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Thursday, 04 October 2007

I Want to Play Like Duke Ellington

By Paul Henry aka The Old Professor of Paulz Blog

Way back when I was 18 years old, I was living in Springfield, Massachusetts. A frequent Sunday activity was borrowing the family car and driving 25 or 30 miles to the State Theater in nearby Hartford, Connecticut, with some buddies.

Every weekend the State Theater would have one of the popular orchestras or bands featured onstage. I saw most of the best - Harry James, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Cab Calloway and the list goes on and on. I even saw a 19-year old, scrawny-necked kid named Frank Sinatra when he was the vocalist for Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. Yes, the girls screamed though I couldn’t understand why. To this day, I don’t know why.

But to me the most memorable show was Duke Ellington with his orchestra. I clearly remember him strolling on to the stage dressed in white tails. He sat at the piano, flipped the tails back, threw his hands in the general direction of the keyboard and began to play beautiful music.

Not only that, he looked around and smiled. He was also conducting the orchestra as well as chatting with them. He even spoke to members of the audience. The best I could tell, he paid little attention to the piano but yet, the music was great.

After seeing that show, it occurred to me that it might be nice to be able to do that. We had a piano in our house, though no one knew how to play it. I thought it would be nice if I could learn to do that. I didn’t have the white tails or an orchestra, but I could do the rest. Anyone could; it was easy.

I contacted a local piano teacher and made an appointment for my first lesson. Since there was a war going on and I was working many extra hours at my apprentice tool-and-die-maker job as well as attending Northeastern University three nights a week, Saturday afternoon was the only time I had free. So I went to my first lesson.

When I first met my teacher, I took some time to explain carefully what my goals were. I had absolutely no aspirations or interests in becoming an accomplished concert pianist. I just wanted to play for fun. I didn’t even need to learn to read music unless that was absolutely necessary for some reason I couldn’t imagine. He kept nodding even when I told him, "I just want to learn to play like Duke Ellington."

He didn’t even smile. He just nodded.

For my first lesson, he showed me where to place my hands. Apparently pianists don’t just throw their hands up there any old place, although Duke Ellington did it that way.

Then he demonstrated how each finger hits a key. He had me repeat what he did with my right hand. There were five fingers and, starting with the thumb, it was "dah-doh-dee-dum-di." In a very un-Ellingtonian way he had me repeat this several times.

Then we went the other way. Starting with the little finger it was "id-mud-eed-hod-had". Pretty soon he had me doing "dah-doh-dee-dum-di-id-mud-eed-hod-had"

An hour went by and then we were finished until the next Saturday afternoon. I was to practice what I had learned at home. All I had learned was, "dah-doh-dee-dum-di-id-mud-eed-hod-had". I was pretty disappointed. I couldn’t see that as being much fun at a party and I was sure Duke Ellington didn’t do that. Ever.

Due to work schedules and probably a moderate lack of interest, I was unable to practice at all when, all of a sudden, it was time to go to my next lesson. I was sure it wouldn’t matter much as it certainly didn’t take any skill to do what I had learned. I decided not to mention that I hadn’t practiced during the week.

He asked me to show him what we had learned last week. I did and he looked incredulous as he said, "Didn’t you practice at all during the week?"

I explained about the work and how I didn’t want to really be a pianist and, because apparently he hadn’t understood me the first time, I repeated that I just wanted to be able to play like Duke Ellington.

Lesson Two consisted of the same thing as Lesson One except it was with the left hand. My teacher promised that soon we would do that with both hands.

As I drove home from Lesson Two, a gnawing suspicion began to creep into my mind. I didn’t think my teacher even knew who Duke Ellington was.

I canceled my next lessons and I never did learn to play the piano with both hands at the same time. One blessing was that I hadn't done as I had planned and bought the white suit with the tails.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


lol I always wanted to play like the Duke, too! For me, he was one of the finest musicians ever!

Remember the answer to the question, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"? Practice, practice, practice! Somehow I never understood that!

Oh yeah -- and talent helps! I didn't have it. Sigh.

Thanks for a fun story!

You had a great and admirable ambition. Unfortunately, you found out that it takes much more than desire to play like the Duke. I played by ear when I was a child. My grandmother was a music teacher and I was the 'shoemaker's daughter'. She never had time for me and I learned to read music by listening to her give lessons to other children. Although I can play over 200 compositions by ear, I will never be able to sound like Duke Ellington. Very few pianists can because he had a beautiful style that was all his own. I loved his music.

Hi Paul,

We must have been at the shows about the same time.

I was at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia and saw Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman,Tommy Dorsey and the rest,including Frank Sinatra.

You wanted to play like Duke and I wanted to be the "Girl" singer. How I envied her in her beautiful evening gown and upswept hair; all dressed up at the 10:00 A.M. show. Of course, I stayed the whole day and saw her about 5 times.

It was a big disappointment to us regulars when the management decided they were losing too much money and cleared the theatre after each show. I would have stayed forever just to see that "Girl" sing over and over again.

I did play piano, but never like the Duke - who was the KING of jazz for me. Luckily, I got to see Louis Armstrong once, in Va. Beach, on my second anniversary. It was a great show!

It's wonderful to see someone making up music as they go along. My grandfather used to hold us spellbound around the piano--he put himself through college by playing piano for silent movie houses. "Here is the villain" (minor key, loud thumps in the bass) "Here is the heroine" (sweet sweeping tinkly sounds in the treble) "He is tying her to the railroad track!" (triumphant bass thunder, trills of treble distress) "But here comes the cavalry!" (William Tell overture).

He also had a bunch of old comic songs--I imagine Google could help me find some of those lyrics--"Percival Green, sweet and serene, demonstrated vanishing cream, in Macy's Department Store." Percival really wanted to be a fireman.

Delightful, delightful indeed.

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