Friday, 12 February 2016

Radio Review: 12 February

Duke Ellington’s A Train wasn’t a ‘true’ signature…

Written by Louis Barfe
Louis-Barfe-colour-176Even people who know a bit about jazz tend to assume that Take The A Train was a Duke Ellington composition. But his signature tune was composed by the Duke’s loyal collaborator Billy Strayhorn.

Having missed its first transmission in 2014, I was delighted to catch Ian Smith’s play Blood Count (Afternoon Drama, R4, weekdays, 2.15pm), about the relationship between the Duke and Swee’pea, as he called Strayhorn. Smith took some liberties with events, but in a way I found entirely defensible.

Smith had a seriously ill Strayhorn delivering his final composition, the Blood Count of the title, to the studio, allowing him to meet and speak to Elaine Robillard, a bluestocking from Time magazine (played superbly by Ashleigh Haddad), who was writing a piece about Ellington and his appropriation of his musicians’ ideas. As far as I know, Swee’pea (Don Gilet) was far too ill to leave the hospital and the piece was recorded posthumously.

I could pick holes in the factual basis, but the dramatic licence served a greater purpose. Robillard wanted Strayhorn to get full credit, but this modest genius argued that without Ellington, he’d be just another cocktail pianist. She said that ‘A Train’ as Ellington’s ‘signature’ was forged. Ellington argued that he looked after his band of ‘wayward children’, bailing them out when necessary. It was a sensitive exploration of a problematic relationship, and Ellington’s charmingly persistent way with women was explored.

There was also Clarke Peters’s fine performance as Ellington. Peters had the voice pretty much bang-on, and inhabited the character beautifully. The music was lovingly recreated too by Smith on trumpet with Alan Barnes on reeds, Dave Newton on piano, Andy Cleyndert on bass and Matt Home on drums.

Louis on Twitter: @LFBarfe or email:

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