Written by David Brent Johnson from WFIU-FM
When Duke Ellington received the news that Billy Strayhorn, his songwriting and arranging partner of 28 years, had died, Ellington reportedly cried and told a friend, “No, I’m not all right! Nothing is going to be all right now.”
The cancer-stricken Strayhorn passed away on May 31, 1967, and Ellington himself would follow seven years later, dying on May 24, 1974, at the age of 75. But the Duke did not go gently into the good night of his own mortality; he toured incessantly in the last years of his life and produced late-period masterpieces such as The New Orleans Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. “Who’s 70?” he said to a reporter who kept bringing up his age. “That’s an awful weight to put on an up-and-coming man like me.”
As his son Mercer Ellington later noted, Duke Ellington took Strayhorn’s passing as an impetus, born of necessity, to increase his own productivity as a writer. His discography from 1967 to 1973 contains numerous points of interest, such as The River (written for an Alvin Ailey ballet), a duet date with bassist Ray Brown (This One’s for Blanton) and a stellar piano-trio concert (Live at the Whitney). Here are five more glowing snapshots from the Ellingtonian twilight.