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Duke Ellington: 'The Duke at His Best'

The cover of The Duke at His Best


A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: You're listening to one of the most familiar compositions and one of the most familiar sounds in all of American music: Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train." It's from The Duke at his Best by Duke Ellington. Murray Horwitz, the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the early 1940s had been together for a long time. At least the core of it had. That's unusual for the great jazz bands, isn't it?

MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: It really is. I mean, jazz bands wasn't that much different from rock bands, say forty years later. If you were together for two or three years, that was often a long time.

SPELLMAN: And he had established a repertoire that was quite well-rehearsed and well-known by these musicians, so their sound and their approach to these tunes was wonderful and very mature.

HORWITZ: Right. And everybody says that the orchestra was Duke Ellington's instrument, that he "played" his orchestra. And he got musicians who could give him these very individuated voices for that reason. So as you point out, a lot of these folks had been around awhile with Duke. But as with a great baseball team or a great basketball team, sometimes you need one or two players to be the catalyst that puts you into the championship league. I mean Duke was always in the championship league but what's called the Blanton-Webster band of the 1940s (the band that you hear on this CD) was one of his greatest.


SPELLMAN: In this band, there are some instrumentalists who set the style on their axis, people who were copied very widely.

HORWITZ: I'm glad you pointed that out. That's another reason why this is a good record to have in your Basic Jazz Record Library. Taking nothing away from the other soloists, it's called the Blanton-Webster big band. There are also the trumpeters Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart, the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges (who almost invented that instrument really), the trombonist Juan Tizol, the clarinetist Barney Bigard, and Ellington himself, who plays terrific piano all the way through.


SPELLMAN: So the record is The Duke at his Best by Duke Ellington on Prism Records. It is our recommendation for your Basic Jazz Record Library. For NPR Jazz, I'm A.B. Spellman.

HORWITZ: An I'm Murray Horwitz.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A. B. Spellman
Murray Horwitz