Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

When Duke Ellington Made a Record for Just One Person—Queen Elizabeth

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Queen meets Duke

Ted Gioia has a good column (which includes Marcus Roberts playing ‘One Petal of a Rose”):

Many musicians have long envied visual artists—who can sell unique objects at very high prices. Because of the inherent scarcity of one-of-a-kind originals, art works turn into status symbols, with wealthy elites paying exorbitant amounts for the privilege of owning something irreplaceable.

The recent mania for turning music into non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is just the latest iteration of this quest. Back in 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan made just a single copy of its seventh album, and packaged it in a jewel-studded silver box. We never learned how much financier Martin Shkreli paid for it back then, but the Department of Justice later seized it, and sold it for $4 million—making this the most expensive musical work in history.

But Duke Ellington did the exact same thing in 1959, and without any desire to make money. Or even generating publicity from the incident—which took place in secret, without fanfare or press releases.

In this instance, he created a unique album solely for the pleasure of giving it to Queen Elizabeth. With the help of Billy Strayhorn, he composed The Queen’s Suite, had one record manufactured—and sent it directly to Buckingham Palace, solely intended for Her Majesty’s ears.

In a historic Duke-meets-Queen encounter the previous year, Ellington served up his famous charm for the monarch. When she asked him whether this was his first visit to Britain, Duke replied that his initial trip to London was in 1933, “way before you were born.” This was out-and-out flattery, because Queen Elizabeth had been born in 1926—but she played along with the game. “She gave me a real American look,” he later recalled, “very cool man, which I thought was too much.”

Give Duke credit for savviness. He understood that even a queen wants to hear how young she looks. Ellington followed up saying that Her Majesty “was so inspiring that something musical would come out of it.” She told him that she would be listening.

According to Ellington’s son Mercer, his father began working on the music to The Queen’s Suite as soon as he got back to his hotel room. He enlisted colleague and collaborator Billy Strayhorn. In addition to royal inspiration, the work also borrowed from the natural world: the opening movement draws on birdsong heard during a Florida visit, another section was a response to an unexpected encounter with “a million lightning bugs” serenaded by a frog. The best known part of the Suite, “The Single Petal of a Rose,” was spurred by a floral display on a piano at a friend’s home.

This latter movement has even entered the jazz standard repertoire as a standalone piece. It is most often performed by pianists, and has been recorded by Marcus Roberts, Marian McPartland, Sir Roland Hanna, John Hicks, Bill Mays, James Williams, and Andy LaVerne, as well as Ellington himself.

By early 1959, the finished work was ready for performance. The Queen’s Suite was now a 20-minute work in six movements. The band recorded it over the course of three sessions in February and April 1959. A single golden disc was made, and sent to Buckingham Palace. In order to ensure that no other copies were released, Ellington reimbursed Columbia, his label, some $2,500 in production costs, and thus retained personal ownership of the master tapes.

The original score to The Queen’s Suite is now in the collection of . . .

Continue reading. And at the link, you can hear the entire suite. Below is just one section.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2022 at 4:19 pm

Posted in Daily life, History, Jazz, Video

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