Duke Ellington Meets Apollo 11

Eternal debt of gratitude to Larry Appelbaum of WPFW’s Sounds of Surprise program for pointing listeners (including myself) to a fascinating moment in our nation’s history about which not enough seems to have been written.

“Moon Maiden”     Duke Ellington Quartet @ ABC in NYC     July 21, 1969

A rather surreal television moment, as the Apollo 11 rocket lifts off in a video montage behind Duke Ellington that then dissolves into a shot of the moon.  “Moon Maiden” would be the regal bandleader’s debut vocal performance, amazingly enough, thus exquisitely underscoring the theme of Appelbaum’s program:  vocal performances from otherwise staunch instrumentalists.

Jazz Lives reports (via his “expert friends“) that Duke Ellington’s televised performance – with Al Chernet on guitar, Paul Kondziela on bass, and Rufus Jones on drums – had been “pre-recorded for the telecast.”

“Moon Maiden” had also been recorded just days earlier, July 14th, specifically, at NYC’s National Studio with only Duke Ellington on vocals and celeste (and finger snaps) — the version you will find as the kick-off track on 1977’s The Intimate Ellington.

Duke Ellington LP - Italy

Jet would include this report (“Ellington Pens Tune For Man’s First Moon Steps“) in their July 31, 1969 edition:

Duke Ellington,  composer-bandleader-pianist par excellence who has taken The A Train through the Air Conditioned Jungle to his Satin Doll, climbed musically aboard Apollo 11 with his specially composed song, Moon Maiden, for the Moon-bound astronauts.  The veteran musician, 70, whose musical composition is an accompaniment to man’s first steps on the moon, permitted himself a public first:  he sang as well as played the Moon Maiden tune.  The 10-minute composition for piano, bass, and drums, commissioned by ABC-TV for the network’s day-long broadcast of man’s first walk on the moon, says:

Moon Maiden.  Way out there in the blue … /
Moon Maiden.  Got to be with you /
I made my approach and then revolved /
But my big problem is still not solved /
Coming in loud and clear /
I’m just a fly-by-night guy, but for you … /
I might be quite the right–so right guy /
Moon Maiden.  Moon Maiden.  Maiden, you’re for me.

Asked why he composed a song about a “maiden” when the astronauts going to the moon are men, the veteran jazzman, surrounded by a set the simulated the lunar landing site, replied:  “For those cats to want to be there, there must be a chick around someplace.”  Onlookers and studio buffs who witnessed the musical taping said Duke didn’t “sound bad” as a singer.  Duke said this first vocal effort is his last.  A studio spokesman declared:  “It seemed appropriate–as man first sets foot upon the moon–that we should celebrate with music.”

Ken Vail’s invaluable reference, Duke’s Diary, points to September 4, 1969 as the day that “Duke Ellington and his Orchestra again record for Reader’s Digest in New York City” with the following musical personnel to record “Moon Maiden” — twice, including a version that features vocals from Duke himself — along with four other songs:

  • Duke Ellington:  Piano
  • Cat Anderson, Cootie Williams, Willie Cook & Lloyd Michaels:  Trumpets
  • Lawrence Brown, Benny Green & Chuck Connors:  Trombones
  • Russell Procope:  Alto Sax & Clarinet
  • Johnny Hodges & Norris Turney:  Alto Sax
  • Harold Ashby & Paul Gonsalves:  Tenor Saxes
  • Harry Carney:  Baritone Sax
  • Luther Henderson:  Piano
  • Wild Bill Davis:  Organ
  • Paul Kondziela:  Bass
  • Victor Gaskin:  Electric Bass
  • Rufus Jones:  Drums
  • Robert Collier:  Conga

Nine years after the moon landing, Luv You Madly Orchestra (on NYC’s Salsoul label) would bring out the untapped disco potential of Ellington’s original piece.

“Moon Maiden” was a B-SIDE, you know

Moon Maiden - Salsoul

Richard Jurek, in the February 15, 2017 edition of Smithsonian’s Air & Space, writes about this fascinating musical footnote in American aeronautical history, when an emerging TV network – with a reputation for “counterprogramming” against its competitors – commissioned a 10-minute vocal paean to our planet’s lone satellite to be broadcast to the entire nation.  Jurek also notes with amusement that our good friends at Pickwick did their level best to capitalize on the national sentiment in 1969 by churning out a covers album of ten popular “moon” songs.

Billy Vaughn LP on Pickwick

Seasons in Your Mind would go one step further and compile an annotated listing of other “moon-sploitation” albums from the year 1969 (although shamefully neglect to include the Journey to the Moon album released that same year by Cincinnati’s King Records).

Journey to the Moon - King LP

NASA, not to be outdone, has organized its own Lunar List of moon songs alphabetically, with Jimi Hendrix’s “And the Moon Pulls the Tides Gently, Gently Away” positioned first!

Zero to 180 is reminded of a time when television news had a modicum of dignity — although hard to say with a straight face as one spies the prominent product placement for Tang on the newscasters’ rostrum.

Tang:  Proud NASA Sponsor

Tang - Proud NASA SponsorBig tip of the hat to Aeolus 13 Umbra, who posted the above television clip from his own video archives and noted the striking juxtaposition of Duke Ellington with full-sized replicas of the Apollo 11 Command Module and Eagle Lunar Lander in ABC’s television studios.  Thank you also to Brent Hayes Edwards, who gets very specific about Ellington’s “Moon Maiden” (as well as “Spaceman“) in Epistrophies:  Jazz and the Literary Imagination:

“Ellington’s manuscript for ‘Moon Maiden’ is located in the Duke Ellington Collection, Subseries 1A:  Manuscripts, Box 229, Folder 8, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Duke Ellington, “Spaceman,” Duke Ellington Collection, Series 5:  Correspondence, Box 6, notes, undated, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.”

TV Guide invites you to review the programming plans for each of the three major television networks during the week of July 19-25, 1969.

TV Guide - July 19, 1969Did you know? “Moon Maiden” is not Duke Ellington’s first musical brush with space travel — 1957’s double-LP Columbia release, A Drum Is a Woman, would include “Ballet of the Flying Saucers.”

Duke Ellington - flying saucersLink to Zero to 180’s previous piece that features Duke Ellington

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