Larry & THE DUKE (II}

Young Larry and his family had a hard-scramble life in the Dakotas. Young Edward lived in a fine house in a good neighborhood in Washington D.C.

The Duke’s father’s artist talent got him a good job making blueprints for the U.S. Navy, and before that served as a White House butler. Both young Ellington’s parents were well known pianists in D.C. and were hired to perform at both private and government functions. His mother specialized in parlor music. His father in operatic arias. Edward started his ‘playing’ the piano at the age of three. At the age of eleven he began to receive lessons from a prominent teacher.

His musical life of light classical began to change around the age of fourteen when he began to sneak into a pool hall to listen to the piano players beating out jazz, ragtime, blues, music that here- to -for he had only heard about.

It was around this time Edward got the nickname Duke. He was a dapper dresser and had casual air about him. His friends thought Edward just didn’t fit him and one of them titled him Duke. The name not only stuck, it replaced his given name.

The Duke composed his first of over a thousand compositions, Soda Fountain Rag. He was fifteen and could neither read or write music. He felt that his skill was not playing piano but composing. He worked hard to learn the mechanics of music. He also began to organize combos and to play at dances. Like his father, Duke was an exceptional artist, so much so he was offered an art scholarship to Pratt Institute; which he turned down because he believed strongly that his music would be his life.

Earning money by day as a sign painter, playing gigs at night. Soon his combo, The Duke’s Serenaders, was playing embassy parties and private functions in D.C. and nearby Virginia, playing for both Afro-Americans and white audiences. The Duke was on his way…

But like all over-night successes in Show Biz it was a lot of hard work and a lot of two steps forward, one step back; and often one forward, two back. The early 1920’s saw him and his ensemble hopping between New York and D.C. with an occasional stop in Atlantic City. His ensemble grew both in size and in quality. His compositions grew and various musicians in his band often took a different approach to a song. Ellington’s musical horizons expanded as did his popularity and respect as both a composer and as band leader.

In 1926, Irvin Mills, a prominent music publisher and jazz artist promoter, came to an Ellington club date to scout the Duke out as a possible client. He was so impressed he signed Ellington that very night. Mills only took 45% of Ellington Inc.. Sounds like a lot today, but it was an unheard of contract between a white agent and a black musician. It was usually that the musician got only 40% or less.

Mills relieved Ellington of the business end that robbed the Duke of time better spent with his music. Getting recording gigs, radio air play, films, and live performances at prominent venues.

On of these venues was the famous Cotton Club where the Ellington Orchestra was house band on several extended occasions, and later as guest artists. It was the Prohibition Era and also the Jim Crow Era. The performers were black and came in through the back door. The audience was white and paid big money while coming in the front door. Ellington was expected to compose and play ‘jungle music’. This segregation at the club ended thanks a lot in part by Ellington.

As the Depression took hold, the recording business suffered; but radio exposed the Duke to a growing audience and tours became the band’s mainstay. Ellington’s compositions during those years, like Mood Indigo and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, were big hits no matter who sang or played them. Then in 1938, a composer/arranger, Billy Strayhorn, applied to Ellington as a lyricist.

Strayhorn brought Lush Life, a song he composed as a teenager, to show the Duke a sample of his work. He also began to outline different arrangements of a few of Ellington’s work. Duke found his ‘left hand, his right hand’, the missing link in his musical journey.

Like his idol, the Duke, Strayhorn’s musical foundation was classical. His dream was to be a classical composer; but he knew that a black would never be accepted in the classical music world of the day, so jazz became his medium…until he discovered the jazz/classical compositions of Ellington.

The two worked as one, composing in the classical vein of suites. Strayhorn made new arrangements for Ellington’s standards as well as composing songs on his own. The first Ellington recording of a Strayhorn work was Take The A Train which became the signature introduction of the Ellington’s Orchestra. For the next 25+ years the two collaborated, one working on a theme and the other jumping in, until it became impossible to credit either one for the completed work.

The Swing Era/Big Band Era began in the mid-30’s and continued for a good ten years. While the white Big Bands, like Dorseys, Harry James, Glen Miller, took the lead in popularity and money, the black Big Bands, like Ellington, Basie, Cab Calloway, had good years also. Radio, juke boxes, recordings, even cameo in movies, combined to make it a golden age for big band jazz music, black and white. While most of the bands followed a common road, the Duke and his musical compositions took a more serious musical route, not relying only on the tried and true hits of the past.

This route took it’s toll on Ellington’s orchestra after WWII. Swing was replaced by Be Bop and promoters found that small groups, trios, quartets, brought in good audiences at much less cost. Great musicians, like Armstrong and Hampton, broke away from bands and fronted these combos.

It was the birth of Cool Jazz, aka West Coast Jazz. Dave Brubeck’s quartet with Paul Desmond. Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker. Modern Jazz Quartet. And of course, Miles Davis.

The early 50’s brought a severe revolution in music. Teenagers became prime movers and R&B, Rock & Roll on cheap 45 discs introduced new idols like Presley, Little Richard, Pat Boone, to replace the likes of Sinatra and the Andrew Sisters. Hits and misses in the main stream were often dictated by disc jockeys, often televised, and the Top 40 on the radio was influenced by bribes called payola. Black recording artists were ripped off big time by their white ‘agents’.

Ellington had long fought against the three- minute cut on LP records and there was no room for Ellington’s vision of his music on a 45 disc.. His music needed much more space. His music needed an orchestra not a small combo. His genius refused to lower the bar.

In 1950 he and his orchestra stayed afloat thanks to a Europe tour, set up by the Black- Listed Orson Welles. They did 74 gigs in 77 days. During which he managed to compose music for a Welles’ stage production as well as performing a Welles’ variety show in Paris. While he never played any new personal compositions on tour he managed to finish his extended composition Harlem in his ‘spare time’.

Returning home, times were tough. Dance gigs and concert tours were few and far between. His royalties from his standards brought him the needed money to compose his serious music and to managed to keep his key musicians alive. But by 1955 there wasn’t a record company that wanted him.

And then in the evening of July 7, 1956, a string of unlikely occurrences combined to make a perfect storm that resurrected the career of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The Ellington New Port Concert is as an important jazz event as the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert in 1938.

Ellington’s concert wasn’t at a famous venue like Carnegie Hall. It was on the last of a three day jazz festival, a relative new concept in music, at Newport, R.I.. Unlike Benny Goodman, who headlined the famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, Ellington was just one of many acts. Unlike the prominent sidemen in Goodman’s orchestra, artists like Harry James on trumpet, Jess Stacy on piano, and of course, Gene Krupa on drums, the Ellington group had lost many talented members, although several came back for the Newport Festival gig, like the great alto sax player, Johnny Hodges. Goodman brought down the house with exceptional solos on the popular Sing Sing Sing. At Newport the audience erupted on a 1938 Ellington composition, Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue, stuck in the playlist at the last minute, and the astounding solo of a journeyman tenor sax player, Paul Gonsalves. The dancing in the aisles at Carnegie was a spontaneous reaction by the audience. The dancing at Newport during the solo by Gonsalves was done an unknown platinum blonde in a black dress that jumped from her seat and danced her way to the stage.

Gonsalves was hired by Ellington six years before. He had played in many major orchestra but his many addictions cost him work.  Ellington liked having him around because Gonsalves was fond of going out in the audience to perform. The Duke nicknamed him Gypsy,also Strolling Violins.

And this night, Ellington specifically told Gonsalves to take the solo, even though the great alto sax, Johnny Hodges was with them that evening. Gonsalves’ solo lasted for an unbelievable 27 choruses. He was accompanied by Woods on bass and Woodyard on drums with an occasional prompts by Ellington on piano and Ellington’s ‘Dig in, Paul. Dig in.’The audience exploded and the finale featured a high trumpet solo by Cat Anderson. And Ellington and his band were reborn.

Time Magazine loudly proclaimed that fact and honored Duke Ellington with his picture on the cover. To date, Duke is only one of five jazz musicians to be so honored.

Columbia released the entire concert as quickly as possible. It not only became Ellington’s all time selling album, it became one of the jazz world’s best seller. Old time fans like Larry Howard bought one right away. Younger fans, like your truly, got one a few years later through the Columbia Record club.

The royalties from album and his new recording contract with Columbia afforded Ellington the luxury of composing as he always wanted to. He was free to break out of the three minute cuts of LP’s and 45”s. Free to devote time to suites etc. that are played by symphony orchestras world wide. And also the money kept his core orchestra members working, something the other black big bands couldn’t do.

The following year, 1957, was Ellington’s Shakespeare year. The Duke liked Shakespeare. Billy Strayhorn loved Shakespeare. After his success at Newport, he gave a series of concerts at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. He was asked back for another concert in 57 and Michael Langham, the artistic director of the Stratford Playhouse, contracted him to write the incidental music for Langham’s production of ‘Timon of Athens’.

While performing there Ellington was persuaded by the staff at the theater to write a composition inspired by Shakespeare. The end result was his, and Strayhorn’s, 12 piece suite based on works of Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder.

The next big step that year was when he and Strayhorn broke the Afro-American barrier in Hollywood sound track. Otto Preminger hired them to compose the sound track for the movie, Anatomy of A Murder. The album won the Grammy Award for best soundtrack. Other movie soundtracks followed.

Suite after suite compositions, some with Strayhorn, others just by Ellington, followed right up to his death. The later years he was working on his Sacred Music suites, deemed by Ellington as his greatest works,. In 1973 his Third Sacred Concert premiered at Westminster Abby in England.

These later years were the busiest and most profitable years of his life. There were the recordings of his new compositions and collaboration recordings with other jazz greats. His old friendly rival, Count Basie, others like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrain, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra. His early songs, now standards, were recorded by him and others, producing royalties as never before.

But he never neglected live performances, after all it was live performances that started his career, and comprised a major portion of his life of music. He and his orchestra toured around the world during that period.

His last tour started in July of 1973 and continued thru to March 22, 1974. He knew this would be his last. His health was failing. Lung cancer. Several times events were rescheduled due to illness. One such was the two concerts at the Guthrie, that was moved from January 74 to March74. It was at this second concert when Larry Howard got the meet the Duke.

This is the second in the three part series. The last will follow in a day or so. In the meantime,

STAY SAFE

ALMOST TO DUNKIRK

 

The old cliche, ‘he missed the boat’ certainly applied to Michael Langham, and the next five years changed the direction of his life.

dunkirk

The movie DUNKIRK is an unexpected blockbuster this summer. It depicts the heroic evacuation of British and some of their Allied troops that were trapped between the German Army and the Channel. In the eight day period, while the RAF kept the German Luftwaffe busy elsewhere, and other divisions like the a flotilla of both British naval ships and private vessels manage to get almost 350,000 fighting men to safety in Dover, England.

This evacuation was made possible in part because the German Luftwaffe was kept busy elsewhere by the RAF, and because of the rear action Battle of St. Valery further down the coast in Normandy. The 51st Highland Division, of which the Gordon Highlanders were a part of, were trapped and had to surrender to General Rommel before they could reach the beach at Dunkirk.

Michael Langham

MICHAEL LANGHAM

Michael Langham was a newly commissioned officer in the Gordon Highlanders. He was sent with the Highlanders to be a part of the British Expeditionary Force fighting in France. The BEF’s objective was to link with the French Forces and drive the German invaders out of France. This effort was as futile as the Maginot Line was in stopping Rommel and his tanks. The BEF’s first attempt to defeat Hitler ended at Saint-Valery-en-Caux and Dunkirk. And Michael Langham, two months short of his 21st birthday, and with only a few months of WWII under his belt spent the next five year as a Prisoner of War.

Like the majority of combat vets, Langham avoided talking about the actual fighting. He did say that he had been trained to fight like they did in the WWI, trench warfare etc., instead of combating the likes of German tanks, bombers, and the weapons of WWII. He also avoided telling what occurred after the actual capture. Some of the prisoners underwent forced marches and horrible conditions in various stalags. He was transferred to several stalags in those five years.

Michael said he was in the stalag where the Great Escape took place. That would be Stalag Luft III in Poland. He said the stalag was so big he not only didn’t know the Escape was being planned, he never knew it happened until the escapees were recaptured. He said, with that twinkle in his eye, he had to wait for the movie to finally find out what happened. Likewise also the earlier escape in that stalag that was detailed in the book and movie, The Wooden Horse.

He spent the first two years working on escaping, making civilian clothes, forging civilian papers, and of course, digging tunnels. None of his work ever resulted in anyone escaping. The last three he spent pursuing a hobby he had enjoyed during his school days, theater.

Stalag Luft III stressed that the prisoners take up and work at hobbies. The idea was if they kept busy at their hobbies, they would be less likely to try to escape and it would cut down on the suicide attempts. This stalag was under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe and was less severe than stalags under the control of the German Infantry or the S.S.. But it still was a stalag and had a sense of cruelty under the surface, as exemplified by the executions of most of the recaptured escapees in the Great Escape.

The theater department of this stalag was the best of all the stalags. The prisoners built an actual theater, a large scenic shop, a large costume shop. The productions could compete with many in the free world. They were very popular among the prisoners and the German cadre. They provided a common link between the two groups, perhaps even softening the attitude of the guards towards the inmates.

Of course, Michael explained, you had to get around the fact that the ‘women’ in the cast often had five-o’clock shadows, giggly falsetto deliveries, and exaggerated ways of trying to walk like women. And be broadminded enough not to make a face or groan when Romeo and Juliet kissed.

The actors took themselves very serious, Michael said. They would lie on their bunks the day of the shows and file their nails. They wanted to be stars.

Michael acted in some, but his true talent was in directing. His choice of plays ranged in time from Shakespeare to Clifford Odets. He said he wanted the plays to portray a world of hope to his fellow POW’s, and to himself.

Michael took great pride, and rightly so, that two POW’s told him that watching a performance of his plays gave them hope and prevented them from committing suicide.

Michael’s father had died when Michael was a baby. Growing up, his role model was the historical Duke of Wellington. He read every book he could find on the Duke. He wanted to be like the Wellington, a career soldier. That dream quickly vanished in France.

Liberation came, the war ended, and Michael was back in England. He had the law degree that his family had forced him to obtain before the war. It wasn’t the life that he wanted. He thought a great deal about his hobbies before the war. He knew he couldn’t play cricket good enough to play pro, and his other great hobby, theater, had been frowned upon by his family. And while he was thinking over his future a letter arrived.

A famous stage actress wanted to talk to him. She had heard of his stalag productions from POWs who saw them. She was about to start a theater troupe in the Midlands and wanted to know if he was interested in joining her. Michael reasoned that even if the meeting didn’t work out, at least he would get to meet her.

‘I was star struck,’ he laughingly confessed.

It worked out. His acting and directing in Coventry and Birmingham made him realize that the talent he showed in the stalag transferred to the free world of professional theater. Not only was his new career acceptable to his family, it was noticed in the major theaters of England. He acted and directed at Stratford-On-The Avon, and the Old Vic. He found himself in great demand. He was also noticed by Tyrone Guthrie.

Guthrie was one of the foremost stage directors of the time. He was also the key mover in replacing the proscenium stage with the thrust stage. He took Langham under his wing. Guthrie replaced the long ago Duke of Wellington as Michael’s model. And this association brought Langham into the top tier of England’s theatrical directors.

While Michael directed in England and far off places like Australia, main land Europe, and Broadway, Guthrie went to Canada. There, in 1953, he founded the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Even though it was housed in a concrete amphitheater covered by a tent, it was a success, not only a major attraction in Canada but brought visitors from Europe and the United States.

Two years after starting the Festival, Guthrie invited Langham to direct JULIUS CAESAR, and to groom him to take over as Artistic Director.

The first season under Langham, 1956, was the last for the tent. The Festival moved into a newly construction theater. The Festival was there to stay.

The thrust stage of the tent was fine-tuned in the new theater by Michael and the great designer, Tanya Moisewitch, who worked with Guthrie on the original. It was at Stratford where Langham became known as ‘the master of the thrust stage’.

Guthrie had been beseeched for several years with pleas to establish a like theater in the United States. He felt now that his Stratford Festival was established and in good hands he would answer that request. Feelers were sent out and seven cities replied, presenting their credentials in the competition.. Minneapolis was the winner.

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THE GUTHRIE THEATER

In 1963 the Guthrie Theater opened with George Gizzard playing the lead in the Tyrone Guthrie directed HAMLET. The audience was on its feet before the curtain-call lights came up. They were not content to stop until Sir Tyrone himself came on stage. The very tall, thin, genius finally came up the steps to center stage. He had on a tuxedo and his customary tennis shoes. The audience loved it.

The Guthrie Theater was established and continued in fine shape during the years when Dr. G., as he was fondly called at the Theater, was the Artistic Director. In 1966, he left the theater in the capable hands, so he thought, of another protege, actor/director Douglas Campbell.

Almost immediately the theater started to go in a downward spiral, due to the infighting of the artistic side versus the management side. In 1969, there was no one left of the original artistic and management at the theater. The original Managing Director had taken a sabbatical to Hawaii, a power-play, figuring he would be begged to return by offering more money and control.

The board appointed Don Schoenbaum, who only a few years before came to the Guthrie under a Ford Foundation Grant to learn the business of theater, as a stop-gap Management/Artistic Director.

Tyrone Guthrie asked Michael to rescue the theater and take over the Artistic Directorship. Michael said he was content at Stratford. But, argued Sir Tyrone, that theater has my name on it. Michael reconsidered.

The end of the Guthrie’s season in 1970 was A PLAY by the great Russian novelist, who that very year won the Noble Prize for Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A great coup for the Guthrie and an attraction for Micheal Langham. The gulags of Solzhenitsyn were political unlike the POW stalags familiar to Michael; but they were still prison camps and Langham was a logical man to direct the play. And it was an excellent chance for Michael and the Guthrie to size each other up. Until the Board met and talked with Langham, they were going to forgo the 1971 season in the hope that something could be worked out to save the theater.

A PLAY was my first encounter with Michael Langham. The next year he came back as Artistic Director, and wow, talk about a turn around. He took a theater torn apart and reassembled it as a ‘Family’ overnight, petty squabbling stopped, people were smiling, and enthusiatic. Michael recognized the talent, artistic, managerial, and technical, that he inherited and augmented them with people who knew Langham and wanted to work under him.

When the original Managing Director announced he was coming back, he was told the only way he could come back to the theater was if he bought a ticket. Michael rewarded Don Schoenbaum for his excellent work to help keep the theater going by keeping him on as Managing Director. Don kept this position until he retired in 1986.

It was hard picturing the soft- spoken Michael Langham as a combat officer; but witnessing his leadership ability, his ability to recognize the value of everyone involved in the Theater and making them feel that they were an integral part of the end product, removed all doubt that he would have been a fine officer. The Military’s loss was the Theater’s gain.

In his first season, 1971, he hit the ground running. He took on a Herculean task of directing two gigantic plays, CYRANO de BERGERAC, adapted by the British novelist Anthony Burgess, and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, to start the season and his term as Artistic Director.

Opening two plays at once, with future of the Theater riding on them, was hell on us that were involved in both productions. I have no idea how Michael could have endured the task, and more so, how he could have turned out these two production masterpieces. Reviewers came from all over. All praised both works. There wasn’t an empty seat for any of the performances of these two plays that season and the other plays in the season fared almost as well. The Guthrie Theater was saved.

No one had a better bird’s-eye view of Michael Langham the Director, than I did. Seated in the lighting booth behind the balcony, I was privileged to watch every rehearsal on main stage, as well as every performance of every play Michael directed at the Guthrie, before and during his tenure as Artistic Director.

Watching Michael direct a play was akin to looking over the shoulder of Renoir as he painted. Delicate brush strokes creating a work of art. Michael’s blocking on the thrust stage, his respect for the words of the playwright, the inspiration he gave the actors, his knowledge of the technical, his attention of details, his talent, all combined to make a Michael Langham directed play something special.

His praise has been sung by so many actors. from acting-award winners the likes of Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, Len Cariou, all credit Michael with giving them their big chance, to young interns who experienced their first professional theater acting jobs under his tutelage. And his praise has been sung by so many others in all aspects of the world of theater, from world class critics to the stage electrician who worked his shows at the Guthrie.

He always referred to himself as a classical director but he was much more. For instance consider his direction of the ‘least’ of Shakespeare plays, TIMON OF ATHENS, a play very few over the centurys have ever tried to direct. He set it in the Jazz Age and had the great Duke Ellington compose a score for it. Hardly something a hard-core classical director would dare to do.

Those of us who were present in his Guthrie years often refer to his production of another minor Shakespeare plays, LOVE’S LABOUR LOST, as the one that shows off the genius of Michael Langham the best all. So simple. So poetic. So memorable. The ‘classical director’, the ‘master of the thrust stage’ at his finest.

And to have been able to sit down, as a friend and coworker, and talk to this humble man of such great talent and knowledge is something I will always cherish in my memory.

He left the Guthrie at the end of the 1977 and continued his shaping classical theater in so many places, like the Julliard School of Drama and the National Actors’ Theater founded by Tony Randall, where he was nominated for a Tony for his direction of TIMON OF ATHENS on Broadway.

I stayed at the Guthrie another season after Michael left, but it wasn’t the same. I helped mount and designed the lights for the Guthrie production of Leonard Nimoy’s one-man play, VINCENT, and took it out on tour. I walked into the theater on what was my first work day of the second season after Michael left, I started to hang lights; but at coffee break, I went and talked to the Technical Director and then called the Union to replace me. The Guthrie just wasn’t the same to me as it was during the Langham years. I spent the rest of my stagehand years working off the Union Hiring Hall.

Over the years I worked with a great many fine directors, but it would not be fair to compare any of them to Michael; he was, in my eyes, special. Michael Langham worked almost up to 11th of January 2011 the day of his death, happy in the career he carved out because he never made it to a possible rescue on the beach at Dunkirk.