Arts: To the Duke, with devotion

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born 100 years ago today. To commemorate the centenary of the greatest and most recorded jazz artist of the century, we asked 10 leading musicians from Britain and the States to nominate their favourite recordings of material written by the Duke, or by members of his orchestra. Compiled by Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
Wynton Marsalis

trumpeter and artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center, New York

When you come into contact with Duke Ellington, you're interacting with the very substance and essence of what American life is all about. Once you understand it, it transforms your life, and opens you up to a world of beauty that perhaps you didn't know existed. Ellington composed over 2000 works in his life; he's the most prolific American composer of the 20th century. He wrote the perfect song for whatever mood you're in, so it would be impossible to choose one favourite. However, I have a special affection for many of his later works, such as "The New Orleans Suite", "Afro-Eurasian Eclipse", "The Far East Suite", and "Such Sweet Thunder", since the band had been playing together for so long and Duke was drawing ideas from so many diverse sources.

Phil Collins

singer and drummer

To me, Duke Ellington personifies elegance. His band, his music and his look took the music of his day to a new level. I have a particular kinship with "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me", which was written by his trumpet player Cootie Williams. Lyrics were added and Al Hibbler made the song a hit. Quincy Jones asked me to sing the song on his Juke Joint record and it was a great experience for me. It's a tough melody to sing but it exemplifies the subtleties of Duke's music.

George Russell


When I was a schoolboy in Ohio in the Thirties, I heard Duke on the jukebox on the way home from school, and later played with him in Chicago. I can't name a favourite track - I can't break Duke down that way. In my opinion, his music is on too high a level to be categorised.

Charlie Haden


My favourite Duke Ellington tracks are from 1940 when he did the duets with bassist Jimmy Blanton such as "Pitter Panther Patter" and "Body and Soul." When Blanton bowed "Body and Soul", I don't think I've ever heard anything so beautiful and beyond category. My favourite Ellington album is the soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder, particularly the track "Low Key Lighting" where Ray Nance takes a solo on violin; it's absolutely amazing.

Claire Martin


There are so many favourites, but it has to be Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life", recorded by Ella Fitzgerald on 26 June 1957 for the Duke Ellington Songbook album. It's a great artist singing one of the most perfect of songs and it's stunning, a whole portrayal of the dark side of love. It's a scary song for a singer, but Ella does it with so much love, and she's accurate and soulful too. She and Duke sang it at Billy Strayhorn's funeral. I've never sung it myself because you have to be older. It's waiting for me, and I'm saving it for my forties.

Stan Tracey


"A Tone Parallel to Harlem". It's a suite. Why do I like it? It's the writing and the whole thing. I just find it very pleasurable, especially from a writer's point of view.

John Surman

baritone saxophonist and reeds player

The first time I heard the Ellington band was in the Sixties at the Astoria, Finsbury Park, and it was like a visit to the Holy Grail. In 1969 I met the great Harry Carney, Duke's baritone player, and he was an absolute charmer. I've always felt I owed an enormous debt to him; he made me proud to be a baritone player. My favourite track is Carney playing one of those Strayhorn things. "The Tattooed Bride" is the main suite, and it's so beautiful, but it's the iron fist in the velvet glove again. Yes, it's beautiful, but it swings like the clappers at the same time.

Julian Joseph


The legacy is gigantic, totally mammoth. It's not only the volume of it, but the profound density. He defined jazz with everything he did: by swinging, by adding colours to the harmony, and by bringing form to the big band. It's hard to take one track because the album for him is like a track for someone else. But there's a performance of "Come Sunday" in "The Black and Tan Fantasy" that I really love. The orchestra sounds like the wind, the rain, and the elements. So simple and beautiful.

Gavin Bryars

composer and bassist

As a teenager in 1959 or 1960 I hitchhiked from Goole to Sheffield City Hall to see Ellington, sitting behind the band for the performance. What interested me a lot about him was the whole idea of the jazz composer. To someone like myself, it's daunting to see someone write music of that volume and that quality. My favourite track would be "Lush Life", recorded by the singer Sheila Jordan, with Arild Andersen on bass.

Guy Barker


I have no real favourite because there's such a wealth of stuff, but my best music would be from the collaborations with Billy Strayhorn, such as "Such Sweet Thunder" or "The Far East Suite". For me, Strayhorn was the guy. My choice would be the last thing you hear on the album called And His Mother Called Him Bill. The tape was left running as the musicians left the studio and at the end you hear Duke playing what I think is "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing".

We Love You Madly!, the Royal Festival Hall's Duke Ellington festival, today to Sat. On Sat at 5pm in the QEH the London Sinfonietta premieres new works commissioned for the centenary by Gavin Bryars, Simon Bainbridge, Nikki Iles, Carla Bley, Louis Andriessen and Paul Ruders, 0171-960 4242. Jump for Joy, a celebration of Ellington's centenary, Barbican, June and July, 0171-638 8891