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"Mary Poppins" at 50: Recalling a jazzy session with Duke Ellington

“Duke Ellington Plays ‘Mary Poppins'”
“Duke Ellington Plays ‘Mary Poppins'”
“Duke Ellington Plays ‘Mary Poppins'”

It is nigh on impossible to fully comprehend the impact Walt Disney had on not just American society but the world itself. We’re not just talking the characters he created, from Mickey Mouse moving forward, or the classic movies – animated and otherwise – that have entertained and enlightened succeeding generations around the globe.
No, Disney’s impact transcends that. Bear in mind, he all but invented the concept of branding and the merchandising of entertainment figures he inaugurated is pervasive today. Moreover, every theme park on the planet owes a profound debt to Disneyland, itself the result of Disney’s singular genius and vision.
Disney, simply put, was the Thomas Edison of 20th century American popular culture and his impact will be felt well into succeeding centuries. For a thorough (and thoroughly entertaining) exploration of the Disney’s life, times and contributions, I heartily recommend Neal Gabler’s “The Triumph of the American Imagination.”
These thoughts passed through my mind this morning as I read that today marks the 50th anniversary of the last great production Disney oversaw, “Mary Poppins.” The acclaimed musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke was a monster box office success at the time of its release as well as a critical favorite. It received 13 Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture.
Fascination with the film persists; witness last year’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” in which Tom Hanks turned in an understated (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) portrayal of Disney. The man himself died in December 1966 at age 65.
The “Poppins” soundtrack stands as the crowning achievement of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, the bickering brothers whose genius also gave us “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Aristocats” and, yes, “It’s A Small World.” The pair garnered two Oscars, nine Academy Award nominations, two Grammys and a spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame for their body of work.
One measure of a songwriter’s status is how well the material holds up through interpretation across a variety of genres. Certainly, the Shermans’ canon meets that test when it comes to jazz.
If you don’t already own it, let me recommend “Disney Jazz, Vol. 1: Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” (2011). While it includes compositions from earlier (“Someday My Prince Will Come”) and later (“Gaston”) in the Disney continuum, the siblings’ work represents the core of the project.
There’s the title track (with Roy Hargrove) taken from the “Aristocats,” “Chim Chim Cher-Ee” (Esperanza Spalding) from “Mary Poppins,” “He’s a Tramp” (Dianne Reeves) from “Lady and the Tramp,” “Feed The Birds” (Kurt Rosenwinkel) also from “Poppins”, “The Bare Necessities” (Alfredo Rodriguez) from “The Jungle Book” and a delightful take on “It's A Small World” (Nikki Yanofsky).
Northern California’s own Dave Brubeck latched on to the Disney songbook long before just about anybody with “Dave Digs Disney” (1957). Originally released as a six-track EP, it was reissued in 2010 with alternate takes and bonus tracks. It features pianist Brubeck with Paul Desmond (alto saxophone), Norman Bates (bass) and Joe Morello (drums). And let’s not forget “Disney Songs the Satchmo Way” (1968). It features Louis Armstrong working his way through such Sherman-penned staples as “Chim Chim Cher-Ee” and “The Bare Necessities.”
As for “Mary Poppins,” the disc to seek out is “Duke Ellington Plays ‘Mary Poppins.’” Released on Reprise in 1965, the album features the Ellington band in all its glory along with arrangements by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The AllMusic.com review:

This disc is a surprising success. Duke Ellington was somehow persuaded into revising and recording a dozen songs from the score of Walt Disney's “Mary Poppins,” and the results are actually quite memorable. With such soloists as altoist Johnny Hodges, baritonist Harry Carney, trumpeter Cootie Williams, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, and trombonist Lawrence Brown getting their spots, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra turn such songs as "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Chim Chim Cheree" (a much happier version than John Coltrane's), "The Life I Lead," and even "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" into swinging jazz.

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