Friday, September 5, 2014

Royal: Duke Ellington and Count Basie

Duke Ellington and Count Basie : Battle Royal

In a way, I kind of wish that I had been able to do the transition post from “Offensive” to “Royal” because I find the concept of royalty to be offensive. As the great political thinker Dennis the Peasant pointed out, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” On the other hand, YouTube explainer CGP Grey makes a good case that the British monarchy, at least, is a net benefit to Britain (although not everyone agrees).

But I have to say that the fawning over the British royals and their stupid hats is annoying. Even a constitutional monarch like (former) King Juan Carlos of Spain, who did much to help the country recover from the Franco dictatorship, abdicated a few months ago, after a corruption scandal relating to his daughter and son-in-law’s business dealings, and the reports that the King had been on a lavish elephant hunting safari during the country’s fiscal crisis.

So, as far as I’m concerned, the less attention paid to these generally undeserving winners of the genetic lottery, the better. As I see it, my country was built on a categorical rejection of hereditary nobility, yet maybe we have "highness envy," because so many people seem irrationally fascinated by them. (I make an exception, though, for former King Zog of Albania, because he sounds like a character from Star Trek).

But Royal it is, and I knew that I wasn’t going to write about someone who received their status because “some watery tart threw a sword” at one of their ancestors, or something similar. Instead, I thought of two men who received their exalted status by virtue of their musical genius, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, and William James “Count” Basie.

Now, I don’t know a hell of a lot about jazz, although I like to listen to it. I learned about rock music sort of organically, by buying records, listening to the radio and reading about it. Jazz, though, is something I really only started to dip a toe into during college and after, and never got the bug to learn much of the details. Because there are just too many details. But, of course, I knew about Duke Ellington and Count Basie. And, when I decided to write about them for this theme, I wondered whether they ever played together. Google is a beautiful thing, and when I put their names in to a search, I discovered in 0.46 seconds that, in fact, they actually did one album together, First Time! The Count Meets The Duke, and (a few minutes later) that it was a pretty well received album.

Apparently it took some serious planning to get Ellington, Basie and their entire orchestras together for a session, but it happened on July 6-7, 1961, at the 30th Street Studio in New York. As one article noted, the sessions included “requisite breaks for recreational liberties,” which is a phrase so delightful it is worth stealing. Under the English tradition, Dukes outrank Earls (the equivalent of Counts), and Ellington was one of Basie’s idols, but the album is nevertheless democratically split down the middle—an equal number of each band’s classics, Duke’s orchestra is in the right channel and Basie’s is on the left, and in most cases the leaders each took piano solos (although Basie refused to play on Ellington's signature song, “Take the A Train,” so instead the composer, Billy Strayhorn, was the second pianist). Where that leaves the “Duke of Earl,” is unresolved here.

Our featured song, “Battle Royal,” opens the album. It was originally written by Ellington for the movie Paris Blues, which featured Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll, who could be considered acting royalty. In the film, the song represents a “Battle Royal,” when the band led by Newman and Poitier is challenged by a band led by Louis Armstrong, uncrowned jazz nobility himself, playing a character named Wild Man Moore. The Ellington/Basie version featured above starts off somewhat more restrained than the exuberant film version, but rapidly turns into a battle between the two orchestras and their soloists that is both intense and thrilling.

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