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The Degas Suite
Over the last week, we have published articles on Danish Radio’s Ellington broadcasts Nos. 31 and 32. These broadcasts are very much focused on the music Ellington composed and recorded for the art film Degas’ Racing World (sometimes referred to as The Impressionists at the Racetrack. The soundtrack for this never completed film is what is called The Degas Suite.
The film was the brainchild of the American film maker Sam Shaw. He was the producer of Paris Blues and this is how he got acquainted with Duke Ellington.
The idea of Racing World was apparently triggered by a major exhibition of impressionists and post-impressionists works with horse track and horse racing motives, which Shaw saw during his stay in Paris for Paris Blues.
He approached Ellington to write the music for the film, which he accepted. According to Stanley Dance, Ellington even was “enthusiastic” about it.
The music was recorded on three occasions, November 6, November 23 and December 3, 1968.
“After seeing the Degas material for the first time, Ellington decided to use just four horns and piano” (Dance). However, in the end, Ellington changed his mind and involved himself and 9 of his band members in the recording of the music.
Before the film projected stopped because of lack of money, a sound track for the film was put together out of the recorded music. Ellington got the rights to it as a compensation for having paid for the studio time and for his musicians.
But he never made use of the sound track and he does not refer to the (unissued) film and The Degas Suite in Music Is My Mistress. This can be interpreted as there was no Degas Suite to him, just a soundtrack of a failed film project.
Instead, the originator of the name The Degas Suite is Stanley Dance. For the fifth volume of the Ellington Private Collection issued in 1987, he selected a set of takes from the Racing World recording sessions based on the soundtrack and issued them under the name of The Degas Suite in the CD album. In his liner notes, he says “The soundtrack…solves the problem of deciding which takes Ellingtom himself considered definitive”.
His selections and the order of them are slightly different from the one Erik V. Krustrup had in DR 31 and 32.
A comparative list can be found on page 582 in Klaus Stratemann’s “Duke Ellington Day by Day, Film by Film”
In 1987, the President of the Southern California Chapter of the Duke Ellington Society, William Fawcett Hill, together with the art historian James Dobbs, decided to produce a reconstruction of Degas’ Racing World. They did so without having able to find any of the original film clips and getting only vague information when he interviewed Sam Shaw.
So the “reconstruction” must be considered as a rather personal interpretation of the original film both as regards the paintings which appears and the order of the music.
It was shown at the Ellington ’88 conference in Oldham and now DESS members can also enjoy it. We apologise for the poor quality of the images.
Ellington DR Broadcasts (32)
The fourth ”goodie” in December is program 32 in the Duke Ellington series broadcast by the Danish Radio in the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. The broadcast is available in the “Goodies” section of the website.
This program was broadcast on August 30, 1985 and the presenter is once again Erik V. Krustrup.
He continues to bring the listeners some of the music Ellington composed and recorded for film The Impressionists At The Racetrack.
The program starts with the version of Race with Harry Carney and Russell Procope that ended the previous broadcast. Krustrup then plays some more takes of the melody. The first one is played by Ellington solo and the second features Russell Procope in particular .
The next number is Pastel with Paul Gonsalves in the solo role. According to notes from the recording session, it was supposed to follow Race in the film.
After this, comes Drawings, which is an interplay between Ellington, Willie Cook and the trombone section. It is followed by Prat – a solo number for Harry Carney – and the same Opening Titles as was heard in the previous broadcast.
The section with music recorded for Racing World ends with Piano Pastel – an Ellington solo number. Krustrup says that he plays it “as an epilog to the suite”. However, it was not meant to end the film. Apparently, this was to be done by Opening Titles.
The broadcast continues with three selections from stockpile sessions at the end of November 1969. First comes three takes of Reva recorded on November 29, 1969 and then two takes of each Just A Little Jive and Riverboat. In the broadcast they are respectively referred to as Untitled Blues and Country.
The broadcast ends with two rockin’ numbers from the stockpile session on December 9, 1970 – Sans Snyphelle and Big Luv (aka Amore Grande).
Ellington DR Broadcasts (31)
The third ”goodie” in December is program 31 in the Duke Ellington series broadcasted by the Danish Radio in the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. The broadcast is available in the “Goodies” section of the website.
This program was broadcasted on August 23, 1985 and the presenter is Erik V. Krustrup.
It is totally focused on the music that Ellington wrote for the film Racing World or The Impressionists At The Racetrack). However, the musical part is most commonly known as The Degas Suite.
The film was to be a 30 minutes documentary about paintings and sketches of race courses by foremost Degas but also other impressionist painters like Forain and Dufy. Unfortunately, the project run out of money before the film was finished so it was never released.
Using the many pieces of music recorded for the film found in Mercer Ellington’s donation, Krustrup tries to bring The Degas Suite to the listerners in a form close to what it was meant to be.
As an appetizer, the broadcast start with one of the takes of Race. This one is played by Paul Gonsalves. Then the program continues with some examples of recorded snippets and how they were used to build larger musical blocks like for the opening squence of the film.
Four takes of Race comes next – two with Johnny Hodges and two with Ellington. They are followed by Promenade (aka Red Circle), COPA II, Racing, Trump, Sonnet and Daily Double.
The broadcast ends with a piece called Improvisation and another take of Race.
Improvisation was later used in The River and then called The Run. It is the same theme as The Queen’s Guard, which Ellington played on piano at the rehearsal for the telecast from Cirkus in Stockholm on February 8, 1966.
More of The Degas Suite is in the next broadcast.