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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Willie and Duke and the most embarrassing gig

In the mid '60s, Duke Ellington would accept pretty much any recording gig he was offered. "Ellington '65" has the Famous Orchestra playing the hits of the day -- "Danke Schoen," "Hello Dolly," and, somewhat startlingly, "Blowin' in the Wind." The next year's follow-up, "Ellington '66," offers more of the same: "People," "Moon River," and two by Lennon and McCartney, "All My Loving" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The "wa-wa" trumpets on the last number may indicate that Ellington (or one of his arrangers) may not have been thrilled by the material. They sound sarcastic.

Willie Nelson never sounds sarcastic, but today it occurred to me that in this and other respects he may be Duke's truest heir: like Duke he's held his band together for decades and written many standards, and he sometimes gives the impression of being willing to record whatever some producer will pay him to record. There's something oddly humble about such an attitude -- servants of music, regardless of the circumstance.

Ellington's co-arranger, co-writer, and substitute pianist Billy Strayhorn spoke about some of the less reputable commissions the Ellington organization took on in these terms. Stanley Dance, chief chronicler of the Ellington band, asked Strayhorn in 1966, "Where does the inspiration come from for approaching pop tunes, Mary Poppins, or Rhapsody in Blue?" Strayhorn answered:
From your own sense of what to do. It's more a matter of morality than technique. You should say, "I wouldn't treat this any less carefully than I would that." You should treat them equally. I put the same effort into whatever I do. I try to do the best I can.

Dance: Well, numbers vary in quality.

Strayhorn: They differ -- not so much in quality as in variety. You have a simple tune here, a more complicated one there, or a folk tune. That's variation and it has nothing to do with quality. Or that's how I like to think about it. If I'm working on a tune, I don't want to think it's bad. It's just a tune, and I have to work with it. It's not whether it's good or bad.
This parallel between Willie and Duke occurred to me at random this morning, and now that I'm writing it up I realize, it pertains to a theme that Helen Radice got going and M. C- encouraged: What's the most embarrassing gig you ever played?

the most embarrassing gig

I had no idea before it started that it would end up embarrassing. I was 18 and a freshman in college. My high school band was still gigging even though I lived in Ann Arbor, Dave was a student in East Lansing, and only (the other) John and Jay were still in Kalamazoo. (Or was I the "other" John?) A classmate of mine, whom I didn't know very well, Mark N--ski, hired us to play his father's wedding reception. I wore the black polyester suit that my parents had bought me for my senior prom; the other guys, as I recall, tried to dress reasonably suitably. But we were a noisy rock and roll band with quite a few punk numbers in our repertoire and punk influence in a number of our originals and covers. (Our punk cover of "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" was one for the ages; it was, after all, our town.) We also played early Kinks and "Twist and Shout" and a couple obscure Troggs, and a Creedence-esque "Heard It Through the Grapevine." So we had some that the Boomers would like.

But not this party.

People were pissed.

"A Polish wedding and they don't even know a polka," someone said, loudly.

At the set break we figured out "Roll Out the Barrell." As I recall, the other John refused to play it. We did our best -- and I've always liked polkas -- "In Heaven There Is No Beer" is an all-time classic -- but a teen-age rock guitar trio just wasn't going to cut it.

"At least they tried," someone said disgustedly.

My classmate Mark and his siblings dug it. I didn't know him well. Their dad's second marriage, obviously; don't know whether the first one ended due to divorce or death. I've always wondered whether hiring us was a stamp of disapproval, an acting out.

At least we tried.
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