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Music: Sweetness & Fruit

3 minute read

If the fancy moved him, Edward Kennedy (“Duke”) Ellington could probably write a jazz composition based on a stock market report. The Duke demonstrated the point three years ago when he turned out a 14-part suite obscurely inspired by a line from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In hot form last week, with just as obscure a burst of inspiration, he paid tribute to a man who “swings”—Novelist John Steinbeck. Occasion: the premiere at the Monterey Jazz Festival of the Duke’s Suite Thursday, based on Steinbeck’s novel, Sweet Thursday.

Although Ellington started discussing his suite with Festival Manager Jimmy Lyons three years ago, he did not get down to serious work until this summer. He then called up Lyons and asked a few pointed questions: “I don’t remember the book too well—any jive going on? Is there some jungle [i.e., conflict]? There’s gotta be some sweetness and fruit.” With the plot straight in his mind, the Duke sat down and dashed off a four-part suite with typically cryptic subtitles: Miss Fits Blues, Schwiphti, Zweet Zurzday, Lay-By. “That last,” explained the Duke, “is an emergency parking area by the roadside of England. See how it all fits in?”

The piece itself proved to be considerably less intriguing than the titles. Typical Ellingtoniana, when he tries for concert length, it called for extensive improvisation by the band, was liberally laced with the subtle tone colors, the shifting moods that Ellington too often uses as a substitute for invention. High point was a lovely, fluid violin solo by Ray Nance that brought cries of “No, no!” from an audience that did not want it to end. Said Ellington in explanation of one part of his piece: “It has not only to do with changing of the colors and the octopi, but the people in the story.” But not even the Duke could explain just where John Steinbeck came in.

Appearing with the Duke at Monterey were many of the biggest names in jazz, along with some newcomers: Louis Armstrong, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Gerry Mulligan. John Coltrane, “Cannonball” Adderley, Jimmy Rushing, Ornette Coleman. With the Newport Festival languishing, Monterey can now lay claim to being the country’s classiest jazz display case. The musicians seem to like it because they can play what they please and because the audiences are mannerly and serious. In a too-esoteric introduction of Saxophonist Coleman last week, Composer Gunther Schuller remarked earnestly that “he comes to us naked.” Snapped a middle-aged lady: “Not in Monterey, he doesn’t.”

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