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When Duke Ellington Made a Record for Just One Person—Queen Elizabeth
The jazz legend had a single golden disc pressed, and sent in secrecy to Buckingham Palace
Many musicians have long envied visual artists—who can sell unique objects at very high prices. Because of the inherent scarcity of one-of-a-kind originals, art works turn into status symbols, with wealthy elites paying exorbitant amounts for the privilege of owning something irreplaceable.
The recent mania for turning music into non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is just the latest iteration of this quest. Back in 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan made just a single copy of its seventh album, and packaged it in a jewel-studded silver box. We never learned how much financier Martin Shkreli paid for it back then, but the Department of Justice later seized it, and sold it for $4 million—making this the most expensive musical work in history.
But Duke Ellington did the exact same thing in 1959, and without any desire to make money. Or even generating publicity from the incident—which took place in secret, without fanfare or press releases.
In this instance, he created a unique album solely for the pleasure of giving it to Queen Elizabeth. With the help of Billy Strayhorn, he composed The Queen’s Suite, had one record manufactured—and sent it directly to Buckingham Palace, solely intended for Her Majesty’s ears.
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In a historic Duke-meets-Queen encounter the previous year, Ellington served up his famous charm for the monarch. When she asked him whether this was his first visit to Britain, Duke replied that his initial trip to London was in 1933, “way before you were born.” This was out-and-out flattery, because Queen Elizabeth had been born in 1926—but she played along with the game. “She gave me a real American look,” he later recalled, “very cool man, which I thought was too much.”
A single golden disc was made, and sent to Buckingham Palace. In order to ensure that no other copies were released, Ellington reimbursed Columbia, his label, some $2,500 in production costs, and thus retained personal ownership of the master tapes.
Give Duke credit for savviness. He understood that even a queen wants to hear how young she looks. Ellington followed up saying that Her Majesty “was so inspiring that something musical would come out of it.” She told him that she would be listening.
According to Ellington’s son Mercer, his father began working on the music to The Queen’s Suite as soon as he got back to his hotel room. He enlisted colleague and collaborator Billy Strayhorn. In addition to royal inspiration, the work also borrowed from the natural world: the opening movement draws on birdsong heard during a Florida visit, another section was a response to an unexpected encounter with “a million lightning bugs” serenaded by a frog. The best known part of the Suite, “The Single Petal of a Rose,” was spurred by a floral display on a piano at a friend’s home.
This latter movement has even entered the jazz standard repertoire as a standalone piece. It is most often performed by pianists, and has been recorded by Marcus Roberts, Marian McPartland, Sir Roland Hanna, John Hicks, Bill Mays, James Williams, and Andy LaVerne, as well as Ellington himself.
By early 1959, the finished work was ready for performance. The Queen’s Suite was now a 20-minute work in six movements. The band recorded it over the course of three sessions in February and April 1959. A single golden disc was made, and sent to Buckingham Palace. In order to ensure that no other copies were released, Ellington reimbursed Columbia, his label, some $2,500 in production costs, and thus retained personal ownership of the master tapes.
The original score to The Queen’s Suite is now in the collection of the National Museum of American History. I’m not sure where that single recording is nowadays—but Duke made certain that the music was never released during his lifetime. Not many people even knew about the existence of this recording, which was a kind of secret between him and the Queen. Yet, according to producer Irving Townsend, Ellington worked harder on this music than any other piece during that period.
What was the Queen’s response at the time? We will never know. But I note that as recently as 2019, Her Majesty surprised British jazz musician Gary Crosby by mentioning how much she admired Duke Ellington. And that same year, she made specific reference to The Queen’s Suite in a conversation with saxophonist Tommy Smith.
Few Ellington fans were aware of the story behind this music during the artist’s lifetime, but parts of the Suite showed up in his repertoire. “The Single Petal of a Rose” became a particular favorite with audiences.
Finally in 1976, two years after Ellington’s death, the piece appeared on an album entitled The Ellington Suites, released by Norman Granz. A few months later, that record won a Grammy.
I’m sure Ellington would have been gratified by the honor, but I have a hunch he still would have preferred that this particular affair had remained a private matter. It was a discreet gesture from a Duke to a Queen not meant for the ears of lesser gentry. And that’s a few steps higher up the rung than any NFT can reach.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth both participants in this musical exchange are now gone. But, I fear, we also have too little left of the gallantry that could produce such an extraordinary gesture, between two genuine representatives of a noble mindset, and solely as a private matter of their own.