Tonight's public television tribute to Duke Ellington--"Ellington--The Music Lives On"--may be burdened by a yawn of a title, but just about everything else about the show is fresh, bright and first-rate.
There are stars galore--from pop singer Patti LaBelle to opera star Kathleen Battle to ballerina Cynthia Gregory--and for the most part they are at their artistic best. But this retrospective is not the exercise in token star-studded predictability many such television specials have become. The spotlight here is not on the personalities, but on the music of the most important jazz composer.
As much of Ellington's stylistic and expressive range is squeezed into this hour and a half (on Channel 26 at 10) as could be asked. If the romantic side of Ellington's music is emphasized, that is because the emphasis is built into the music. It is romance whose intensity is veiled through sophisticated and ambivalent harmonic screens, never losing its cool poise, and often expressing a sense of solitude. While introducing the "Lake Scene" from the Ellington/Ailey ballet, "The River," choreographer Alvin Ailey recalls Ellington's fondness for Debussy and Britten. Harmonically, the kinship makes perfect sense.
Nowhere in this show does that spirit ring more true than in the ballet, which is in the American Ballet Theatre's repertory. As Gregory dances languidly and alone before the camera (sometimes with her back to it), to a quiet, sad little theme, it suggests what Ailey says Ellington was trying to evoke: "A place with a feeling of trouble and sensuality."
Sensuality is a common denominator among much of this music, sometimes as much by implication as by act. Tammy Grimes flaunts it as she slinks through a tantalizingly slow and wonderfully phrased "Sophisticated Lady," her gray mink resting on one bare shoulder below the diamonds sparkling on her ear.
The same spirit comes by suggestion from Metropolitan Opera star Kathleen Battle as she moves slowly, in her strapless and long-trained red gown, from man to man on the set, singing "Creole Love Call," a wordless ballad like a vocalise in classical music. These are the same ravishing high notes with which she is matched to Kiri Te Kanawa in the Met's new production of Strauss' "Arabella."
The sensuality is more brazen with Patti LaBelle in "Smile as You Go By," a song of unrequited love that is one of three previously unperformed songs from "Queenie Pie," an opera that Ellington was writing for public television and which was left unfinished at his death.
Another from "Queenie Pie" is "My Father's Island," which is in the exotic mode of "Caravan" and is sung cool and dry by Andre' DeShields. He and LaBelle join in "Woman," which is not top-drawer Ellington but should be seen just for LaBelle's whacky gold-leaf dress and crown. It looks like it was designed for joint use in "Star Wars" and "Turandot."
Other memorable appearences include Karen Akers singing "Solitude," Ken Page's "I'm Just a Lucky So and So," Treat Williams' "Satin Doll" and Sister Sledge's Ellington medley.
None of them is more riveting, though, than Billie Holiday in a movie clip from "Symphony in Black." There are seven Ellington movie clips, but most of them are painfully short. After all, they are the only chance in the show to hear the Duke performing the Duke.
The retrospective is divided into a cumbersome format, four "acts," each with a theme. The performances within them are "framed" by brisk recollections by people like Al Hibbler, Bobby Short, Nat Hentoff, Cab Calloway and Yves Montand. The memories of the heyday of the Cotton Club in Harlem are especially delightful, with Kitty Carlisle telling how George Gershwin used to take her, Gertrude Lawrence and Bea Lillie there in their "diamonds and ermines."
The pace seldom lags and only Cicely Tyson's narration injects a note of banality.
The Ellington Orchestra plays throughout under Mercer Ellington.