Yesterday I shared some brief thoughts on American Hustle and noted the use of Duke Ellington’s music in that film. I’ve been thinking a bit more about that connection and it seems to me that the use of his music intentionally references the larger narrative of the movie.
“Jeep’s Blues” as performed by the Ellington band at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival plays a crucial role in the story: it’s the song that defines Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser’s relationship from their first meeting all the way through to the closing credits.
The ’56 Newport performance marked a decisive turnaround for Ellington’s financially and critically lagging career. His best days lay behind him: the brilliance of his small group sessions, the inimitable performances of the early ’40s, the far-ahead-of-their time compositions.
Ellington was now wrestling with longer musical forms, struggling to retain musicians that had played a crucial role in defining his earlier sound and trying to remain relevant amid a rapidly changing musical landscape.
The heyday of swing was long past, jazz had moved on into daring new modernist explorations and the popular music of the land was no longer synonymous with America’s greatest art form. Jazz’s greatest composer was left trying to fit into a musical world that he had helped create but that had, in many ways, left him behind.
The Newport performance of “Jeep’s Blues” took a 1938 Johnny Hodges feature and turned it into a full-blown spectacle: a lush and almost-over-the-top revisiting of Ellington’s greatest strengths. The opening of the song is an explosion of sound — “Who starts a song like that?” asks Irving Rosenfeld.
It’s an all-in performance, holding nothing back, starting “from the feet up.” Ellington’s absolute confidence in his band shines through in a performance that swings with a laid-back bravura. Every piece is in its place, from the tight harmonies of the horn section, to the deep groove of the rhythm section and Duke’s restrained vamping, to the transcendent wail of Hodge’s saxophone gliding smoothly above it all.
It’s a performance worthy of a great con man: so good, so real, that it’s no longer a con — it’s life itself.