Chamberfest: On the A Train with Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington. Photo: Louis Panassié

As long as Rob Kapilow has been coming to Ottawa, he’s wanted to do a Duke Ellington program.

“To me,” Kapilow said, in an interview with ARTSFILE, “Duke Ellington is the best of America. If anyone was welcoming to anything and everyone it was Duke Ellington. He embraced all people, all music.”

And wherever the Duke went, Kapilow said, he listened to the music and it all became part of his style.

This What Makes It Great presentation at Chamberfest on July 29 with the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra isn’t about one piece of music. It features five pieces that Kapilow believes are emblematic of the evolution of Ellington’s music.

Rob Kapilow. Photo: Schaaf.

Ellington created a truly American voice, Kapilow said, and one that completely changed over time.

Ellington had an astonishing 50 year career during which he kept his band on tour 52 weeks a year for 50 years.

“Through all those changes and the ups and downs of jazz’s popularity, he kept that band going. It’s sort of amazing how he managed to do that.”

That determination to tour was evident in how he played the U.S. South.

To avoid the humiliation of going to segregated hotels, Ellington used a train and all the musicians would stay on board. They’d never have to deal with racist hotels. 

Ellington always insisted that he didn’t write jazz. He wrote American music that told the story of the world as he saw it, Kapilow said.

He grew up in Washington D.C. Both his parents played the piano and they sent him to his first piano teacher whose name was Mrs. Marietta Clinkscales. But his interest in music was really piqued in the poolrooms of Washington, D.C., his hometown.

“Sitting there listening to other pianists play, that was really his education.”

Ellington was actually a talented painter and even had a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York.

But music was his thing. While he would be painting signs for people when he was really young he would offer to play for their parties as well. And he became a popular promoter of dance bands in DC in his late teens, Kapilow said.

“One of the big divisions in jazz at the time was between the ear guys who never really read music and the sight guys who did read scores,” Kapilow said.

“Duke for many years was an ear guy. He learned the old fashioned way. Later he bridged that divide. His band started with mostly ear guys. Over time as his music became more sophisticated, the sight guys took over.”

Ellington was also known for his manners and his style.  

His family was very conscious of good manners and proper behaviour. His manners were noticed by his friends and because of that one of them gave him the nickname Duke.

The middle class African American community in Washington was determined to find its way into mainstream American society in this way, Kapilow said. It was a way to repudiate hundreds of years of slavery.

Ellington was a leading figure in the emergence into the world of a truly American form in music — jazz. His one of the first really successful voices created out of American roots, from gospel and the blues, Kapilow said.

“People in the 1920s and ’30s wanted to get out of the white tie world. Jazz speaks to them. It’s the musical vernacular language of the 20th century.

“We live in the world of groove music as Wynton Marsalis says,” Kapilow said. 

The program starts with It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) followed by Harlem Air Shaft, Peanut Brittle Brigade, Single Petal of a Rose, which Ellington wrote for Queen Elizabeth II and it concludes with Chinoiserie off one of his last albums. 

It Don’t Mean A Thing shows, Kapilow said, what Ellington could do in the 1930s when what was possible was determined by the space you could fill in on a record which was three minutes long.

The song, which is also Ellington’s musical credo, shows how advanced he was with orchestration, harmony, form and rhythm, Kapilow said.

Harlem Air Shaft was written five years later and it shows how his talent has exploded.

“He literally created it out of real life, out of what you hear in a Harlem Air Shaft. He was creating American music out of what was right around him; what he heard every night he went to bed in Harlem — the sounds, the smells, the street… That’s how an effective voice gets created.”

Ellington smushed everything together in his musical thinking. One of pieces Kapilow has programmed is an example of that. The Peanut Brittle Brigade is his version of the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite.

“Wynton Marsalis and the New York Philharmonic do it regularly. The Philharmonic plays Tchaikovsky and Marsalis plays the Peanut Brittle Brigade.

“When the Philharmonic ends and the Ellington begins, Kapilow says, “suddenly the performance lifts. The whole room relaxes and the entire spirit in the place changes. As much as I love the Tchaikovsky it can’t compare to Duke Ellington.”

The piano duet Single Petal of a Rose is on the bill for two reasons: one because people often focus on the band and his writing for his band and not the fact that he was a fantastic piano player, Kapilow said.

It also shows how he’s absorbing other classical influences like Erik Satie, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Chinoiserie shows Ellington at end of his life absorbing the music of the world.   

Chamberfest presents What Makes It Great
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
The Music of Duke Ellington
With Rob Kapilow and the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: July 29 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.