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April 29th Tributes to Duke and Willie

Ellen Levitt

Posted on April 29, 2020 13:07

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April 29th is the birthday of both Duke Ellington and Willie Nelson, two of America's most talented and influential musicians. Let's pay tribute to them both.

Ever hear the 1981 novelty pop song "Talkin' Baseball" by Terry Cashman? It's best known for the chorus of "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke." The references there are actually to Willie Mays and Duke Snyder of Major League baseball fame, but on April 29th they apply just as easily to Willie Nelson and Duke Ellington who share this birthday. And as famous as Mays and Snyder (and Mantle) are in the baseball pantheon, Willie Nelson and Duke Ellington are both of major importance to the world of music.

Duke Ellington's impact on jazz is immeasurable. The dapper pianist and band leader had a career in music that spanned more than six decades. He wrote songs (with Billy Strayhorn and others), recorded many songs and albums, conducted and adapted music, and spotted talent all over. Many of the musicians he worked with became stars on their own as well. He may be best known for major hits such as "Take the 'A' Train," "Mood Indigo", and "Satin Doll". Big band stylings are among his favorites, but he also recorded with smaller combos. His playing was superlative even in his last years. Ellington received many honors and awards both when he was alive and posthumously. His impact on America and particularly the African-American community are solid legacies.

Willie Nelson has been making music for most of his 87 years. In addition to his music he has acted and has been an activist for many causes, including the legalization of marijuana, Farm Aid, bio-diesel, and animal rights. But his music has been his greatest achievement: that mix of country, folk, rock 'n roll, pop, and jazz is far-ranging and his reedy, nasal voice is instantly recognizable. Among his best known songs are "On The Road Again," "Always on My Mind," "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" (his duet with Julio Iglesias) and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." 

I've enjoyed Ellington's music and Nelson's music since I was young, and while I'll never have the chance to see Duke Ellington live in concert, I was very fortunate to see Willie Nelson's Outlaw Music Festival back in September, at the Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, NYC. (In August 2015 I sat in my car outside Brooklyn's Prospect Park and listened to part of his show there.) Among my favorite songs that night were his versions of "Whiskey River" and "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."

What an interesting, odd pairing of American music icons: dapper Duke Ellington and grungy, pig-tailed Willie Nelson. But think about their similarities: American born and raised, renowned band leaders and song writers, their lives not always easy, but their sounds and their accomplishments amazing. 

What a coincidence that both were born on April 29th. Give a listen to both today, and tomorrow. Their music will live on after them, entertaining and inspiring dedicated fans and casual listeners, hopefully until the end of time.

Ellen Levitt

Posted on April 29, 2020 13:07

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