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Music Was His Mistress

February 2024
1min read

ON THE ROAD WITH DUKE ELLINGTON

produced by Robert Drew , Direct Cinema Limited, 58 minutes, $34.95 . CODE: DCV-8

AFTER MAKING CELEBRATED BEHIND- the-scenes portraits of George Wallace, the Kennedys, and other sixties figures, in 1967 Robert Drew produced this profile of Duke Ellington in his final glory. A film that is given over to following someone around depends heavily on the charisma and interest of its star, and the smoothly compelling Duke doesn’t disappoint. “Fm the conservative type,” he says with a wink before taking the stage in a bright red suit. He’s preternaturally at ease with the camera, talking backstage with Louis Armstrong or eating breakfast in his hotel room (hot water, potato, and steak), lecturing on the phone (“No one can tell me what I’d retire to”), recording with his band, or, at the age of sixty-eight, still composing into the night as the stage is broken down and the road manager points to his watch. Ellington’s sheer volume of recorded music is unmatched, so it’s astonishing to learn how many hundreds of pieces he threw away after performing them only once. Drew shows him composing overnight and humming untranscribed parts to his musicians moments before a concert. Even when he turned in on time, Ellington might be dragged out of bed by musical ideas. The film begins with his receiving an honorary degree from Yale and ends around the time of the death of his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn. On the Road goes out with the Duke putting Strayhorn’s “Take the ’A’ Train” through several swinging changes. After an hour he’s just getting started.

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