Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ellington and Strayhorn

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on this day in 1899, in Washington D.C. Duke began piano lessons at age 7, but preferred baseball. He got his first job selling peanuts at Washington Senators games. He was 28 when he played his first gig at the Cotton Club in Harlem. The engagement lasted three years.

But it wasn't until 1938 that he met his muse and collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Ellington was 39, Strayhorn 17. Ellington called him "my right arm, my left arm... the eyes in the back of my head." Together they wrote such classic numbers as Lotus Blossom, Chelsea Bridge, Satin Doll and the Ellington band's greatest hit, Take the A Train. Ellington appears six times in A Book of Ages.

As interesting as the lives and incidents are the conversations that strike up between the characters in the book when they find themselves in the same chapter. We have Robert Frost, at age 41, publishing his poem The Road Not Taken, and in the next breath Duke Ellington, also 41, recording Take the A Train, the one artist answering the other. I chose these incidents because both the poem and the song were about choices people make. Choices and decisions are a theme in the book. The juxtaposition was serendipity. A lucky chance I didn't catch until I was sorting the entries in that chapter. These small jokes are here and there in the book, like the casual comment someone makes at a party that you didn't realize was funny at the time, and you laugh about it on the way home in the car.

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