DUKE ELLINGTON’S MY PEOPLE.

DUKE ELLINGTON’S MY PEOPLE.

1st January 1863 was one of the most important dates in American history. It was the date of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It stated that all slaves in the ten rebel states would be free. A hundred years later, and Duke Ellington wrote a stage play that celebrated President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This was Duke Ellington’s My People, which was recently rereleased by Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records.

Duke Ellington’s My People was released in 1964. By then Duke Ellington was sixty-five. He was one of jazz music’s elder statesmen. His career began in 1914, when Duke Ellington was only fifteen.

Born in Washington D.C. on April 29th 1899, Duke Ellington was born into a middle class family. Growing up, Duke Ellington learnt to play the piano. Before long, he was a prestigious talent. It was no surprise that aged fifteen, Duke Ellington made his professional debut in 1914. This was just the start of a long and successful career. Bandleader, composer, pianist and political activist, Duke Ellington did it all.

He moved to New York in the early twenties. In 1923, Duke Ellington formed his own orchestra in 1923. He played at the Cotton Club during the twenties. In the thirties, Duke Ellington and his orchestra toured the world. Right up to his death in 1974, Duke Ellington was still leading his orchestra. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Duke Ellington.

After the Second World War, music changed. Duke Ellington’s orchestra was perceived as the music of the past. Crooners were the future. Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford were flavour of the month. This was just the start of a slump in Duke Ellington’s popularity. At one point, Duke Ellington’s income as a songwriter and performer was subsidising his orchestra. Thing would get worse before they got better.

During the early fifties, Duke Ellington’s orchestra lost some of its top musicians. Not long after this, Duke Ellington’s music was seen as old fashioned. Bebop was the future. Duke Ellington’s popularity suffered. Things got so bad that he had to scale back his orchestra. However, in 1956, Duke Ellington became the comeback King.

At the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, Duke Ellington made his comeback. Ironically, two of the songs at the centre of his comeback were old songs. Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue had been part of Duke Ellington’s show since 1937. They were often overlooked. Not at the Newport Jazz Festival. This was just part of an explosive set that introduced Duke Ellington to a new generation of music fans. Such was the effect of Duke Ellington’s appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, that Duke Ellington made the front page of Time magazine. Following the Newport Jazz Festival, there was a revival of interest in Duke Ellington’s career.

Right through the rest of the fifties and early sixties, Duke Ellington recorded a number of film soundtracks. This included 1957s Such Sweet Thunder, 1959s Anatomy Of A Murder and 1961s Paris Blues. For Duke Ellington, his career was back on track.

Especially when he started working with some of the current biggest names in jazz. Duke Ellington worked with Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Although Duke Ellington was seen as part of jazz’s past, the new generation of jazz musician’s embraced him. They enjoyed working with one of jazz music’s legends. Duke Ellington still had plenty to offer jazz music.

This became apparent in 1963. This was the hundredth anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It stated that all slaves in the ten rebel states would be free. Duke Ellington was determined that this date should be celebrated. However, America in 1963 was a troubled country.

Racism was still rife in parts of America. So was poverty and conflict. Then there were the problems America were encountering abroad. Tensions were rising between East and West. The Cold War was at a crucial juncture. Then there was the war in Vietnam. A generation of Americans were losing their lives in Vietnam. For many people, there wasn’t much to celebrate. However, Duke Ellington wasn’t going to let the centenary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation pass unnoticed.

To celebrate what was one of the most important dates in America’s history, Duke Ellington wrote a stage play that celebrated President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This was Duke Ellington’s My People.

When it made its debut, the idea was a stage play that brought to life the experiences of black Americans around 1863, before and after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. To do this, Duke Ellington conceived a series of song and routines. Using this mixture of song, dance and drama, Duke Ellington brought to life the harsh reality of life in 1863. Duke Ellington managed to do this, by separating the play into two parts.

Duke Ellington’s My People is made up of two parts. The first part comprises Negro Spirituals. Part two features the blues. This leads up to King Fit The Battle Of Alabama. It’s the centre-piece of the stage play. An eloquent, rousing and speech that is comparable with many of the speeches by Civil Rights’ activists. After this, Duke Ellington’s My People closes with What Colour Is Virtue? This is a poignant, thoughtful way to end this groundbreaking and popular play. 

The Arie Crown Theatre was where Duke Ellington’s My People made its debut. It played to sellout crowds twice daily. For the next couple of years, Duke Ellington’s My People toured America, and sometimes, further afield. However, in 1964, Duke Ellington got the opportunity to record the soundtrack to Duke Ellington’s My People. This was too good an opportunity to refuse. It meant his play would be recored for posterity. 

Recording Duke Ellington’s My People was no small undertaking. This was, after all, the Original Cast Album. So, everyone that Duke Ellington had brought onboard to make Duke Ellington’s My People dream become a reality had to head to the recording studios. Logistically, this must have been a massive undertaking. This involved a huge cast of singers and musicians.

Originally, one of the first people Duke Ellington brought onboard was Joyce Sherill. She played a huge part in Duke Ellington’s My People. So much so, that Duke Ellington’s My People was billed as Duke Ellington’s My People with Joya Sherill. Then there was Percy Watkins, wo produced Duke Ellington’s My People. Billy Straythorn took charge of the orchestra and Jimmy Jones conducted it. Playing starring roles were Lil Greenwood, Jimmy McPhail, Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Grisson and The Irving Bunton Singers. Then there was the sixteen piece orchestra. 

Pianist Jimmy Jones conducted an orchestra that featured trumpeters Bill Berry, Ray Nance, Ziggy Harrell and Nat Woodard. Trombonists Britt Woodman, John Sanders and Booty Wood joined forces with the reed section of Russell Procope, Rudy Powell, Bob Freedman, Harold Ashby and Pete Clarke. They were joined by a rhythm section of drummer Louis Bellson and bassist Joe Benjamin. Then there was Billy Straythorn on celeste and Juan Amalbert on conga. This was the orchestra that featured on Duke Ellington’s My People. Eventually, the eight songs written by Duke Ellington were recorded. The soundtrack to Duke Ellington’s My People was released later in 1964.

On Duke Ellington’s My People release in 1964, it was released on a brand new label, Contact Records. This was a subsidiary of ABC Records. Contact Records was setup by none other than Bob Theile. He transformed Impulse into one of jazz’s premier labels. So his bosses at ABC Paramount Records, seemed to give Bob some leeway. A case in point was Contact Records.

Short lived describes Contact Records. Duke Ellington’s My People was the nascent label’s first release. It was an inauspicious start to Contact Records’ life. On its release in 1964, Duke Ellington’s My People wasn’t a commercial success. Despite the success of the stage show Duke Ellington’s My People, the soundtrack failed to trouble the charts. For Bob Thiele, this was a disappointment. He’d staked his new label’s future on Duke Ellington’s My People. Since then, Duke Ellington’s My People has been an overlooked album in Duke Ellington’s discography. 

Fifty years have passed since the release of Duke Ellington’s My People. Sadly, when many people discuss the music of Duke Ellington, they overlook Duke Ellington’s My People. That’s a great shame. It’s an important musical reminder of one of the most important events in American history, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Duke Ellington brought the events before and after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to life. To do this, he separated the story into two parts

Duke Ellington’s My People is made up of two parts. The first part comprises Negro Spirituals. This includes uplifting Ain’t But The One and the questioning Will You Be There? And 99%. It’s sung by The Irving Bunton Singers and Jimmy McPhail. It features The Irving Bunton Singers addressing the audience on the subject of race.  

Jimmy then delivers a tender, heartfelt vocal on the medic Come Sunday. This isn’t a new song. No. It featured on Black, Brown and Beige. However, it’s given a makeover by Jimmy and is both beautiful and moving. Following Come Sunday is David Danced. It features tap dancer Bunny Briggs. She’s joined by The Irving Bunton Singers. The tempo rises and the song takes on a celebratory sound. This meant to signify an artist worshipping through their work. 

Very different and moving is My Mother, My Father. Again, Jimmy McPhail takes charge of the vocal. As he delivers the lyrics, it’s apparent he’s proud of his family and their accomplishments. His vocal is a mixture of pride and sincerity. 

The Billy Strayhorn Orchestra take charge on the instrumental Montage. It allows the dancers to take centre-stage during an uplifting, celebratory track. It sets the scene for Duke Elligton to narrate My People. He delivers a rousing speech, before Joya Sherill delivers the wistful The Blues Ain’t. From there it’s blues all the way.

Jimmy Grisson delivers a despairing vocal on Workin’ Blues. Then on My Man Blues, Lil Greenwood rolls back the years. She delivers a vocal that’s reminiscent of blues’ glory days. Then on Jail Blues Jimmy Grisson returns with a despondent vocal. He’s worried about his partner and sings “if you’ve got another man, let me know by mail.” This medley of blues is without doubt the highlight of Duke Ellington’s My People so far. 

That’s until King Fit The Battle Of Alabama. It’s the centre-piece of the stage play. An eloquent, rousing and call to arms that is comparable with many of the speeches by Civil Rights’ activists. After this, Duke Ellington’s My People closes with What Colour Is Virtue? This is a poignant, thoughtful and soulful way to end this groundbreaking album, Duke Ellington’s My People.

When Duke Ellington’s My People was released as a stage play, it was a groundbreaking mixture of music, drama and theatre. It told the story of one of the most important events in American history, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Rather belatedly, all slaves within the ten rebel states were free. One of the most shameful parts of American history was over. It will never be forgotten and never should be. Duke Ellington’s My People ensures that this will never be the case. 

Duke Ellington’s My People documented the time before and after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Using a mixture of negro spirituals and blues, Duke Ellington brought these events to life. The reality of these events come to life on Duke Ellington’s My People, which was recently rereleased by Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records.

During the eight songs on Duke Ellington’s My People, Duke Ellington and his all star cast document for posterity the events of 1863. They’ll never ever be forgotten and never should be. The music on Duke Ellington’s My People ensures that will never be the case.

The music on Duke Ellington’s My People is moving, poignant, uplifting and joyous. It provokes a variety of emotions. This includes sadness, anger and frustration. No wonder. It took until 1863 that all slaves within the ten rebel states were free. That is truly shameful. Duke Ellington’s My People is a reminder of that. It’s also a reminder that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation changed things for those who were enslaved. That Proclamation changed lives for the better. Belatedly, those that were enslaved were free. They were free to make a better life for themselves. This is documented on Duke Ellington’s My People.

Although Duke Ellington’s My People wasn’t a commercial success, Bob Thiele realised that a project of such social and cultural importance  had to be recorded and released. Bob had the ability to make this happen. He released Duke Ellington’s My People on the newly founded Contact Records. This was an imprint of ABC Paramount. Sadly, Contact Records was short lived. One of Contact Records most important culturally important releases was Duke Ellington’s My People. 

 DUKE ELLINGTON’S MY PEOPLE.

CDBOPM-027d_383_383-2

CDBOPM-027e

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: