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Queenie Pie, Duke Ellington’s neglected “opera”

January 26, 2014

I had no idea that Duke Ellington had ever composed an opera until I saw Long Beach Opera’s 2014 season.  Turns out it’s not truly what could be called an opera, but it’s definitely the closest Ellington ever came to writing one. You can read about in the latest issue of LA Weekly, or you can click here.

I thought my story would be an online article, so it had a high word count when I turned it in (you don’t need to worry about column space in cyberspace). A few things wound up cut, so I’m including them here if you don’t know much about Ellington’s music.

At the top of this post: a composition Duke Ellington wrote to showcase Cootie Williams’ unique trumpet playing. One of the biggest challenges facing modern bands playing Ellington’s arrangements is that so much of his band’s sound was inextricably linked to his soloists. When Ellington wrote an alto saxophone part, he wasn’t just writing for any old alto saxophone. He wrote specifically for Johnny Hodges. In an interview, I asked music director Jeffrey Lindberg about this issue, and he replied

“If players are able to get that Ellington soloist’s sound, they will; if not, they’ll do it their own way. It depends on the specific number. Cootie Williams’ trumpet sound has to be authentic, or else it doesn’t sound right.”

In “Concerto for Cootie,” an Ellington composition, Williams uses  two different trumpet mutes, as well as playing open trumpet. You can also hear him “growling,” which was a classic sound that Ellington frequently required from his trumpet soloists. Growl technique went all the way back to Ellington’s Cotton Club band and the trumpeter therein who popularized that sound, Bubber Miley.

There are several numbers interpolated into Queenie Pie that weren’t in Ellington’s original score. One of these is “Creole Love Call,” which was mainly composed by Bubber Miley. Not only can you hear Bubber Miley himself, but immediately before his solo (and in the final chorus), Adelaide Hall imitates Miley with her voice. A vocalist imitating a trumpeter imitating a vocalist!

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