“[…] Duke, in spite of what some people might think, was an excellent pianist.”
(Pianist Hank Jones, in an interview with Ted Panken)
A lot has been said in recent weeks about Duke Ellington on the Internet. A new biography by Terry Teachout and a review of it in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik have raised a few eyebrows and made some people angry. I haven’t read Teachout’s book, but I know Gopnik’s review. The problem with it is that he seems not to have listened to much of Ellington’s colossal output.
Some of the criticism towards those texts have to do with Ellington’s relationship with his writing and arranging companion, Billy Strayhorn, and his piano playing. I think this recording of Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom”, made after his death, speaks volumes about both aspects.
The introduction to “Take the A Train” in this video is also telling about Ellington and Strayhorn
In the beginning of his article, Gopnik calls Ellington “a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano”. Incidentally, a few months ago I compiled a playlist showcasing Duke’s piano. There are solo pieces, duets, trios, and a quartet (with a guitar). For no particular reason, I decided against including horns (there are quartet sessions featuring tenor men Paul Gonsalves and John Coltrane). In total, there are 168 tracks (about ten hours) of ducal piano recorded from 1928 to 1972, in chronological order. All the usual suspects (Money Jungle, Piano in the Foreground…) are included, plus other bits and pieces from a number of albums and compilations. I think it's fair to say that he played more than “O.K. piano”, even if he wasn't a full-time piano player. I'd also say that his stylistic arch is no less than astonishing.
I hope you enjoy Duke’s piano: