And the best of all, Sir Duke by
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Then, in the fall of 1963, an amazing thing happened.  The State Department, through the United States Information Service (USIS), sponsored a goodwill tour of American jazz musicians.  None other than the Duke Ellington Band—yes, that one!--made an astoundingly extensive tour that, according to google, went from New York to Damascus, Amman, Jerusalem, Beirut, Kabul, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Madras, Bombay, Calcutta, Colombo, Kandy, Dacca, Lahore, Karachi, Teheran, Isfahan, Abadan, Baghdad, Beirut and Ankara.  You may have noticed Dacca in that list.

My dad really enjoyed music.  He played flute in high school, but took to the piano more.  He tried to catch my mother’s eye with a rendition of “Laura” on the piano at the Peking American Club, though this didn’t seem to impress her much.  He played jazz standards by ear or from a fake book, which both mystified and enchanted me, and I happily inherited much of his sheet music.

In the mid 1950’s, he acquired a hi-fi stereo system and a record collection—I remember the Hi-Lo’s, Connie Boswell, and Benny Goodman, but there were many more.  On Sunday mornings, it would be Bach.  In later years, he would take my mother to Blues Alley or Wolf Trap near Washington DC to hear Johnny Eaton.  Most evenings over a cocktail, they would listen to music; the favorite always was Ella Fitzgerald singing with the Duke Ellington Band.

From 1962 to 1964, when our family lived in Dacca, East Pakistan, music options were pretty limited.  I remember eagerly snatching up albums left behind by ex-pats heading home—anything would do.  I never would have gotten to know Marty Robbins (Gunfighter Ballads), Dorothy Provine (Roaring Twenties), or Beach Boys (Little Deuce Coupe) otherwise, and every lyric still takes up too much space in my brain.  My parents, who didn’t share my enthusiasm for these cast-off records, would invite one of the local drum musicians to play on the verandah, and have their cocktails in the twilight.   Haridas would sit on the floor, and coax out complex sounds with his hands, as he rubbed and patted and tapped on the drums nestled between his legs.

Then, in the fall of 1963, an amazing thing happened.  The State Department, through the United States Information Service (USIS), sponsored a goodwill tour of American jazz musicians.  None other than the Duke Ellington Band—yes, that one!–made an astoundingly extensive tour that, according to google, went from New York to Damascus, Amman, Jerusalem, Beirut, Kabul, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Madras, Bombay, Calcutta, Colombo, Kandy, Dacca, Lahore, Karachi, Teheran, Isfahan, Abadan, Baghdad, Beirut and Ankara.  You may have noticed Dacca in that list.

When the news came, my parents were over-the-moon starstruck. It was insanely wonderful. What could possibly be better?  Right in their own out-of-the way backyard where these things just didn’t happen. USIS organized the concert, along with a reception at the house of the USIS head, with whom they happened to be best friends. Of course my parents were invited, and just thrilled with the opportunity not only to hear their idols live, but meet them firsthand.

I wasn’t there (a continent away at boarding school that year), but the stories were vivid. The music of Duke Ellington’s band was certainly wonderful.  However, the band itself must have been exhausted from the travel, enervated by the heat, and maybe a bit unimpressed by the venue.  They had already had to change out some of the touring band members who had caused problems.  And who knows what slights they may have suffered. Let’s grant a bit of slack. But meeting them in person was not the dream come true my parents had hoped for.  Maybe not all showed up, and the band members who did, disdained conversation with the fans at the reception, proceeding to become extremely drunk at the free-flowing bar.  Maybe not all members, maybe Billy Strayhorn, but drunk definitely happened.  And probably drunk happened to other attendees as well.  It wasn’t pretty.  Maybe even a disaster as things got tense. After all the excitement and buildup for the visit, the reality of meeting their idols left my parents deflated and disappointed.

The next day the band was off to Lahore, and ultimately back to Turkey where, on November 22, they got the news Kennedy was shot, which ended the tour.

My parents still loved the music of Duke Ellington, but maybe they didn’t play it quite so much anymore.

 

Postscript:  Not to leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouth, I include Sir Duke’s tactful summary of the tour here for reference.

Ellington, after the tour:

“We were appointed by the Cultural Committee – one of President Kennedy’s favorite (sic) projects – to represent our country in the East on a long tour last fall under the sponsorship of the State Department. We were accepted, as some people put it, as “ambassadors” of the United States of America in Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan, India, Ceylon, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon,… We were also in Kuwait, Cyprus and Turkey, but we did not play there because of the assassination of the President. In Turkey, everything was flying high. There was a reception at the ambassador’s residence, – and I was always in the receiving line at such receptions – but immediately after this one the whole thing blew up because of the tragedy in Dallas…

“Our music was wonderfully well accepted. Tickets for concerts were usually sold out two or three hours after they were put on sale. For one reason or another, I found we were already quite well known. The records had been going there steadily and they had to reach somebody!…

“We did practically no playing like we do normally. We’d spend a great part of the week working for the State Department and going to receptions. This was a new experience for me, and the guys in the band were wonderful representatives. They handled all of this activity gracefully, so that I was very proud of their offstage performances. The State Department paid us our fee and expenses then arranged for local charitable organizations to take over the presentation of our concerts. These organizations benefited by the entire proceeds and this created a lot of good will.

“We became very proud of the State Department for the way they received us and the way they presented us. The ambassadors and consuls from England, France, Holland, Germany, Japan, Russia, Yugoslavia and many other countries would be at the receptions, and I think the tour was a success from that point of view, too…

“One of the things we did everywhere, in additon to the concerts, was the lecture-demonstration. I would come out cold on the stage and talk for twenty minutes before introducing the members of the band…

“At the press conferences, we would talk about jazz and, very often, the race situation in America…”

— Ellington in 1963, quoted by Stanley Dance in The World of Duke Ellington, pp. 16 – 20″

 

 

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Sorry to hear that members of your parents’ beloved band didn’t live up to their reality. It is hard when idols have feet of clay. But the press clipping certainly paints a rosie picture of complete gentlemen, doesn’t it?

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Feet of clay indeed. It is possible that the main disappointment with the Duke was his not showing up to mix with the throng, and it was the band members who were out of control. I included that quote because it does paint a different picture, of the good intentions of the tour. Certainly people around the world were thrilled to see the band. It is hard to imagine such a tour being able to happen today through the countries listed, and that is sad.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Fascinating story, Khati. And an object lesson that we probably all know one way or another about putting one’s idols on too high a pedestal.

    That said, the Duke’s statement about the tour is brilliant. Obviously, not all the diplomats were in the State Department.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Agreed—very diplomatic from Sir Duke! He always seemed like a thoughtful and respectful person, not to mention brilliant, which made the band’s behaviour that much more unexpected and disappointing. The higher the hopes, the worse the fall.

  3. Fascinating indeed, Khati. If one didn’t know your parents and didn’t know the Duke, which version would they believe? Again (and often, it seems) I’m reminded of the film Rashomon, and that’s why, unless I have firsthand knowledge, I try to hold back judgment. So much is subjective!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I think they were both right. Overall the tour had real success. That was a reasonable spin, and we all do that all the time to tell our story. But there is another side that can coexist, which doesn’t make it into the story.

  4. Suzy says:

    Very disappointing that the party after the concert tarnished the image of the band for your parents. At least the music that night was wonderful. You leave us hanging about the “disaster” that may have happened, but it couldn’t have been too bad if the press didn’t get hold of it. Sorry it caused your parents to play Duke Ellington’s music less often after that.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Ha ha, what press? In 1963 in Dacca? I think it was just a bad night, but one you don’t forget. The point of course is just that even artists who create wonderful things, can be less than wonderful up close and personal. Then we look to balance those truths.

  5. Khati, It’s always disappointing to hear that artists we admire have clay feet – or worse.

    Of course musicians are notorious drinkers and druggies, but disdaining loyal fans who’ve come to hear them play is awful. Woody Allen, whose personal life has been less than admirable, is also famously ungracious to his fans. We heard him years ago playing clarinet in a New York cabaret, and after the last set he hurried out of the room refusing to stop at the tables of fans who called out to him. (But I do love his music and his films!)

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I think that may have been what hurt the most—not being able to have a good interaction with the admired musicians. You are right that they are famously prone to drug and alcohol use, and it must be hard to be gracious all the time, especially on a long and gruelling road trip. Still.

  6. Marian says:

    What a unique and informative story, Khati. Yes, it’s disappointing when your admired artists turn out to be human, or perhaps had a bad night, or maybe behaved that way most of the time. I guess we won’t know, but I admire the Duke’s PR chops as well as his music.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    What an amazing life you and your family had! It’s always sad when a beloved artist turns out to be a bit less of an admirable person than you had imagined. Love the contrast between the “official” press release and the truth. Makes me wonder how common this is — probably very.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Certainly part of the story was the improbable location. I was also amazed when Judy Collins played at our cozy local venue, the Dream Cafe in Penticton, and BB King played at the local arena—also improbable. In both those cases, the “best by” dates had come and gone, which was sad, but nothing to hold against them. Mine probably has too.

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