What? You ask.
How on earth does America’s most durable and internationally famous bandleader qualify as a classic movie star? Good question.
Fact is, Duke Ellington and Hollywood have been on close speaking terms for almost all of the 50-years-plus that he and his orchestra performed on the world stage. His first movie was filmed in 1929 as the sound era was ushered in. His last was filmed only a few years before his death in 1974, three weeks after his 75th birthday.
Along the way, Ellington shared a piano onscreen with Jimmy Stewart, was offered co-director status on a movie project with Orson Welles, contributed substantially to one of Vincente Minnelli’s finest musicals and put in onscreen appearances in Mae West and Ann Miller vehicles. And that was just as a performer with or without his orchestra in tow.
As strictly a composer, Ellington was key to a number of projects including those starring Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman, and one directed by Otto Preminger. The latter once considered using the Ellington standard “Sophisticated Lady” as the theme song for the director’s signature fim noir, Laura, according to author Terry Teachout’s sterling new biography, DUKE — A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books, 2013).
Classic movie fans will enjoy seeing Ellington and Orchestra interacting with Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Lena Horne in Minnelli’s first film, 1943’s Cabin in the Sky. The movie musical is an unmitigated delight, and Ellington sparkles in it.
The pianistics with Stewart occur in Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder for which Ellington wrote the score. (It’s a beauty and available on Columbia Records. Seek it out.) As Teachout notes, Ellington’s onscreen cameo as a night club jazz pianist named “Pie Eye” consists of just two lines directed at the visiting Stewart: “Hey, you’re not spittin’ the scene, man. I mean you’re not cuttin’ out?” (Well, you had to have been there.)
Ellington’s score for 1961’s Paris Blues, costarring Newman, Joanne Woodward and Sidney Potier, is much better than the movie. The same may apply to 1966’s Assault on a Queen, starring Sinatra.
Ellington’s flirtation with Welles — or was it the reverse? — began when the Citizen Kane creator summoned the musician to his RKO office in 1941, and, according to Teachout, said:
I want to do the history of jazz as a picture, and we’ll call it “It’s All True.” I want it to be written by Duke Ellington and Orson Welles, directed by Duke Ellington and Orson Welles, music written by Duke Ellington… You can start work today! You get $1,500 a week. Now there it is and if you don’t take it you’re a fool.”
Ellington bit but, writes Teachout, had no idea that “It’s All True” was one of the biggest white elephants ever to charge through the streets of Hollywood. The project didn’t work out in terms of Ellington’s participation, but Teachout notes Welles’ remark that “Ellington was the only genius he had ever known, save for himself.”
Concludes Teachout: While the word “auteur” is not part of the vocabulary of jazz, it could just as easily have been coined to describe Duke Ellington as Orson Welles.