"The Queen's Suite"

I was watching Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations on the network morning shows, and when I saw the 96-year-old woman make her appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, one thought immediately came to mind: I wonder how often she listens to the musical suite that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote for her — “The Queen’s Suite”.

Ellington’s orchestra had been touring in England and the European continent in late 1958, and met Queen Elizabeth at that time. Prince Phillip had seen Ellington perform in a theater in Leeds — the Prince went with composer Benjamin Britten to see Duke’s band. The Queen, however, never got a chance to see Ellington perform. But Ellington did meet the woman who would become Britain's longest serving monarch at a reception at Leeds Civic Hall later that evening in 1958. Duke wrote about the meeting in his 1973 memoir, "Music Is My Mistress:

"The tension in one respect was while waiting in the entrance. You are astonished by the applause and then struck speechless by the grace of the beautiful Queen, followed by HRM Prince Philip, the Princess Royal, the Earl of Harewood, and the Hon. Gerald Lascelles. H.M’s (Her Majesty’s) general tone reflects the contentment of a normally happy married life, in contradiction of all the rumors and accounts of monarchs, which restores your faith in people as people. A handsome couple with careers. Two young people trying to get along. "Then when it happens, and you are presented by Lord Harewood, H.M. with an air of understanding calms your tuned up nerves, your knees stop knocking and your feeling of insecurity is gone, and you say to yourself “So it was not necessary to take that tranquilizer after all”. Then I think of all the things I should have said, if I could only have gotten my feet on the ground."

Ellington talked more about meeting the Queen in a 1961 interview: "As a matter of fact I was the last person on line and she was sort of relaxed when she got to me, and we talked about her family, her father King George, her uncle Prince Edward and the Duke of Kent, whom I had an occasion to meet. The Duke of Kent and I used to play four-hand at the piano at night, and Prince Edward was at several parties at which we played when we were there is 1933. Then one night, we had to hold the show for him in Liverpool. At another party he sat in on drums…. Then she told me about all the records of mine her father had. The she asked me when was your first time in England? Oh I said, oh my first time in England was in 1933, way before you were born. She gave me a real American look; very cool man, which I thought was too much."

During their meeting, the Queen mentioned that she regretted not seeing Ellington’s orchestra. That comment would inspire Ellington to write “The Queen’s Suite”.

The six-part suite was recorded in New York in February and April of 1959 at Columbia Records 30th Street Studio. But it wasn’t recorded for Columbia. Ellington paid for the recording sessions out of his own pocket and owned the masters. (Although he used Columbia’s producer for jazz sessions, Teo Macero, in the control room).

It’s beautiful, sensuous music -- you can listen to the complete suite here.

I’m guessing Duke —a devout admirer of women of all colors—was quite impressed with the Queen. Ellington would press only one copy of the recording, to be presented to Her Majesty later in 1959.

It was never released in Duke’s lifetime — his son, Mercer, sold the masters to Pablo Records after Duke’s death in 1976. Of course, “The Queen’s Suite” is considered a jazz classic. The orchestral sections of the suite are masterful — “Northern Lights”, “Apes and Peacocks”, “Sunset and the Mocking Bird” and “Lightning Bugs and Frogs” are among Ellington and Strayhorn’s finest compositions of the 1950s, played by one of his most distinctive bands. “The Single Petal of a Rose” —Ellington’s piano solo in the suite — is truly fascinating. Duke composed it on the spot while performing at a private party in Leeds, England in late 1958, according to Renee Diamond, one of the attendees at the party. Diamond recorded the performance in Leeds, and before Ellington recorded the piece, he asked for the tape, since he had forgotten how to play the song.

Apparently, the Queen still listens to Ellington. So the question remains — how often does the Queen listen to her eponymous suite? It must be quite thrilling to know that you've inpsired such great music.


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