ON THE ROAD WITH DUKE ELLINGTON
Review by Mark Wiechman
Director: Robert Drew
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 60 Minutes
Release Date: May 28, 2002
the classical music establishment, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is the
only jazz composer other than George Gershwin who is taken seriously, though
Gershwin is largely thought of as a composer of show tunes.
To the jazz world, there is Ellington, and then there is everyone else.
He is probably the most significant jazz composer ever. The back of this DVD package has a quote from Miles
Davis, who rarely praised anyone too highly, that says it all: “All musicians should get down on their knees one day to
thank Duke Ellington.”
the Road with Duke Ellington
was originally broadcast in 1974 soon after his death.
It is a thorough documentary and a rare snapshot of one of America’s
few composers of true genius. Fortunately
for us, he was captured while still in his prime as a performer and composer.
show is somewhat somber and points out in the first few minutes that while
Ellington wrote for decades, his concerts were almost entirely the hits everyone
knows—“Satin Doll”, “Solitude”, “Sophisticated Lady”, and of
course, his theme “Take the A Train”. He
could have rested his laurels on these immortal classics, but composed
constantly while on the road. He
grew enormously as a composer, but some would say he had problems, such as poor
lyrics for some pieces. And of
course, he ran into the problem so many composers do:
he wrote things far above the heads of his audience.
Strayhorn is also given credit as Duke’s only full collaborator and the
composer of “Take the A Train.” Strayhorn’s
funeral eulogy is shown briefly before more concert footage blasts out of the
of the most interesting scenes, one
which we rarely see, shows a master composer composing.
After a show, the band is putting away their instruments, and they leave
Duke alone while he works out a new piece to premier when he receives his next
honorary doctorate. Ironically, to my ears, the piece sounds like something
Gershwin would write. He does not
have time to write it out for his rhythm section, so he just describes the piece
to them in general tonal terms. The
piece goes well, and this program is in fact the only known recording of it.
of merely being a videotaped concert of old standards, Ellington is also shown
conducting a wild new piece for jazz orchestra, “Traffic Jam”, following a
performance of his well-known “Harlem Suite”.
Afterward he is shown excitedly performing the first piece he ever wrote,
at age13 1/2, “Soda Fountain Rag”. A
religious piece, “In the
Beginning”, is featured toward the end of the show.
was a television documentary filmed in 1967 , so naturally the video shows the
inherent shortcomings of all such films, but the picture is excellent throughout
this collection of interviews, concert footage, and backstage interludes.
only in stereo, even someone totally unfamiliar with the man or his music will
enjoy the excellent performances given here, and of course, the footage of
Ellington composing and performing tunes which are not recorded anywhere else is
magical. Ellington and his
orchestra are in prime form. There
is very little background noise in the music or interview segments. Narration is kept to a bare minimum and never takes away from
is a very detailed biography, a decent Ellington picture Gallery, a brief
biography of Robert Drew, and many trailers for other Docurama features.