Gene Norman on Duke Ellington
I know Gene Norman’s voice best from his introduction of Max Roach and Clifford Brown at a Gene Norman Presents (GNP) concert in Hollywood in 1954. Norman was out front in presenting Max and Brownie’s original quintet with Teddy Edwards in April of that year, then in August he presented them at the Shrine Auditorium. I recall Gene intoning, “We very proudly present the Max Roach All-Stars with Clifford Brown,” as readily as I do Max’s “interpretation” of “Jordu.”
Here’s a tuxedoed Norman 45 years later addressing a Duke Ellington Centennial conference. The voice may be familiar, but the perspective is fresh. Norman, who became “transfixed” by Duke’s music as a nine-year-old, produced Ellington concerts over a 16-year period. His first impression of Duke was of a man in top hat and tails, but he got to know him in his backstage attire of “bathrobe and stocking cap,” tirelessly and “compulsively” at work on new tunes.
Conjecture abounds over how slyly Ellington may have lifted ideas and melodic fragments from his sidemen for use in his songs and compositions, over 1000 in number. Norman provides an example here of how a counter-melody that Johnny Hodges played on “Once in a While” grew to become “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” But to those who smugly dispute Ellington’s originality, Norman counters with, “Talent borrows from others, but genius borrows only from itself,” and notes how magnanimous it was for Duke to use Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” as his theme song for over 33 years.
Norman names Oscar Wilde, Gustav Mahler, George Gershwin, and Ellington as his heroes, but Duke was the only one he got to know. As you’ll see in this ten minute address, he’s still imbued with love for the man he describes as “super civilized.”
Here's Gene Norman's hero with a nicely-filmed rendition of "Take the A Train.."