"Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young."
Duke Ellington, at the age of 66, on being passed over for a Pulitzer Prize
There's little doubt that Ellington had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he made the above statement. After all, Duke had been making music for the better part of five decades when the Pulitzer committee snubbed him (and, being the pragmatist he was, he understood that such a snub was more of an honor than most musicians would ever receive), and over the course of those five decades, he'd been the primary creative force behind the coronation of jazz as America's classical music. His career had been through multiple peaks and valleys, but through each temporary flip of fashion, Ellington soldiered on, continuing to make eloquent musical statements that, eventually, the culture would catch up to.
Although a traditionalist, he was never nostalgic and always sought to expand his definition of jazz in new and different ways -- sacred concerts, world-music "suites," orchestral arrangements. A recent reissue of "The Far East Suite" -- one of his more gorgeous and evocative pieces -- is a great reminder of the ease with which Ellington combined jazz forms with unusual elements.
Yet, despite this constant drive toward expanding the language of jazz, Ellington's days as a crowd-pleasing Cotton Club regular never failed to inform his work. (Even on a piece like "The Far East Suite," his insistent piano work conjures up barrelhouse blues as easily as it does mosques and minarets.) An infinitely wise musician, Ellington was a gifted and intuitive pianist and an impressive bandleader, able to easily coax incredible music out of his instrument and his always-exceptional band. In their continuing series of Ellington reissues, Sony Legacy is releasing six discs -- "Masterpieces" (1951), "Ellington Uptown" (1952) and "Festival Session" (1959) were out at the end of February; "Blues In Orbit" (1958), "Piano in the Background" (1960) and "Piano in the Foreground" (1960) are scheduled for July -- that emphasize these abilities. Although "Uptown hews to his "suite" mentality, it's still quite a showcase for his band and is one of Ellington's most impressive works (the CD appends "The Controversial Suite" from 1956 and "The Liberian Suite" from 1948). The batch due in July is particularly exciting, as the two Piano albums haven't been available on CD in the U.S. Foreground is a relaxed and expressive Ellington, ably accompanied by Sam Woodyard and Aaron Bell in an intimate but expansive mode, while "Background" highlights Ellington as the piano player in a phenomenal band.
It's said that we seldom appreciate our legends while they're around to bask in the praise. That couldn't quite accurately be said about Duke Ellington; although he didn't win that Pulitzer, it was well-established during his lifetime that he was a national treasure. What's encouraging is that -- as these thoughtful reissues demonstrate -- in the 30 years since his death, we haven't begun to take that treasure for granted.