Duke Ellington this weekend – yesterday would have been his 118th birthday (April 29, 1899), and to commemorate that, I thought I would run a concert he did in Senegal from 1966. Recorded by then-ORTF at the Festival Mondial des Artes Negres in Dakar on April 9, 1966 the concert features a collection of long-time associates and cohorts. Trumpets; Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson, Herbie Jones and Mercer Ellington. Trombones; Buster Cooper, Lawrence Brown and Chuck Connors. Alto-Saxes; Johnny Hodges and Russell Procope. Paul Gonsalves on Tenor Sax. Jimmy Hamilton on tenor sex and Clarinet. Harry Carney on Baritone. John Lamb on bass, and Sam Woodyard on drums.
The Festival was significant – it was the first such gathering in an independent African country. In addition to Ellington, some 2,500 other musicians, writers and artists gathered in what was referred to as an inaugural gathering of the Black World; Dakar ’66.
For Ellington it was a mixture of happiness and emotion and a feeling of coming home. In an interview done some years later, Ellington recalled “The cats in the bleachers really dug it. It gave us a once-in-a-lifetime feeling of having broken through to our brothers”.
It was also significant that, back in the U.S. the Civil Rights movement was in full-swing, but also that Africa was undergoing a process of de-colonization and independence. It was also smack in the middle of the Cold War and the U.S. State Department sponsored the Ellington trip as a way of promoting American ideals and culture to the nations of Africa. The Soviet Union, not to be outdone, also sent a delegation to the festival and had exhibits promoting the spirit of collaboration between the independent nations of Africa and the Soviet Union. It was ironic that America was still in the grips of segregation and the struggle for equality at the time, but that’s another story, but that was the nature of the Cold-War Popularity Contest.
As part of the 50th anniversary of the Festival, Radio France re-ran this concert in 2016. Luckily, it’s been preserved, although a little dodgy (sonically) in spots, it archives a historic moment by one of the great figures in Jazz and Music in general, who still amazes and inspires, some 43 years after his passing.