Duke Ellington

By: Joe Alterio
April 29, 2014

Illustration by Joe Alterio
Illustration by Joe Alterio

New York, 1962: DUKE ELLINGTON (1899–1974) is at the tail end of his career, an aging participant in the big band wars; he’s an original jazz soldier, battered and tired of defending his reputation to bebop upstarts. He calls on his old errand-boy in Paris, Alan Douglas, who’s now a flack for United Artists. The Duke wants to make a record, just piano, upright bass, and drums. Something to strip it all away, something to show who Ellington really is.

Douglas suggests double bassist Charlie Mingus, who in turn suggests the young drummer Max Roach. The 63-year-old and the two young players meet only once before starting to play. According to Roach, he and Mingus are given nothing more than the melody and harmony for each song, and then a visual image as described by the aging Duke. One such example: “Crawling around on the streets are serpents who have their heads up; these are agents and people who have exploited artists. Play that along with the music.”

The angst and raw emotion are such that the three men shout and fight with each other, and with their instruments. Mingus storms out more than once through the one-day session — Ellington catches him at the elevator and brings him back with the smooth words of the grandfather of a musical form. Money Jungle (1963) is an album of change, of growth and explosion and anger and rage.

Put on Money Jungle, lean back in your chair, cradle your hands behind your head and tell me you can’t feel the Earth get birthed up from the ground, wild and wooly and full of worms and leaves and rocks and hair, feel it grow and build and become skyscrapers and telephone poles, and then crash upon itself, the full scope and cycle of evolution, until there’s nothing left but dust in your hands. Ellington is everything that ever was, and is now, and ever will be.

“Money Jungle” — title track from the 1963 album


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Maya Deren, Jack Williamson.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).


HiLo Heroes, Jazz, Music