Memories of Duke is not quite how Ellington should be remembered. Director Gary Keys filmed the Duke Ellington Orchestra at concerts in Mexico City and Guadalajara in 1968. But by the time Keys got around to putting together a film, Ellington had long since passed away. So Keys interviewed two of the maestro’s sidemen, clarinetist and saxophonist Russell Procope and trumpeter Cootie Williams. They offer some insightful observations, but even so, these Memories are incomplete.
The music is mostly of the ”greatest hits” variety, and this tape will deliver its share of pleasures if you’ve never seen Johnny Hodges stomp the blues (”Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”), or Cootie Williams manipulate a plunger mute (”Take the ‘A’ Train”), or the leader imperially attack a piano. A refreshing surprise is ”Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” a feature for saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and the source of Jimmy Forrest’s ’50s R&B hit, ”Night Train.”
Although they’re all professional and entertaining, none of these performances is truly inspired. And Ellington seems oddly remote here (none of his usual, celebrated idiosyncratic song announcements are included). To make matters worse, the film constantly intercuts between different concerts, and the camera work is annoyingly busy, usually at very close range. The nervous editing certainly contradicts the easy elegance of an Ellington Orchestra performance.
The musical highlight of the film is not the ”previously unreleased ‘Mexican Suite”’ promised on the box. There is no such piece: The work identified as such is really three movements from the widely released Latin American Suite, which Ellington considered calling Mexican Anticipación. By any name, it’s a delightful sequence of exotic melodies and rhythms. Also promised are ”historic scenes from early films,” but there’s only one — an unidentified clip of ”Mood Indigo” (from 1952) with a fine solo by trumpeter Willie Cook. In lieu of a bona fide documentary, then, Memories of Duke is a pleasant souvenir of the greatest jazz orchestra this country has ever had. B