Monday, July 11, 2011

Duke Ellington, pothead? No.

From Edward McClelland at NBC Chicago:

[A]nyone who knows Duke Ellington knows he was one of the music world’s pioneering potheads. Ellington got high on a regular basis, and once said “jazz was born on whiskey, raised on marijuana, and will die on heroin.” (He was probably referring to Charlie Parker, who preferred stronger drugs.) Ellington also composed the song “Chant of the Weed,” which may have been about his favorite pastime. We don’t know for sure, since the song has no lyrics (a la “Eight Miles High”), but the dragging beat is a strong hint.
Say what?

If Ellington was a “pothead,” his use was a very well-kept secret. In everything I’ve read on Ellington, I cannot recall a single reference to his using marijuana. Ellington drank (and joked that he retired as an undefeated champion), and he smoked cigarettes (Pall Malls), and he once quipped, “I never in my whole life smoked anything which hadn’t got printing on it.”

I can find no source for the alleged quotation concerning alcohol, marijuana, and heroin. Drugs aside, it’s a curious quotation, given Ellington’s distaste for the term jazz and for all musical categories other than good and bad.

And it was Don Redman who wrote “Chant of the Weed.”

Could McClelland be mistaking Ellington for Louis Armstrong?

Update, August 8, 2011: My July 11 e-mails to Edward McClelland and NBC Chicago have received no replies. Nothing in McClelland’s piece, not even the plain errors of fact about “Chant of the Weed” and “Eight Miles High,” has been corrected.

[“I never in my whole life”: quoted in Derek Jewell, Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977).]

comments: 4

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Who said 8 Miles High had no lyrics? .....jazz snobs? :)

Gene Clark lives!

Michael Leddy said...

But since it was inspired by John Coltrane and Don Redman, it’s safe to assume it has no lyrics, right? :)

Tom the Piper's Son said...

The famous guitar solo, indeed, was inspired by Coltrane's solo on India. The lyrics, by Gene Clark, were based on the Byrds flight to England. Ironically it was Clark's phobia regarding flight that led to his departure from the group.

Michael Leddy said...

I looked up the lyrics yesterday — they’re beautiful and strange.

About Don Redman and no lyrics: I was aiming for the casual approach to fact evident in McClelland’s post. No disrespect to Gene Clark!