seconds ticking away. Abdul-Jabbar said time just slowed down for him, kind of like you’re watching the world in slow motion. A teammate got him the ball, Kareem put up the hook shot, it went right in, and immediately the world went back to real time. I’m sure it was that kind of moment for Duke Ellington and his band.

I’ve studied Gonsalves’ solo (and of course I’m listening to it as I write this), and there was nothing really outlandish about it. It didn’t challenge the boundaries of time or harmony as many jazz players have been able to pull off so successfully. You won’t confuse it with Coltrane. It wasn’t particularly forceful; it wasn’t the kind of fiery solo that would blow the bell off that sax. It wasn’t radar-gun fast like Charlie Parker. But it was so brilliantly executed, building, building. And it swung throughout. Musicians who don’t know how to describe “swing” or even have an idea what it is, should sit in a room and listen to that solo until they get it figured out.

Funny thing, the band sounded a little out of it during much of the concert and in the first few minutes of the Diminuendo/Crescendo. After Gonsalves’ solo, it’s like they were all breathing fire, and they were suddenly all young men. Live music is like that. One person can put on a stellar performance and energize the rest of the band. But then, you can see that same phenomenon in “real” life, too.

The audience? They almost started a riot. They were so hyped up by what they’d heard that Duke spent the rest of the concert trying to get them to cool it. Finally, he closed out with “Skin Deep,” a percussion-driven song with Sam Woodyard taking a long drum solo. Good call; let ’em blow it out of their systems.

Really, this moment of magic extended Duke’s career. He was relevant again. From that post-Newport period came two of my favorite Ellington albums — Far East Suite and Money Jungle. The latter album has Duke in a trio setting with his former bassist Mingus and Max Roach on drums, playing the edgiest stuff I’ve ever heard from The Duke.

It’s good to see The Duke on our latest 25-cent piece, and you might just see me hoarding them as they show up in my change. And I’m still holding out for the Miles Davis $5 bill.


Author: Eric Pulsifer

Eric Pulsifer is a veteran wordsmith with experience as a journalist, editor, musician, and freelance writer.