Sunday, November 8, 2009

STARSTRUCK/Duke Ellington plays Ft. Polk

By Steve Crum

In the early summer of 1970, my decision was immediate. No deciding, really, it was a given. Duke Ellington and his orchestra were presenting a free concert at our Fort Polk (as in Louisiana) post theater, and I was going. No way would I miss this opportunity to see a music legend. At that point in my two-year military stint, I was PFC Crum, having been drafted into the U.S. Army six months earlier.

I went to the theater alone, since no one I knew in the barracks was into Ellington, big band, or any kind of music outside The Beatles and Woodstock. Evidently a majority of the entire base had a disinterest in or total lack of knowledge about Duke Ellington, since there were few in the audience--embarrassingly few. Out of the approx. 500 seats, maybe 50 were occupied. I squirmed out of uneasiness. When the curtains parted, and the band began playing, I sank in my seat. Maybe late comers by the hundred would finally arrive and fill the emptiness. But it never happened. On stage, Duke Ellington seemed to care less. He and his band played a 90-minute concert like it was to a standing room only audience.

There were his solid hits Take the “A” Train, Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, Caravan, and It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got the Swing). His recently published New Orleans Suite was included. Maybe he considered this Ft. Polk gig a rehearsal or warm-up to his European tour, which would begin a couple of weeks later. No doubt The Duke felt a patriotic affinity to entertain us troops, many of whom had returned from or were heading out to Vietnam. The year before, in 1969, he had received The Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon.

DUKE ELLINGTON, born Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington [April 29, 1899-May 24, 1974] was a composer, pianist, and big band leader whose influential “American music” (the reference to his music he preferred over “jazz”), continues to be loved and performed throughout the world today. He was accompanied at the Ft. Polk concert by his son, Mercer. Mercer also fronted the band during most of the numbers as his father played piano. Mercer would take over full conducting duties after his father’s death four years later, which he continued doing until his own passing in 1996.

Duke performed in every medium of his day, including radio, records, TV, stage and motion pictures, sometimes solo at the piano, but usually with his orchestra. He composed two great film scores, Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Paris Blues (1961). Toward the end of his life, he wrote and conducted his somewhat controversial Sacred Concerts. As the title implies, they were religiously themed, and not widely heard--even to this day.

I recall Duke Ellington’s polite voice welcoming us as audience members from that Polk stage, his wide and warm smile, and the wonderful, genius-driven, Ellington music he and his orchestra played for us. What those hundreds of absent soldiers missed!

On his deathbed, it is reported that Duke Ellington’s last words were: “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”

How I remember you and your sounds, Duke.

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