Music Video Distributors presents
Duke Ellington: Memories of Duke (1980)
"Any musician you talk to, white, black, grizzled or gray, wanted to play with Duke Ellington's band, believe me."- Russell Procope, Ellington's clarinetist
Stars: Duke Ellington, Russell Procope, Cootie Williams
Other Stars: Paul Gonsalves, Jeff Castleman, Lawrence Brown, Harold Ashley, Johnny Hodges, Trish Turner, Harry Carney
Director: Gary Keys
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:20m:50s
Release Date: 2002-11-19
DVD ReviewAll artists in every field owe a debt to their predecessors; any heights reached these days are in large measure because we are standing on the shoulders of giants. And in the world of jazz, in many respects, one man is more giant than all others: Duke Ellington was truly the jazz world's greatest Renaissance man, a gifted pianist and big band leader, a composer of great swing tunes and spiritual music and orchestral suites and song cycles. He's best known and achieved his greatest fame with songs for his band like Don't Get Around Much Anymore and Satin Doll, but his legacy is far richer and more complex than just a series of great tunes that topped the charts back in the day.
He was a reserved figure, though, and in terms of remembering the man and his legacy, it seems a great shame that the vérité style of documentary filmmaking came into vogue only decades after Ellington's heyday. And so what was true of a previous documentary covering some of the same ground, On The Road With Duke Ellington, is true to a lesser extent of this one as well: you'll come away from it with an earful of great music, but you probably won't learn very much about the man.
Despite the film's title, there aren't in fact all that many memories of Duke. There are brief reminiscences with the filmmaker by Cootie Williams, who played the trumpet for years in Ellington's band; and Russell Procope, Ellington's lead clarinetist. No date is given, but it seems as if these interviews were recorded not too long after Ellington's death, in 1974; Procope in particular is interested only in lionizing Ellington: "He was the best. The best!" Which is true, but Procope also talks about, for instance, playing Ellington's Mood Indigo every single night for twenty-eight years; he insists that he found it new and fresh each time, but it's hard not to think that Ellington at least felt shackled by the obligation to trot out his greatest hits every damn night. (Really, do you think Mick Jagger takes much pleasure these days in yet another rendition of Satisfaction?)
Most of the film is concert footage shot in Mexico in 1968; some of it was recorded in front of packed houses, some looks as if it's just from rehearsals. What's a little odd is that the film cuts together bits of the same song from different performances—it's unclear just when the sound was recorded, but what's very disconcerting is that in the space of just a few bars, Ellington is wearing a blue jacket, then a red one, then a black one.
There are also some unidentified clips of Ellington and his ensemble from earlier days, and perhaps the highlight of the film is an early version of Mood Indigo, from the 1940s, probably, followed by a new arrangement of the same song, honed over the years into a more nuanced, tighter arrangement. (Okay, so maybe Procope was on to something.)
Ellington's compositions took him far afield, but his audience didn't always follow; the set list here is a nice mixture of the standards you'd expect (Take the 'A' Train sounds especially inspired) with some of Ellington's more ambitious work, like Mexican Suite, which runs over twenty minutes. The full roster:
Black And Tan Fantasy
Creole Love Call
It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
Things Ain't What They Used To Be
Take The 'A' Train
Do Nothing 'Till You Hear From Me
It's a great set, and is the principal reason to tune in to this tuneful documentary.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The print used for the DVD transfer looks ancient, full of scratches and debris, with badly faded colors; it appears as if no effort at all went in to cleaning it up for DVD. The poor video quality is exacerbated by the limited camera technology of the time; one wants to be forgiving, given the perils of shooting musicians live, but frequently the figure in a shot is drastically out of focus. Just a generally sloppy and slapdash effort here.
Image Transfer Grade: D
Audio Transfer Review: Much more attention was lavished on the sound than on the picture, which is probably what you'd expect on a documentary about a jazz musician. The 5.1 track sounds best when the band is at full blast—here's where Take The 'A' Train sounds especially warm and lively. But the 2.0 track is more than adequate, and in some respects is frequently preferable, particularly on some of the extended solos by the members of Ellington's ensemble. It's also sort of a nuisance that you cannot readily switch from track to track with your remote, but have to go to the menu for that.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Music/Song Access with 13 cues and remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
- catalog of other MVD jazz titles
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsEllington's music is front and center in this film, and if you're a fan, it's a pleasure to see Duke still sounding terrific well into the 1960s; it's not much of a portrait of the man, however, and certainly doesn't reveal Ellington in the manner that, say, Let's Get Lost does about Chet Baker, or Straight, No Chaser does for Thelonious Monk. But hey, it's an excuse to listen to Ellington's band play tunes like Take The 'A' Train, which is always welcome, though no excuses should be necessary.
Jon Danziger 2002-12-04