The New York Times: July 18, 1988
by John J. O'Connor


The two-part documentary A Duke Called Ellington - beginning on Channel 13 tonight at 9 o'clock - is being presented by public television's American Masters series as a "musical portrait." The label reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the production. There is plenty of wonderful Ellington music, with an orchestra featuring some of the century's greatest jazz musicians. But the man himself remains something of a mystery. Without the orchestra, he is almost invisible. But maybe Edward Kennedy Ellington, who died at age 75 in 1974, wanted it that way.


Produced and directed by Terry Carter, A Duke Called Ellington received some production support from the Council for Positive Images in California. This may account for the tendency to carefully avoid or downplay anything that might be considered negative. There is a passing reference to the groupies of all ages who could usually be found in Mr. Ellington's dressing room, but a discreet veil is drawn over his ebullient and well-known appreciation for women. His refusal to become an activist in the civil-rights movement is mentioned gingerly. Ron Smith, a hair stylist, recalls: "We never talked about race. He never believed in color. People are people."

Yet, by publicly remaining his suave and elegant self, Mr. Ellington was always a symbol of pride for his people. Unlike Louis Armstrong and others, he always resisted pressures to play the ingratiating comic. He merely sat at his piano and, with a genius for selecting the very best musicians for his orchestra, took adventurous excursions into new sounds. The band became his instrument and, as it has been noted, he was able to evoke from it Ravel-like splashes of color. During nearly a half-century of professional music making, he created more than 2,000 compositions. At the end of the second hour, scheduled for next Monday, the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock says Mr. Ellington "certainly deserves as much attention as - if not more than -George Gershwin." There have been encouraging signs recently that the work of Duke Ellington is finally about to get the recognition it deserves.

Meanwhile, this television survey offers generous samples of Mr. Ellington and his orchestra in performance. Much of the material, in black and white, comes from Europe -Denmark in particular - where broadcasters have traditionally been more diligent about paying attention to great music. In any event, here are the familiar arrangements, from Take the A Train to Mood Indigo, and the less-known compositions, from The Far East Suite to Timon of Athens. The powerful soloists include Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Ben Webster, Russell Procope, Clark Terry and Jimmy Hamilton. And then there is Mr. Ellington himself, demonstrating his improvisational skills on the piano. The details of his life may still remain somewhat obscure, but this profile should send listeners scurrying to find his old recordings.