Culture Magazine

Duke Ellington Wrote a Suite for Queen Elizabeth II

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

0:00 Sunset and the Mocking Bird
3:51 Lightning Bugs and Frogs
6:45 Le Sucrier Velours
9:33 Northern Lights
13:11 The Single Petal of a Rose
17:19 Apes and a Peacock

Ted Gioia tells the story:

In a historic Duke-meets-Queen [in 1958] Ellington served up his famous charm for the monarch. When she asked him whether this was his first visit to Britain, Duke replied that his initial trip to London was in 1933, "way before you were born." This was out-and-out flattery, because Queen Elizabeth had been born in 1926-but she played along with the game. "She gave me a real American look," he later recalled, "very cool man, which I thought was too much."

Give Duke credit for savviness. He understood that even a queen wants to hear how young she looks. Ellington followed up saying that Her Majesty "was so inspiring that something musical would come out of it." She told him that she would be listening.

According to Ellington's son Mercer, his father began working on the music to The Queen's Suite as soon as he got back to his hotel room. He enlisted colleague and collaborator Billy Strayhorn. In addition to royal inspiration, the work also borrowed from the natural world: the opening movement draws on birdsong heard during a Florida visit, another section was a response to an unexpected encounter with "a million lightning bugs" serenaded by a frog. The best known part of the Suite, "The Single Petal of a Rose," was spurred by a floral display on a piano at a friend's home. [...]

By early 1959, the finished work was ready for performance. The Queen's Suite was now a 20-minute work in six movements. The band recorded it over the course of three sessions in February and April 1959. A single golden disc was made, and sent to Buckingham Palace. In order to ensure that no other copies were released, Ellington reimbursed Columbia, his label, some $2,500 in production costs, and thus retained personal ownership of the master tapes.

There's more at the link.


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