To this day, the name Duke Ellington is synonymous with the best in American jazz. In a career that spanned over 50 years, Ellington (1899-1974) performed in over 20,000 concerts and composed some 3,000 songs, many of which have become standards. Beginning with the 1929 short, BLACK AND TAN FANTASY, Ellington and his Orchestra appeared in films throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
But it wasn’t until 1959 that Ellington, at the ripe old age of 60, was offered the opportunity to compose his first feature film score for Otto Preminger’s ANATOMY OF A MURDER. The film starred James Stewart as a small-town lawyer hired to represent a soldier (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing a local bar owner who had raped his wife (Lee Remick).
Preminger felt that hiring Ellington would “produce a freshness which an experienced film composer might no longer possess.” When asked in an interview why “a man of your long standing in the motion picture world” hadn’t composed for the screen, Ellington replied, “I believe most people think of me as a bandleader and at the same time they sort of remember and recognize the fact that I’ve had good fortune with some hit songs, but I think primarily they think about me as a bandleader and when they think in terms of doing for a show or a picture or something like that, they feel that, well, Ellington’s got his band and I am sure that he wouldn’t give that up for anything, you know. And that’s it and they just leave it that way.” But “I love the idea” of composing for film, he said. “I like playing with music and its relationship to the theatre—and particularly in the supporting role.”
But Duke’s score was certainly no mere supporting player. “ANATOMY OF A MURDER is music made when Duke and the band were very mature,” wrote Wynton Marsalis in his essay for the 1999 soundtrack reissue. “They made music to represent an adults-only movie…There are very advanced harmonic conceptions present. For Anatomy of a Murder, Duke refined his harmonic language to a very high point.” In addition to the background score, jazz plays from Stewart’s fingers on his broken-down upright piano, as source music on his turntable, and in performance by Ellington himself in a cameo role as Pie Eye, the bandleader at a local roadhouse.
Ellington’s music captures “the sound of sex,” wrote Marsalis. He composed what he called his “number one theme,” “Flirtibird,” around Lee Remick’s hip-swinging femme fatale, perfectly captured by Johnny Hodges’ sinuous alto saxophone solo. “[Lee] was the picture,” said Ellington, “I mean it was a thing with her eyes and she absolutely appeared to be, you know, sort of flirting all the time which could easily be mistaken by someone and it was.” “Flirtibird” also serves as the root for the second main theme, which represents Stewart’s “Polly.” Ellington runs the theme through a number of variations (and soloists) throughout the score. Marsalis points out “‘Polly’ and ‘Flirtibird’ are not exactly the same; there’s even an element of playing it backwards and forwards between the two. But they’re the same.”
In addition, Ellington wrote a laidback clarinet theme for Eve Arden’s no-nonsense secretary. “Happy Anatomy” is based on “Flirtibird” and is played by Pie Eye and the band at the roadhouse as Polly catches Laura (Remick) working her charms on the men at the bar. Ellington modestly called his theme (sometimes called “Pie Eye Blues”) “gutbucket,” and as played over the main titles, it sets the tone for the whole film. The theme was released as a single in two separate versions.
Stanley Crouch called ANATOMY OF A MURDER “one of Ellington’s grandest accomplishments.” Ellington won three Grammy Awards for the music—Best Performance by a Dance Band, Best Musical Composition First Recorded and Released in 1959 (More Than 5 Minutes Duration), and Best Sound Track Album.
For his second film score, Ellington collaborated with an unbilled Billy Strayhorn on Martin Ritt’s PARIS BLUES (1961). Ellington would compose only two more film scores: the rarely seen ASSAULT ON A QUEEN (1966) and CHANGE OF MIND (1969). Numerous awards continued to pour in throughout the rest of his career.
He was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the French Legion of Honor in 1973. At the 1965 Pulitzer Prizes, the three-member music jury originally recommended a special citation for Ellington, but the Pulitzer advisory board rejected the recommendation. Two of the three jury members resigned in protest. Ellington was finally awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1999, 25 years after his death, to commemorate the centennial year of his birth. It was 34 years too late, but as Duke quipped in 1965, “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.” He was 67.