Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Duke Ellington
Director:  Robert Drew
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  See Review
Length: 60 Minutes
Release Date: May 28, 2002

Film  ***

In 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.”

On 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. 

The 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.

Billy 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 speakers.

One 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.

Instead 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.

Video **1/2

This 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.

Audio ***

While 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 the film. 

Features *

There is a very detailed biography, a decent Ellington picture Gallery, a brief biography of Robert Drew, and many trailers for other Docurama features.


On the Road with Duke Ellington is a one-of-a-kind hour of one of America’s greatest musicians and composers.  It is an excellent introduction to his legacy and a treat for any music lover.