A Record Fit For a Queen

For decades an aura of mystery surrounded Duke Ellington’s largely unheard composition The Queen’s Suite (1959). Ellington had been moved to create this ‘private’ recording following a 1958 meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, gifting a single copy of the completed project to Buckingham Palace the following year. Sequestered thereafter as a chattel of the Windsors, the album would be commercially unavailable until 1976, two years after Ellington’s death.

The famously opaque Elizabeth has not publicly commented on having inspired one of the musical masters of the twentieth century, and now at age 91, it seems unlikely she will. While the Queen’s feelings on the meeting and the resulting music are unknown, what is certain is that at the time he crossed paths with Britain’s royals, Ellington was himself an aristocrat, albeit of a different kind. For more than three decades, he had sat at the zenith of the music industry, a position owed not to the caprice of a noble birth but to unsurpassable talent and drive.

Edward Kennedy Ellington (he was nicknamed ‘Duke’ during childhood for his courtly manner) was born in Washington D.C. in 1899. In the early 1920s, he moved to New York, settling in Harlem and becoming prominent later in the decade as the leader of the orchestra at the now-legendary nightspot The Cotton Club. For nearly 50 years, Ellington  toured the world with his orchestra, while writing and recording prolifically.  Although Ellington’s claim to fathering jazz as a popular art form is strong as any, he was known to chafe at the creative ghettoization implied by the genre label, preferring the more encompassing ‘American music’ to describe his oeuvre. Working frequently with songwriting partner Billy Strayhorn, Ellington is credited with over 1000 songs, many of which have become standards. In 1958, he was sixty years old and enjoying an extended phase of late-career approbation. Two years earlier, he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Duke Ellington, b. 1899 d. 1973. Image: Wikipedia Commons

The circumstance of Ellington’s meeting with The Queen was relatively unexceptional. Two scheduled performances at the Leeds Music Festival had brought Ellington’s orchestra to the Northern English industrial city in the early winter of 1958. To celebrate the centennial of the music festival, the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Mary Pearce, had organised a gala reception at the Town Hall on the evening of October 18, the event’s last day, inviting the 32 year-old Queen Elizabeth and her handsome former naval commander husband, Philip, to be the Guests of Honour. The royal couple, in particular Philip, were Ellington fans, as was Elizabeth’s father George VI. Earlier that day, the Duke of Edinburgh had attended one of his performances with composer Benjamin Britten.

It is not surprising then that Ellington was among the performers from the festival invited to meet the royals at the reception. This encounter took place quite late in the evening, following their final performance. Wearing a tailcoat  and white silk shirt, Ellington was at the end of a long line of musicians waiting for an audience with Elizabeth. As a result, he enjoyed a longer conservation with her than the others.

In his memoir, Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington remembered being initially nervous in the presence of The Queen, who was calm and dignified. But when asked the innocuous, if banal, question of whether this was his first time in England, Ellington recalled ribbing Elizabeth flirtatiously that “my first time in England was in 1933, way before you were born. She gave me a real American look; very cool man, which I thought was too much.”

So apparently impressed was Ellington by the young  Queen’s poise (and, it seems, her beauty) during their brief exchange that the jazz master told her that he was sure “something musical would come out of it. She said she would be listening … so I wrote an album for her.” Finished the following year, that album is a suite of 6 themes, each inspired by a marvel Ellington had witnessed during his life and extensive travels.

Now is a good time to admit that as a whole I’m not overly laudatory or even familiar with the Queen’s Suite , which has a reputation as middling among Ellington’s output. I’ve never owned the record. But the album contains what is easily one of my favourite compositions for jazz piano, the three and a half-minute-long ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’. In Music is my Mistress, Ellington expanded on the beatific experience behind this tune, which occurred while he was on tour in Florida:

“One evening we were a little late leaving Tampa en route to West Palm Beach to make a gig. The weather was wonderful and it was just about sunset when, halfway across Florida, we passed a bird. We didn’t see it, but we heard its beautiful call. I asked Harry (Carney) if he heard it and he said, “Yeah.” We were a little too pushed for time, and going too fast to stop or go back and thank the bird, so I pulled out my pencil and paper and wrote that lovely phrase down. I spent the next two or three days whistling it to the natives, and inquiring what kind of bird it could have been that sang such a beautiful melody. Finally, I was convinced it had to be a mockingbird. I made an orchestration around that melody, titled it “Sunset And The Mocking Bird” and included it in the Queen’s Suite as one of the “beauty” experiences of my life.”

Like any jazz tune worth its salt, ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’ has been covered by several artists over the years. These are my three favourite recordings of the song:

1. Duke Ellington, ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’, The Queen’s Suite (1959).

The original and arguably the most swinging version. I’ve always found Ellington’s piano something of a paradox in that it seems simplistic and heavy-fingered, yet stirring. The snaky clarinet gives the track an almost eastern sound.

2. Tommy  Flanagan ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’ Sunset and the Mockingbird (1997)

Tommy Flanagan’s interpretation of ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’ is the title track of the Harlem pianist’s 1997 set at New York’s famous Village Vanguard jazz club. The relatively unsung Flanagan is an immaculate pianist and his interpretation adds complexity and nuance to the tune.

3. Wynton Marsalis, ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’, Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra Live in Cuba (2015)

Multiple Grammy winner Wynton Marsalis is the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Centre—arguably the finest orchestra working today. On this version from the recording of a concert they gave in Havana in 2010, its thrilling to hear the beautiful refrain played on Marsalis’ controlled trumpet.

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