Recent research on African-American jazz icon Duke Ellington (1899-1974) has increasingly focused on the composer-pianist-bandleader’s post-World War II achievements: a torrent of creativity across film, theater, and dance perhaps unrivaled in American music. But the unleashing of Ellington’s “late career” genius was not a foregone conclusion. It would take an ambitious — if not a little self-indulgent — multi-media project for Ellington to assure himself (and perhaps younger audiences) of his own stature in Civil Rights era popular culture. Before Broadway’s West Side Story, and a half-century before Hamilton, Ellington was celebrating the diversity of American identity through music on stage — and on live television.
Just prior to his vaunted Newport Jazz Festival appearance in July 1956, Ellington pitched Columbia Records producer Irving Townsend an idea for a stage revue project titled A Drum Is a Woman. The resulting album — co-written with assistant composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn, and featuring Ellington as narrator — would represent the first 12-inch LP disc to package exclusively all-new compositions by the Ellington/Strayhorn team. Tracing the evolution of jazz rhythm from Africa to the Caribbean, New Orleans, and New York City, Drum was expanded into a groundbreaking CBS television presentation — a “primetime” color-technology telecast with an all-black cast of performers that included dancers Talley Beatty and Carmen de Lavallade, singers Ozzie Bailey, Joya Sherrill, and Margaret Tynes, and drummer Candido Camero, as well as Ellington and his orchestra — that garnered extensive publicity around its live airing sixty years ago, on 8 May 1957.
It was a political landmark, but also a personal reaffirmation: Drum’s storyline celebrated the triumph of African-American culture alongside Ellington’s own biography, as the maestro’s story of “Madam Zajj” (that’s “jazz” backwards) offered an allegory to trace his career origins from the “jungle”-themed floor shows of the 1920s Cotton Club to the glitz of Swing Era Broadway to an optimistic Afro-futurist space on the moon. Despite more than a few narrative references that reinforce the misogynous views suggested by its title, A Drum Is a Woman convincingly presented Ellington’s case to justify his emerging role as an elder statesman of American music, framing him in the company of historical icons like New Orleans legend Buddy Bolden and “symphonic jazz” visionary Paul Whiteman. With its mastery of form and kaleidoscopic inclusion of calypso, swing, blues, and bebop, Drum would be a critical sparkplug for future concept-album ambitions, as heard in My People (1963), the New Orleans Suite (1970), and Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971).
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born 29 April 1899: just in time to assist in the transition of American popular music from ragtime to jazz, ride the emergence of disc recording, exploit commercial radio broadcasting, and contribute to early synchronized-sound film. During his lifetime — and continuing through the 1980s — Ellington was typically celebrated for his early-career achievements, when he popularized jazz standards like “Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Caravan,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and created groundbreaking works for stage (Jump for Joy, 1941) and concert hall (Black, Brown & Beige, 1943). But Ellington and his virtuosic orchestra continued to create masterpieces for another thirty years, ranging from the Liberian Suite (1947) to the Togo Brava Suite (1971), as well as projects that emerged posthumously (such as the Queen’s Suite, 1959) or have been otherwise overlooked (like the film score for Change of Mind, 1969). Biographies include Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington by John Edward Hasse (DaCapo, 1995), and Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen (University of Chicago, 2010).