Duke Ellington and Rock music

One of the “fun and unusual” gigs I’ve had was that of music librarian for the jazz bandleader/drummer Bobby Rosengarden when he led the band for Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy telethon. Bobby brought me in for 2 years, 1988 and 89, to keep the big band charts organized for the parts of the telethon that were broadcast from Secaucus, NJ.

There wasn’t much work to do, and I got to hang out with musical stars like Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Orlando, Liza Minelli, and many others. I also enjoyed meeting all the band members and learning from them.

I especially enjoyed getting to know trombonist Art Baron. Not only is Art a great guy, but he had played in Duke Ellington’s last band and he was patient enough to answer my many questions about Duke.

After many hours of working in the TV studio, it was announced that we could take a 3-hour break to go to our hotel rooms and get a little sleep (it was a 24-hour telethon). The punk rock band The Ramones had arrived a while earlier and they would be performing a song of their own while the jazz band was on break.

It was amazing to hang out within 3 feet of The Ramones and say ‘hi’ to them, but since I was so tired by that point, I began to rush out of the room along with the rest of the 16-member band.

But as The Ramones began to play, I noticed that one jazz musician had lingered behind. I turned to see Art Baron standing in the doorway, listening intently to the punkers play an entirely different type of music that he himself played.

As we stood there together, absorbing the sounds, I mentioned to Art that I was a little surprised to see a jazz musician like him so interested in The Ramones. (I myself was of a younger generation and had grown up with 1970s rock, but Art grew up in an earlier era of music than I did.)

Art’s answer surprised me. He said, “You know what? Duke Ellington would be standing right here too. He always kept his ear to the ground and listened to the newer styles of music.”

At the time, I was surprised but it somehow made sense.

The Ellington – Rock music connection was reinforced for me years later when I found myself teaching at a festival with a faculty member from the Berklee College of Music, which is well- known for jazz and rock. My colleague told me that Ellington had once called Berklee during the 1960s, asking if they could him how to play Rock and Roll. (Imagine that!). The person on the phone apparently laughed it off but my friend thought that Ellington was being serious. He wanted to learn how to compose and play Rock music!

Duke did compose a few Rock compositions over the years. In my opinion the best of these is “Blue Pepper,” from The Far East Suite.

Here’s that very same Ramones performance that Art Baron and I witnesses in person during the 1989 telethon:

Ramones Live on Telethon 1989

And here’s Duke Ellington’s Rock tour de force, “Blue Pepper:”

Duke Ellington: Blue Pepper

And just to show how these generational and musical influences can go both ways, here’s Joey Ramone’s touching rendition of “What A Wonderful World,” which was from an earlier era of music:

Joey Ramone: What A Wonderful World

Like Duke Ellington, The Ramones, and Art Baron, I hope that both you and I enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”

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