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The Jazz Image

The Jazz ImageTM

with Leigh Kamman
In search of Duke Ellington

April 1999 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of jazz great Duke Ellington. To mark the milestone, Leigh Kamman produced segments and interviews that tied in with what was going around the country, including such high-profile events as Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center series. He sought out members of the Ellington band who are still out there. And he touched base with Paul Ellington, the Duke's grandson who has taken on the giant task of keeping the flame alive through the family.

Here, Kamman talks about his lifelong interest in Ellington:

Q. Where did you begin your journey in search of Ellington?

Kamman: In the year 1939, as a high school reporter, I first contacted Ellington at a ballroom in St. Paul and had a chance to interview him. He was most cordial and open to questions. As a neophyte reporter, I was trying to capture what Duke Ellington was doing with his orchestra. From that point on, it became a sort of lifelong challenge.

In the course of time, I interviewed him in St. Paul/Minneapolis, at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California, and several times in New York, including a night with the bassist Oscar Pettiford, when we toured Harlem's after-hours clubs. Finally, the last time was at the Guthrie in 1973.

Q. Can you tell me about the evening you spent with Ellington hitting after-hours clubs in New York?

Kamman: The evening began at a place called The Palm which was a restaurant several doors down from the Apollo Theatre and across the street from the Hotel Theresa. WOV Radio, for whom I worked, had a studio built in this night club/restaurant. All kinds of jazz artists and politicians and actors like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, who were just beginning to emerge on the scene, would appear at The Palm.

Duke Ellington came in with Oscar Pettiford who had been a friend of mine here in Minneapolis/St. Paul and had come to New York to join Ellington's band. Pettiford introduced me to him again. We suddenly struck up this conversation and I did an interview with Duke and Oscar. The radio program was two parts; one section of it was titled the "1280 Club," which was WOV's frequency on the dial on AM radio, and the second section was "Life Begins at Midnight." When the end of my shift came at The Palm at three in the morning I joined Ellington and Pettiford and off we went into the night, making those rounds.

Q. What was it like to walk into an after-hours club with Duke Ellington?

Kamman: One of the most impressive things, of course, was the warmth with which he was received. He was regal, he was an ambassador, just so welcome on the scene, and they were flattered to have him there as I was flattered to be along with him to make that tour. Just the warmth and the way the repartee went; the impressive thing was, this was Ellington, this was a part of the life and the style of that community. His culture, his art, was their art, and he was an important figure to them. More than, say, the mayor of the city of New York or perhaps even the governor of the state of New York, I would think.

Q. What do you think Ellington thought about you?

Kamman: I started out as a real stranger with him the first time around. Post World War II we became better acquainted in different settings, and particularly after Oscar Pettiford and I, with Ellington made the tour of Harlem. He found me to be this strange exception to a Harlem broadcaster.

He must have thought, "Who is this cat who is always appearing out of the night, and in different settings, wanting to interview me?" But I was like other reporters outside of Harlem who also were interested in him, and there were loads of reporters from The New York Times and The London Times, the Paris papers, and the Swedish and the Danish papers.

Q. What was his take on the growing popularity of rock music?

Kamman: In '65, I finally got him to talk a little about trends, and the marketing of music because rock had really made its impact. We talked about the business of compromising and not compromising. Compromising was not in any way a part of his makeup. His standard was really planted and fixed in an important way. He knew where he was going. He knew what he wanted to accomplish. He knew that he wanted to win a place, not only for himself, but for his orchestra, his music and his people. And he did it in a subtle way. He was a diplomat and he didn't have the tremendous burden that, say, Martin Luther King had. That was something I really wanted to get into - but didn't.

Q. How did he negotiate racial issues?

Kamman: I had an experience with him in 1946. He came to Minneapolis/St. Paul and played the Minneapolis Auditorium. KSTP radio had its studios on the top of the Hotel St. Paul. He was invited to do an interview there, and he and I and my wife-to-be, a performing artist, drove him to the Hotel St. Paul. We walked into the lobby, and we were going to sit and wait for him and then take him to his hotel afterwards, but we were asked to take the freight elevator. Needless to say, we never made that interview. We drove that night and talked for a long time on the way back to the hotel in Minneapolis. He just brushed that off.

Q. What do you think Ellington's legacy is?

Kamman: For American music, and for jazz, he was most exceptional and effective. He was running an orchestra like a chamber orchestra. He managed to figure out how to finance the orchestra to perform the compositions that he and Billy Strayhorn created.

The Ellington legacy, through the orchestra and the compositions, is a magnificent parallel to the chamber orchestra and the symphony, a totally different kind of music, and Afro-American contribution to the American scene.

The body of work is just remarkable - 2,000 compositions is the estimate. The performance side is the other side of it. What he and the musicians and the orchestra did in a concert setting, in a studio recording setting, and in broadcast one-on-one performances to a large audience cut a new path.