On a sunny July morning in 1966, two of the 20th century’s greatest artists–Duke Ellington and Joan Miró–met in the medieval village of St. Paul de Vence in the south of France.
The meeting was arranged by the legendary jazz impresario Norman Granz, who was producing a music festival at Juan-le-Pins while at the same time continuing work on a documentary film project he had started in 1950, called Improvisation. Granz had the idea of bringing Ellington and his trio to play in the garden at the Fondation Maeght, where, as he explains in this excerpt from the film, by sheer luck Miró happened to be working. The two men couldn’t understand a word each other said, but showed each other their work. Miro took Ellington on a tour of his sculptures; Ellington and his trio played a couple of numbers for Miró.
We spoke this week with a member of Ellington’s trio, bassist John Lamb. Now 78, Lamb said he doesn’t remember much about that day, except that the trip to St. Paul de Vence was at 10 or 11 in the morning–early for the musicians, who had been up late the night before. After performing at the festival with musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Jean-Luc Ponty, Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett, meeting Miró was no big deal for Lamb. “It didn’t mean too much,” he said, “because we were in the limelight all the time. It was just another thing.”
The song in the video is an E-minor blues with a call-and-response form that Ellington would later name “The Shepherd (Who Watches Over His Flock)” in honor of Lutheran clergyman John Garcia Gensel, who ministered to the jazz community in New York City. Although it’s true, as Granz says in the film, that Ellington first charted the song for his full orchestra at the festival, “The Shepherd” was not improvised on the spot. “The actual piece evolved over a period of time on the road,” said Lamb.
In the film clip, drummer Sam Woodyard keeps the beat with his back turned to the others while Lamb leans in to watch every move of Ellington’s hands. “There was a complete marriage between the piano and the bass,” said Lamb. “He didn’t do anything to surprise me too much because I had worked with him awhile and I knew what he would do. I sort of anticipated. That’s what bass players have to do–anticipate what the piano player is going to do. So I watched him in case he decided to do something different.”
Lamb toured with Ellington for three years. At the time, he didn’t fully appreciate the elder musician’s style. He was more into players like Miles Davis and Red Garland. “I was very young and very cocky. I thought I knew more than Duke at that time,” Lamb said, laughing at the memory. “The music to me is much more important now than it was then. I needed a job then, I needed to work. I was hungry. I have more time today to reflect on the things that were accomplished back then, and the places we traveled to and all the wonderful people that we met. So one has to be careful what one does in his young years, because if they’re fortunate to live long, it all comes back.”
Note: You can learn more about bassist John Lamb’s adventures with the Duke Ellington Trio at Jazz Backstory. And for more of the performance at the Fondation Maeght, along with scenes from the 1966 jazz festival at Juan-le-Pins, watch Duke Ellington at the Côte d’Azur with Ella Fitzgerald and Joan Miró, which comes on a two-disc DVD with the later performance Duke: The Last Jam Session.