Duke Ellington Plays for Joan Miró in the South of France, 1966: Bassist John Lamb Looks Back on the Day

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.

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