A Laurel For The Duke In His Centenary Year

At midnight Dec. 31, the first official century of jazz history will come to an end.

It is, perhaps, then, appropriate to point out that the quick second known as the witching hour also will mark the end of a year-long celebration among jazzers of the centenary year of Edward Kennedy Ellington.

The Duke.

The elegant Duke, who loved us all madly and who, like some musical Superman, changed the course of mighty musical rivers, and bent our minds with his bare hands, whether they rested on the keyboard of a piano or held the pencils he used to write down so many of the striking melodies that have become standards.

In partnership with Billy Strayhorn and others, Duke gave new meaning to jazz right up until the moment he died on May 24, 1974, in New York City.

Though his nickname doesn't reflect it, Duke was the first among a gaggle of musicians who can be regarded as the high officialdom of jazz.

We have the grand legacies of William ''Count" Basie, another fine pianist, composer and arranger; Lester "The President" Young, who blew his delicate and inventive tenor saxophone lines around and about the haunting, brooding vocals of "Lady Day," the brilliant Billie Holiday; Nat "King" Cole, whose prowess at the keyboard was overshadowed by the silkiness of his voice.

But it was Duke who orchestrated everything from the "A" Train to Coltrane.

And it was his grand orchestra that served as the training ground for so many journeyman musicians who were able to sustain relevant, often fascinating, solo careers once they'd left his bandstand.

Count 'em: Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Louis Bellson, Sam Nanton, Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Clark Terry, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves -- well, you get the idea.

If you pull a list out of a hat of jazz musicians who performed anywhere at all during Duke's remarkable 50-year run, chances are better than average that any particular one of them chosen at random will have passed through the Ellington orchestra.

The range of his music is staggering, and it is a wondrous thing to listen to the various periods of Ellingtonia. The master moved from small combos in his early career to ever larger units, expanding his musical palette all the while.

There were the pop tunes, the blues, the tightly orchestrated and grandly conceived suites, the dance workouts, the slipping of the reins by his soloists as they explored each nook and cranny of Ellington classics, and the striking sacred music.

Who of us hasn't caught himself whistling "Satin Doll" or "Solitude" or "Mood Indigo" or "Sophisticated Lady" as we go about our mundane chores? And is there anyone alive who doesn't recognize that slippery piano intro to "Take The 'A' Train"?

When this century finally passes into history, it will be like a booster rocket falling away after having launched a space shuttle into orbit, only it will have launched something much more important. The jazz that is the object of my affection will continue on its trajectory of adventure because the fuel that boosted us along was named Edward Kennedy Ellington.

The Duke.

God bless him.