Duke Ellington [1899-1974] is my favorite musician of all-time. One of my few regrets is that I didn’t get to see him live. The sounds that he got out of his orchestra defy description. Right now, Ellington and his associates are hogging up most of the space on my iPod.
Ellington used to play at Disneyland during spring breaks. In the summer of 1973 (I was 13), I tried to get my mother to take me to Disneyland to see him (yes, I was a weird kid). My argument was that he was old and he probably wouldn’t be doing this too many more times. But unfortunately, it wasn’t convenient and I had to miss him.
Spring of 1974 rolls around and it’s announced that Ellington will again play at Disneyland. Maybe this time I can go! But as it gets close to the date, Louis Bellson and his orchestra are substituted for Ellington, who is too sick to make the gig. Within a few weeks, Ellington is dead.
The next year, the Los Angeles County concert series had Cat Anderson and the Ellington All-Stars as one of its FREE concerts. Again (reference the Pablo Jazz Festival post), I’m still pre-driving age. Fortunately, my grandfather is a fan of the Big Bands and Ellington in particular. (He always told me that if he could play sax like Johnny Hodges, he wouldn’t care if he could play for no one but himself.) He agrees to take me.
The horns were all Ellington alumni. I can’t remember who was in the rhythm section, but I don’t think they were Ellingtonians. That’s probably why I didn’t get their autographs! But it was a 6 piece horn section with a rhythm section. On trumpet, there was the high flying Cat Anderson [1916-1981] and Bill Berry [1930-2002] on cornet. Trombones were Britt Woodman [1920-2000] and Buster Cooper [b.1929]. On the reeds were Marshal Royal [1912-1995] and the legendary Barney Bigard [1906-1980]. Bigard was the co-composer of "Mood Indigo" and was a crucial element in Ellington’s sound during the early years of the band. Bigard was with Ellington from 1928 to 1942 and later spent several years with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars. Not a bad resume.
I collected the autographs before the concert and all the musicians were gracious and accommodating. It was a great concert, but I remember we were leaving as the last tune, "I’m Beginning to See the Light" was being taken out with Cat Anderson screaming high notes over a spirited ensemble ride out. My grandfather also used to take us to Dodger games and seemed to be a pioneer of the early exit to beat LA traffic!
Even though I didn’t get see Ellington in person, I still count myself fortunate that I was able to see so many of his important players over the years. I especially find myself flashing back to this concert when I hear Barney Bigard and Cat Anderson on the Ellington recordings.