From 1923 until his death in 1974 at the age of 75, composer and pianist Duke Ellington was the bandleader of the most celebrated jazz orchestra in American history. His performances at the Cotton Club in Harlem are legendary and he wrote more than 1,000 musical compositions throughout his lifetime – a staggering number of which quickly became standards. Duke appeared as himself in six Hollywood movies from 1929 to 1950, including Cabin in the Sky, the 1943 musical directed by Vincent Minelli which featured an all-black cast that included Ethel Waters, Rex Ingrahm, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong. To date, his music has been featured on more than 340 soundtracks for films, documentaries and television series. More than 40 years after Ellington’s passing, his music continues to influence new musicians in all genres and to be enjoyed by a worldwide audience. For this week’s Listen Up we’d like to share a 1964 performance of “Take the A Train,” prefaced by Ellington’s introduction of his writing and arranging partner, Billy Strayhorn, and featuring vocals by the orchestra’s double-bass player Ernie Shepard. Ellington photo above: signage for the gastropub, The Ellington, on the corner of Amsterdam and Duke Ellington Blvd. The restaurant also has a popular outdoor summer location, Ellington in the Park, overlooking the Hudson in Riverside Park.
Walking through the streets and parks of Morningside Heights and lower Harlem on a late summer afternoon, a noble statue of Harriet Tubman — looking like a woman who’s hell bent on a mission — watches over us as we pass stately rows of brownstones and pre-war high rises, shops (such as the fantastic Flamekeepers Hat Club, see Dr. Style below), Art in Flux pop-up displays, restaurants, outdoor cafes and bakeries. Lee Lee’s Baked Goods draws us in through its wooden screen door with the sweet aroma of apricot rugelach. Yes, that’s rugelach, which has been receiving wildly enthusiastic testimonials and city proclamations since 1964. And there’s just something about the fading rose patterned wall paper (that appears to have been there for the last 53 years) and the framed images of weddings, graduations, babies, Jackie Robinson, and Malcolm X that makes you feel like you’ve just been welcomed into Alvin Lee’s home.
Our exploration of Harlem continued beyond the village to the arts and culture which have traveled outside its physical boundaries. In the Meatpacking District, photographs, paintings and sculptures from the Harlem Renaissance brought Harlem of the 1920’s and ‘30’s to life as part of the Whitney Museum’s No One Exists Alone exhibit, and on a floor below, the artistic expression of the African-American ongoing struggle for civil rights figures prominently in An Incomplete History of Protest. In the library and on the Poetry Foundation website, we discovered or revisited the writings of Harlem novelists and poets James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Dorothy West, and Countee Cullen. They say that the Harlem Renaissance ended in the 1930’s, but in truth, it’s a never-ending story with twists and turns, struggles and celebrations, and an indomitable spirit. Next time you are in New York, be sure to swipe your MetroCard for a ride uptown on the A train.