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February 2014
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Duke Ellington: Great American Composer

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

”The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician”

—Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington: bandleader, composer—pioneer—it’s impossible to imagine the big band sound without him. He created; other people worried about what to call it. He rightly proclaimed his genre to be “American music”—it was a synthesis between work songs, spirituals, Tin Pan Alley, minstrel shows, rag time, blues, and the European Classical tradition. Though he wrote over three thousand songs, gave thousands of shows, the constant innovation which characterizes his fifty-year career is what makes him a marvel to jazz musicians.

“Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is his band. Each member of his band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I like to call the “Ellington Effect.””

—Billy Strayhorn

Ellington the innovator is where the producers of Queenie Pie picked up his thread. It was the Duke’s dream to compose a “street opera” on the story of Madam C.J. Walker, a self-made millionaire from Harlem.  Though he started composition of Queenie Pie in 1962, some setbacks in addition to his success as a performer frequently interrupted Ellington’s work. Sadly Queenie Pie remained unfinished at his death in 1974. What exists is nothing less than the work of a brilliant composer. Pulling it off as an intact theatrical piece—bringing new cooks to the kitchen—has been the greatest challenge to getting this music heard. Chicago Opera Theater’s general director Andreas Mitisek took up that challenge, bringing it to Chicago’s Harris Theater.

The COT production is this week’s WFMT Arts Feature created by Matt DeStefano and David Polk.

Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie runs through March 5.

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