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AT THE CENTENARY MUSIC FESTIVAL 1958 in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, perhaps not surprisingly a duke encountered a queen. Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits about this encounter.

It was no ordinary duke, nor ordinary queen. This was jazz great Duke Ellington being presented to Queen Elizabeth II, at that point only five years into her reign that was to last some sixty more years. Her Majesty was 32; Duke Ellington was 59, and not averse to some gentle ducal flirting.  

There’s also a British Pathé newsreel recounting Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the Centenary Music Festival 1958. It shows the young monarch visiting what appears to be a printing facility, meeting the cast of Handel’s Samson presented at Leed’s Grand Theatre and Opera House October 17, 1958, and being cheered by scads of ardent subjects during her visit.

A Centenary Musical Festival Programme lists Leed’s Odeon Theatre hosting Jazz Concerts on October 14-15, 1958. These included Johnny Dankworth and his orchestra and Cleo Laine, as well as Humphery Lyttleton and his band with Jimmy Rushing. 

Laine and Rushing are familiar to me; Dankworth and Lyttleton, less so. There’s no explicit mention in the Programme of Duke Ellington; perhaps he was just a visiting dignitary? 

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, 1899–1974, American composer, band leader, pianist.

A Meeting Beyond the Gentry. Ted Gioia, The Honest Broker, gives details in “When Duke Ellington Made a Record for Just One Person—Queen Elizabeth,” September 9, 2022. The Queen paused in the reception line to ask Ellington whether this was his first trip to England. 

Gioia recounts, “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.’ ”

Gioia continues, “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.”

Suite Inspiration. True to his word, upon returning to his hotel room, Ellington began sketching out what evolved into The Queen’s Suite, a 20-minute six-movement composition for big band. Eventually, he enlisted colleague and collaborator Billy Strayhorn to contribute as well.

William Thomas Strayhorn, 1915–1967, American composer, pianist, lyricist, and arranger, classically trained, long-time friend and colleague of Duke Ellington.

Gioia writes, “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.”

Tomorrow in Part 2 we’ll see what was on this golden disc and the eventual issuing of The Ellington Suites. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 


  1. Bob DuBois
    September 20, 2022

    Johnny Dankworth had a big band much like, but much less-known in America than Ted Heath. Had he been American, he probably would have been as popular as any of the orchestras in the big band era, in my opinion.

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