The Duke

Previously unseen photographs candidly show Duke Ellington at his peak.

Christmas, 1999 / No. 3
Photograph by Claude Miles
Claude Miles

Sam Woodyard (at drums), Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges (partially hidden by bass), Joe Benjamin, Ellington, and an unknown copyist.

Five weeks after Duke Ellington’s July 7, 1956, appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Time magazine stated (in a cover story, no less), “The Ellington band was once again the most exciting thing in the business. Ellington himself had emerged from a long period of quiescence and was once again bursting with ideas and inspiration.” To receive such praise was no small feat for a band that had seen varying degrees of highs and lows in a career that was nearing its thirtieth year. Equally impressive was Ellington’s ability to command such attention for a form of music then being overshadowed by the fresh new sounds of rock ’n’ roll.

But if Ellington reached the peak of his performing career that night in 1956, he was continuing to ride the plateau eight years later when he arrived in Toronto to rehearse for and tape The Duke, an hour-long special for CBC television. Claude Miles, a photographer with the now-defunct Toronto Telegram, was invited to capture Ellington and his band at rehearsal by Helen McNamara, the paper’s jazz columnist (who also happened to have scripted the special). Miles shot over fifty photographs of Ellington in the CBC studios, none of which have seen print until now.

Miles’s pictures show a not-often-seen side of Ellington, a man renowned for his polished physical appearance. Here, Ellington is relaxed, his guard down and shirt unbuttoned—a far cry from the made-up, corset-wearing bandleader usually seen in publicity stills of the day.

Examined as a complete series, Miles’s photographs also show, amazingly, the process of an Ellington rehearsal. As Miles recalls, the band would laboriously rehearse and re-rehearse a single bar of music, leaving many band members with little to do for long periods of time. “The music sounds so spontaneous, but it’s not,” says Miles, an avid jazz fan now living in Seaton Village.

Miles spent two hours at the 1964 rehearsal (which lasted three days, from September 2nd to 4th) before leaving without having spoken a word to the legendary band. “I wasn’t aggressive the way I’d normally be,” says Miles, who usually covered the court beat. “I figured I could be thrown out at any time.”

The Duke, which aired March 3, 1965, was little seen in its original form until after Ellington’s death in 1974. Rarer still is the treat of seeing this collection of photos.

Photograph by Claude Miles
Ellington, Johnny Hodges, and Russell Procope.
Photograph by Claude Miles
Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves.
Photograph by Claude Miles
The “unpolished” Ellington.