George Wein commissioned Duke Ellington to pen "New Orleans Suite" for the 1970 New Orleans Jazz Festival, and Duke did not disappoint. I'm listening to it now, and think it would be a fine way to spend some time reflecting on the disaster of five years ago and glorying in the wonder that is New Orleans.
Duke was deeply influenced in his early days by New Orleans music. Stanley Dance, who wrote "The World of Duke Ellington," and the liner notes for this album, says that Duke called Sidney Bechet "'the foundation,' 'the symbol of jazz,' and 'the greatest of all the originators.'" Duke called Bechet's 1921 performance of "I'm Coming, Virginia," the "greatest thing I ever heard in my life...It knocked me out."
You can hear the influences of New Orleans music in the Ellington sound, and the degrees of separation between Duke and the Crescent City are evident when you consider this:
One huge clue to the Ellington sound is the plunger mute. It seems Duke was influenced by Joe Oliver, who was an early pioneer of using 'the plumber's friend' to alter the sound of his trumpet. Of course, Oliver was Louis Armstrong's mentor.
Another key quality of the Ellington sound is the use of the clarinet, which Barney Bigard, a New Orleanian from Joe Oliver's band, brought to Ellington. In songs like, "Creole Love Call" and "The Mooche," the clarinet is an important player, and all five of Ellington's reed men played the instrument.
Finally, we all know that Johnny Hodges' breathy, low-registered alto is a hallmark of the Ellington sound. Hodges, who had played with Duke since 1928, couldn't help but be an indispensible piece of the Ellington puzzle. Coincidentally, Hodges studied with Sidney Bechet, Duke's early inspiration. And so it comes full circle.
"New Orleans Suite" was, sadly, the last recorded performance of Johnny Hodges. He did not live to perform the masterpiece live with Ellington at the 1970 Jazz Fest.
I think you'll enjoy listening to this magnificant suite on Sunday, and I hope you'll tune in to enjoy it with me, as we reflect on all that has been lost and gained over the past five years.
Thanks for listening,
Your 'OZ Jazzbird, Elizabeth