Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
There was no noisy bar at the back, bowdy pictures on the walls, or emptied shot glasses on the piano, but Sunday night. The Duke's Men, a sextet of former sidement of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, transformed the usually starchy Hirshborn Auditorium into a swinging jazz spot.
Feet tapped, heads bobbed, and several hundred bodies swayed to the free-wheeling rhythms of America's premier jazz composer, Duke Ellington.
From the outset, it was obvious that the concert was hardly a staid, museum-like affair. The grand old musicians sauntered onstage to a rousing ovation and then began snapping their fingers. Throughout the set, they yelled encouragement at each other ("Amen", "I hear you") and exchanged jokes with themselves and the crowd. At one point, tenor saxephonist Norris Turney shouted, "The key of G, the key of G," to which pianist Brooks Kerr responded, "We're letting Norris choose his own keys tonight."
The show, the first of this year's Jazz Connoisseur Series of the Smithsonian Institution, was an unusual program drawing from various phases of the Duke's considerable repertoire. Small ensemble pieces as well as bigband numbers were given informal interpretations by the musicians, some of whom had performed on the original versions. Standards, such as "Stain Doll" and "Caravan" were presented, along with more obscure selections like "Azur" (which was written in 1937) and the slow, bluesy, "Saturday Night Function."
The group, assembled specifically for the concert, had just finished an engagement at the West End Bar in New York - actually a makeshift rehersal for last night. The energizing effect of that engagement was apparent. The playing was tight and the solos exuberant and loaded with feeling.
Russell Procope, who played with Ellington for 30 years, delivered a warm alto sax solo on the introduction to "Saturday Night Function" while trumpeter Franc Williams sent screaming high notes across the hall on "Boy Meets Horn." Pianist Brooks Kerr, an Ellington scholar who has absorbed hundreds of the composer's works, provided the singing for the witty "Antidisestablishmentarianismist" and Turney provided expressive tenor sax work on "The Intimacy of the Blues."
Drummer "Sonny" Greer, 36, and bassist Peck Morrison, a member of the Ellington band in the '40s and '50s, performed rhythmic somersaults, shooting sharp, jagged accents at the soloists and moving easily from slow beats to jaunty swing lines. Greer was the clown of the ensemble, flailing his arms about and opening his coat to reveal a striped shirt and a tie that were almost as loud as some of the choruses. At intermission, he stood up and yelled, "Tea time!"
While the musicians were easy-going with the crowd, they were all business when it came to the music. The genius of the compositions of Duke Ellington (who died in 1974) is as much emotional and human as it is technical and theoretical. The musicians played with a sense of affection that struck a chord with the crowd which responded with a standing ovation at the end.