Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
(b Edward Kennedy Ellington, 29 April 1899, Washington DC; d 24 May 1974, NYC) Pianist, bandleader, arranger, composer; one of the greatest musicians in American history partly because he was all of these at once. His father was a butler at the White House and a blueprint maker for the US Navy; he acquired his nickname as a teenager from his elegant dress and demeanour. His piano teacher was Marietta Clinkscales; later in NYC, he said, he had harmony lessons in back seats of taxis from Will Vodery and Will Marion Cook, and tips from Willie 'The Lion' Smith.
As a teenager he won an NAACP poster-design contest and was offered an art scholarship but left high school to start a sign-painting business, and found that piano playing attracted the girls: asked to paint a poster for a dance he would ask, 'What band have you got?' He went to New York in March 1923 but found no work; he returned that fall with the Washingtonians, led by Elmer Snowden, including Arthur Whetsel, trumpet (b 1905, FL; d 5 January 1940, NYC), Otto 'Toby' Hardwick, saxophones (b 31 May 1904, Washington; d there 5 August 1970), Sonny Greer, drums (b William Alexander Greer, 13 December c.1895, NJ; d 23 March 1982, NYC). (Alternate spellings 'Whetsol' and 'Hardwicke' are seen but are incorrect.) Vocalist Ada Smith (see Bricktop) recommended them for a job at Barron's Exclusive Club, their first important gig; they went to the Hollywood Inn for four years, renamed the Kentucky Club after a fire. At the beginning of this period it was just another dance band; at the end it was Ellington's band playing his music, and so many of his sidemen became influential stars in their own right that they have their own entries in this encyclopedia. The band was broadcast from the club and began playing jazz, then just seeping into New York.
Ellington and lyricist Jo Trent were songwriting partners from 1923 to 1926, both briefly employed by Fred Fisher's publishing house in early 1924. The October 17, 1925 Baltimore Afro-American for 17 October 1924 reported that
Jo Trent and Duke Ellington are responsible for the tunes and arrangements in Flournoy Miller's 'Backbiters' at the Regent this week. The former has gone far in musical accomplishment. He was in charge of the books of the Vincent Lopez Orchestra until that organization went abroad. He received his training principally from the distinguished Will Vodery and is also a protege of Will Marion Cook.
In fact Ellington's lessons with Vodery and Cook must have been more extensive than he let on. The Cooks had been neighbors in Washington DC; Miss Clinkscales was a regular accompanist to Abbie MItchell, who was Mrs Will Marion Cook; and Ellington's mother, Daisy, was also a close friend of Mrs Will Vodery. The Cooks' son Mercer was born in 1903; he was Ellington's close friend for many years, and Ellington named his own son Mercer (Mercer Cook was U.S. Ambassador in Dakar when the Ellington band played there in 1967). At any rate, Ellington's special genius suddenly burst forth during this period, and Cook and Vodery no doubt deserve some of the credit. According to researcher Arne Neegard, 'the segregated Cotton Club had a special table reserved for Will Marion Cook. With his name engraved in a brass plate overlooking the orchestra pit he was able to supervise both rehearsals and the evening shows.'
Duke had become leader of the Washingtonians when Snowden left in 1925 (possibly because Greer didn't want to be leader); Whetsel left to study medicine, replaced by the profoundly influential Bubber Miley (b James Wesley Miley, 3 April 1903, Aiken SC; d 20 May 1932, Welfare Island, NY). Fred Guy joined on banjo (b 23 May 1897, Burkesville GA; d 22 November 1971, Chicago); Charlie Irvis (1899-1939), who played a growling trombone, was replaced by Joe 'Tricky Sam' Nanton (b 1 February 1904, NYC; d 20 July 1946, San Francisco) and they were joined for a brief period by Sidney Bechet.
[Duke wrote music for the revue Chocolate Kiddies , which toured Europe with Sam Wooding, but it was not clear whether Ellington's music was used; Ellington and Trent wrote 'Jig Walk' for that show, which Ellington continued to play for years. A German band, Efim Schachmeister, recorded a waltz called 'Love Is Just A Wish' from the show in 1925, credited to Ellington, which would seem to indicate that's Duke's music reached Europe before it reached most of the USA.
Duke's band could play as hot as any other outfit, but soon Ellington's music had a sensual beauty that the others lacked. The first recordings were made in November 1924; through the Cotton Club period discs were issued on many labels as the Washingtonians, Ten Blackberries, Jungle Band, Harlem Footwarmers, Whoopee Makers, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, His Cotton Club Orchestra etc; some issued on subsidiary labels under made-up names. For the first few years Ellington had had limited experience leading a band larger than a septet; the Washingtonians may have been expanded for brief tours of New England in 1924 and 1925, but from mid-1926 the band had 9 or 10 members, making more voicings and colours available. 'Li'l Farina', made in June 1926, was probably not Ellington's composition, though he may have written it and sold it outright; it was relatively simple, but five months later came the first recording of 'East St. Louis Toodle-Oo', virtually the first Ellington classic (although at least one of its themes was probably invented by Miley). The band went to the Cotton Club when King Oliver wasn't offered enough money: they stayed from December 1927 to February 1931 except for tours; they made the short film Black And Tan Fantasy in 1929, and broadcasts from the Cotton Club made them famous. Ellington wrote or arranged music for the floor shows (though much of it was written by Harold Arlen, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields); he discovered a talent for tone colour and began to create a unique body of composition.
Legend had it that European critics, especially Constant Lambert in the UK, first compared Ellington's tone colours to those of Delius and Debussy; in fact it was Robert Donaldson Darrell, later a distinguished classical critic, in the USA magazine Disques for June 1932: Darrell had reviewed 'East St Louis Toodle-Oo' in the Phonograph Monthly Review in June 1927, and 'Black And Tan Fantasy' in July, not realizing it was the same band under another name: between November 1926 and April 1930 'East St Louis Toodle-Oo' was recorded eight times on six labels (not counting alternate takes) with different arrangements each time as the young composer experimented.
Other classics of the era included 'Birmingham Breakdown', 'Jubilee Stomp', 'Flaming Youth'; 'Bandanna Baby' and 'Diga Diga Doo' (by McHugh and Fields), good examples of club music often with amusing lyrics. Titles like 'Jungle Blues', 'Jungle Nights In Harlem', 'Jungle Jamboree' reveal the flavour of a club where the musicians were black and the patrons white, but the band turned necessity into gold: Nanton and Miley used the growling 'yow-yow' instrumental device which later had to be learned by Miley's replacements Cootie Williams and Ray Nance; thus a New Orleans trick learned by Miley from King Oliver became a permanent ingredient of the band's sound and of the century's music. (Nanton stayed with Ellington from 1926 until his death; Miley's influence 1924-9 included co-writing 'East St Louis', 'Black And Tan Fantasy' and others.) 'Rockin' In Rhythm' '30 became the band's theme (replacing 'East St Louis'); years later they still played 'The Mooche', 'Creole Love Call' (the first recording in 1927 featured Adelaide Hall's wordless vocal), 'Black Beauty' (for Florence Mills, first of many 'portraits'). 'Haunted Nights' '29 had a reed section of Barney Bigard, Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges, but sounded bigger; on 'Mood Indigo' '30, the classic sound of the melody played by a blend of Nanton, Bigard and Whetsel (who'd returned) showed the formidable skill of the arranger, and he had also begun writing for specific players, an infallible judge of what each could do. In 1930 the band included Whetsel, Cootie Williams, Freddy 'Posey' Jenkins (b 10 October 1906, NYC; d 1978, Texas) on trumpets; Nanton on trombone, Juan Tizol on valve trombone (b Vincente Martinez, 22 January 1900, San Juan, Puerto Rico; d 23 April 1984, Inglewood CA); Hodges, Carney and Bigard on reeds; Guy on banjo, later guitar; Wellman Braud on bass; Greer on drums: all virtuosi, most of them with the band off and on for decades. (It was spelled 'Freddie' on Jenkins copyrights in the 1940s.)
Irving Mills managed the band, published the music and sometimes took co-composer credit; some records were even issued as by Mills' Ten Black Berries, but Mills helped get the job at the Cotton Club, landed the first good record dates and work in the film Check And Double Check '30 with radio comedy stars Amos 'n' Andy; and when they left the Cotton Club (replaced by Cab Calloway) Mills provided Pullman cars: alone among black bands on the road in the era, they never worried about where to sleep. They were first called Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra at a record date for Brunswick 20 January 1931, which included 'Creole Rhapsody', a two-sided 10-inch 78; in June for Victor the same piece was recorded on a 12-incher, Ellington's first attempts to exceed the limitation of the medium, the impressive sections of the piece stitched together with piano solos. In February 1932 Lawrence Brown and Ivie Anderson first recorded with the band including 'It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing'; the band made early Victor long-playing records the same month (see Recorded Sound), and two microphones were used to cut different masters of the same take, combined over fifty years later to make stereo tracks (Stereo Reflections In Ellington, later on Natasha Imports CD). Hardwick came back in 1932, after working for Bricktop in Paris; Darrell tried to interview Ellington that year, hoping to write a book about him, but he was already evasive about himself and his work, not aware that critics would take him very seriously indeed until after Mills arranged the band's first trip to Europe in 1933.
The best records of the 1930s included up-tempo showpieces 'Stompy Jones', 'Jive Stomp', 'In A Jam', 'Merry-Go-Round', 'Showboat Shuffle' (with a paddle-wheel effect in the brass section), the two-part 'Diminuendo In Blue' and 'Crescendo In Blue'; also smoochy ballads and mood tunes 'Prelude To A Kiss', 'Sophisticated Lady', 'Caravan' (written by Tizol), 'Clarinet Lament' featuring Bigard, '(There Is) No Greater Love'. 'Reminiscin' In Tempo' used four 78 sides, written during a tour after the death of Ellington's mother in 1935, his most ambitious composition to date. The audience was not up to it at the time, unwilling to listen closely to a three-part piece forced on to four sides. Treatments of others' tunes included 'In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree' (from 1905) with a lovely muted solo by Jenkins; the hit 'Rose Of The Rio Grande' '38 featured Brown and Anderson. The decade was rounded out by 'I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart' '38 (the first, instrumental version, was the equivalent of a national hit, had charts existed then), 'Pussy Willow', and 'I'm Checkin' Out Goombye' '39 (with jive patter by Anderson and Greer, developed on stage but not often heard on records). Braud had left; the band had two bassists in 1936-8; the superb and influential Jimmy Blanton joined on bass late in 1939 (he spelled it 'Jimmie'), as well as tenor saxist Ben Webster: Bigard had doubled on tenor, but Webster now brought additional weight as well as his solo voice to the reed section. The Mills connection ended in 1939 (Ellington took over his own publishing) and Ellington's amanuensis Billy Strayhorn also joined. From 1935 Ellington had recorded for ARC labels; the last Columbia session February 1940 and the first under a new exclusive contract with Victor in March had Ellington, piano, arranger, leader; Rex Stewart on cornet; Williams and Wallace Jones (b 16 November 1906, Baltimore; d 23 March 1983), trumpets; Nanton, Brown, Tizol on trombones; Bigard, Hodges, Carney, Webster, reeds; Guy, Blanton and Greer.
The Victor sessions beginning in 1940 are still seen as a peak in Ellington's output. They began with 'Jack The Bear', a feature for Blanton; the classic 'Ko-Ko', said to be a fragment from an unfinished stage work, opening with the powerful foundation of Carney's baritone; 'Cotton Tail' with the 'controlled explosion' of Webster's tenor; and 'Harlem Air Shaft', containing enough ideas for several arrangements. There were also 'Never No Lament' (which with words added became 'Don't Get Around Much Any More'), 'Concerto For Cootie' (for Williams; with words it became 'Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me'); 'Bojangles' (portrait of dancer Bill Robinson), 'Me And You' with an Anderson vocal, 'In A Mellotone', the erotic 'Warm Valley' and a lovely 'Across The Track Blues', four duets by Ellington and Blanton, and much else. The immensely talented young Strayhorn took some pressure off Ellington by arranging pop songs transmuted into Ellingtonia, such as 'Chloe' (subtitled 'Song Of The Swamp'), with an elegant 'jungle' intro from Nanton, and the hit 'Flamingo' (vocal by Herb Jeffries). This explosion in 20th-century music was documented live when fans brought disc-cutting equipment to a dance date, now a two-CD set on VJC called Fargo, North Dakota November 7 1940; the priceless survey included Webster's essay on 'Stardust', never commercially recorded but perhaps suggested by Coleman Hawkins's landmark 'Body And Soul' of the previous year. (For small-group masterpieces of the period on Irving Mills's Variety label and on RCA Victor see entries for Hodges, Stewart and Bigard.)
Cootie Williams left in 1940 to join Benny Goodman; the music business was shocked (bandleader Raymond Scott wrote 'When Cootie Left The Duke'). His multi-talented replacement was Ray Nance (b 10 December 1913, Chicago; d 28 January 1976, NYC), who also sang and played violin. There was no let-up in 1941-2: Strayhorn's 'Take The ''A'' Train' became the band's new theme; 'John Hardy's Wife', 'Blue Serge' and 'Jumpin' Punkins' were contributed by Mercer Ellington, who had already written 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be'. Anderson sang 'I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good', from Ellington's Jump For Joy, a hit show in L.A. but ahead of its time: not even L.A. could then take 'I've Got A Passport From Georgia (And I'm Going To The USA)': it was dropped from the show. Blanton was now dying of TB; replaced in December 1941 by Alvin 'Junior' Raglin (b 16 February 1917, Omaha NB; d 10 November 1955, Boston). Strayhorn did 'Rocks In My Bed' for Anderson, 'Chelsea Bridge', 'Johnny Come Lately' and 'Rain Check' for the band; Jeffries sang 'I Don't Know What Kind Of Blues I Got'; Tizol's hit 'Perdido' became a jazz anthem; Duke's works included 'C Jam Blues', 'Main Stem', 'Sherman Shuffle', 'I Don't Mind' (with Anderson). WWII had begun: Anderson's 'Hayfoot, Strawfoot' and Nance's 'A Slip Of The Lip Can Sink A Ship' were for the forces: Nance sang 'It's so bodacious/to be loquacious' in July 1942 as the American Federation of Musicians' recording ban broke the run of masterpieces.
Ellington played his first Carnegie Hall Concert 23 January 1943, the première of a 44-minute composition originally titled Black, Brown And Beige: A Tone Parallel To The History of the Negro in America. Four pieces from it were recorded in the studio by RCA in December 1944 after the musicians' strike ended, and the packaging was lavish for the time; instead of the usual rather plain album of the era, the two 12-inch 78rpm discs came in a fold-out sleeve complete with a color photo of Duke, similar to a 2-LP set of 20 years later, and notes by Inez Cavanaugh. (The complete concert was issued on Prestige after decades; Ellington made a new recording with Mahalia Jackson in 1958, and a new complete version by Brian Priestley and Alan Cohen was issued on Argo in the early 1970s). Carnegie Hall became an annual event; new works included Blutopia '44; New World A'Comin' (based on a Roi Ottley novel), The Perfume Suite (recorded by Victor; the delightful duet for piano and bass 'Dancers In Love' was also the subject of a semi-animated film short by George Pal), both in 1945. Deep South Suite '46 had four parts; first was 'Magnolias Just Dripping With Molasses' and the last was a train song, 'Happy-Go-Lucky Local', with a climactic riff, first played by a Hodges small group in 1940 as 'That's The Blues, Old Man', later used without credit by Jimmy Forrest for the R&B classic 'Night Train'.
Duke wrote a show called Beggar's Holiday (lyrics by John Latouche, b 13 November 1917, Richmond VA; d 7 August 1956, Calias VT: he also wrote lyrics for the Vernon Duke show Cabin In The Sky '40, the George Moore opera Ballad Of Baby Doe '56, etc): the interracial cast was chosen for acting ability, so that Broadway star Alfred Drake fell in love with the daughter of a black police chief on stage in 1947. The show was a disaster, described in producer John Houseman's memoirs: Ellington's schedule was such that the show had to open before it was finished; he often put things together at the last moment from scraps, but you can't do that with a Broadway show, and Latouche's book wasn't ready either. Also in 1947, The Liberian Suite was commissioned by the Liberian government; including an Al Hibbler vocal 'I Like The Sunrise' and five dances. As Max Harrison has pointed out, the first dance consists of two halves, each wonderful but nothing to do with each other. (The 10-inch LP released in October 1949 was Ellington's second LP; the first was Mood Ellington, in December 1948.) The Tattooed Bride in 1948 was one of his most satisfying longer pieces (less than twelve minutes, recorded in 1950) followed by Harlem '50, commissioned by the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
Meanwhile, to backtrack a bit, during the recording ban of 1942-3, 'Don't Get Around Much Any More' and 'Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me' had been top ten hits; after recording resumed at RCA in December 1944 Ellington's studio output through 1946 included Hibbler vocals, a series of remakes ('Black Beauty', 'Caravan', etc), and vocals by Nance, including '(Otto Make That) Riff Staccato', 'Just Squeeze Me', and a revived hit song from 1922, 'My Honey's Loving Arms'. Ivie Anderson had left, and their were lovely vocals in 1944-5 by Joya Sherrill. One of the band's most poorly documented periods was the immediate post-war, when there were six trumpets and Oscar Pettiford on bass; but more material has come to light: Jerry Valburn and Jack Towers worked on radio transcriptions such as broadcasts made in 1945-6 for the US Treasury to sell bonds. Another transcription series in 1946-7 was on a three-CD Hindsight set including Strayhorn works for Hodges's sensuous alto 'Violet Blue' and 'A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing' (later called 'Passion'), 'Sono' with Carney, a version of 'Happy-Go-Lucky Local' over six minutes long, and much else. The set also includes coloratura soprano Kay Davis (b Kathryn McDonald, 5 December 1920, Evanston IL; d 27 January 2012, Apopka FL), who had studied music at Northwestern U. and added another instrument to the band with her wordless vocals. The Great Chicago Concerts '46 on Limelight is a two-CD set including a complete version of Deep South Suite, The Perfume Suite and a guest appearance by Django Reinhardt.
(Archivist Jerry Valburn [d 26 March 2010, Deerfield Beach FL, aged 84] had acquired an enormous amount of Ellingtonia and other musical archive, some of it allegedly by underhanded means; according to the Duke Ellington Society it was all donated to the Library of Congress. Transfer engineer Jack Towers [b 15 November 1914, Bradley SD; d 23 December 2010, Montgomery County MD] was one of the fans who, with his friend Dick Burris, dragged the Presto-S disc-cutter to the ballroom in Fargo in 1940. They were young radio engineers, and the machine belonged to the United States Agriculture Department; 40 years later the music they recorded won a Grammy.)
Webster, Hardwick and Stewart had left; Nanton died in 1946; Ellington signed a new contract with Columbia 1947-52 and the new decade's lineup varied with Nance, Harold 'Shorty' Baker, Cat Anderson, Clark Terry, Willie Cook (b 11 November 1923, West Chicago IN) and others on trumpets; trombones Tizol, Brown, Wilbur DeParis, Claude Jones (b 11 February 1901, Boley OK; d 17 January 1962 aboard liner SS United States: had played with Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb); Quentin 'Butter' Jackson (b 13 January 1909, Springfield OH; d 2 October 1976, NYC); Tyree Glenn (b 23 November 1912, Corsicana TX; d 18 May 1974, Englewood NJ). Reeds included Hodges, Carney, Al Sears (b 22 February 1910, McComb IL; d 23 March 1990, St Albans NY: he joined Duke's band in 1944-9, had star roles in Carnegie Hall concerts; later a career in jump bands including writing 'Castle Rock'); Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope (b 11 August 1908, NYC; d 21 January 1981, NYC; had played with Jelly Roll Morton in 1928, with Webb, Henderson, John Kirby; with Ellington from 1946 until Duke's death). Paul Gonsalves joined in 1950, but Hodges, Brown and Greer all left at once the following year, and Ellington pulled the Great James Robbery, poaching drummer Louie Bellson, alto saxist Willie Smith and his old colleague Juan Tizol from the Harry James band. (James was a great Ellington admirer, listed as co-writer on 'I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart' and 'Everything But You'; when the three gave their notice he said, 'Can I come too?') The rhythm section had Guy on guitar, Pettiford, sometimes Raglin, then Wendell Marshall on bass (b Wendell Lewis Marshall, 24 October 1920, St Louis MO; d there 6 February 2002: he was a cousin of Jimmy Blanton).
The quality of Ellington's work was thought to have declined: more personnel changes than at any other time in the band's history had been dispiriting; times were tough for bands anyway and the band began to lose money, kept going by Ellington's royalties, but there was still a lot of fine stuff. More than 70 pop sides for Columbia in the early '50s included junk like 'Cowboy Rhumba', but also 'Brown Penny', 'Maybe I Should Change My Ways' (from Beggar's Holiday), 'You're Just An Old Antidisestablishmentarianismist' (with George's lyrics and a hep vocal by Nance), plus 'Stomp, Look And Listen', 'Boogie Bop Blues', 'Lady Of The Lavender Mist', 'Fancy Dan', 'Air Conditioned Jungle', 'VIP's Boogie', a famous remake of 'Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me' with Al Hibbler; also contributions by Strayhorn, and Bellson's 'The Hawk Talks'. The albums began with the Liberian Suite mentioned above; Masterpieces By Ellington '50 included longer arrangements of classics and The Tattooed Bride; Ellington Uptown '51 included A Tone Parallel To Harlem, and became a best-seller at a hi-fi show with Bellson's drum feature 'Skin Deep', but a six-minute version of 'The Mooche' was a highlight, with Bellson's rolling, inexorable beat, and two clarinets (Procope on melody in low register, Hamilton's obbligato in an echo chamber). Other projects in the late 1940s-early '50s included sides for Musicraft in 1946, a short-lived Sunrise label, and Mercer Records (see Mercer Ellington's entry); all this reissued much later on various albums, including Pettiford's 'Perdido' on the cello and Ellington/Strayhorn piano duets.
Billy Strayhorn ('Strays', 'Swee-Pea') had a lot to do with all of this. Ellington's unique talents makes it all the more extraordinary that he had found a partner. If the band was a composing machine, the importance of Strayhorn during the second half of Ellington's career should not be underestimated. They said that they could not remember later who had written this or that, but Walter van de Leur's book Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (2002) says that they had complementary, not identical skills, and that studying the music should make it clear who wrote what.
The Ellington albums on Columbia were not well promoted, as the label's publicity department concentrated on pop singers and Liberace, so he asked for and received a release from his contract, and went to Capitol, still hoping for hit singles. Duke's Capitol period '53-5 was mostly disappointing, yet included interesting arrangements (once issued complete in a Mosaic box) and one hit single, his last: 'Satin Doll'. Fans saw each appearance or album as an event, but after dozens of pop hits 1927-53 Ellington did not astonish the public as in 1940-2, and most paid no attention to the more ambitious work. Jazz had apparently moved on, but Ellington had done most of it already; as Miles Davis later said, 'All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.'
Hodges returned, and in early 1956 the band made two LPs for Bethlehem, Historically Speaking -- The Duke opening with a laconically witty version of 'East St Louis', in retrospect the great man hiding in the bushes, waiting for his moment, which came soon. The Newport Jazz Festival had been inaugurated in 1954 by pianist/club owner George Wein with the wealthy Lorrilard family; Ellington played the Festival in July 1956 with Cook, Nance, Terry, Anderson, trumpets; Jackson, John Sanders, Britt Woodman, trombones; Carney, Hodges, Procope, Hamilton, Gonsalves, reeds; Jimmy Woode on bass (b 23 September 1929, Philadelphia; later emigrated to Sweden; d 23 April 2005, Lindenwold NJ), Sam Woodyard, drums (b 7 January 1925, Elizabeth NJ; d 20 September 1988). The band came on last, after people had started leaving; Duke grumbled, 'What are we, the animal act, the acrobats?' Ellington/ Strayhorn had written a three-part Newport Jazz Festival Suite, and Ellington had earlier revived 'Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue', now without much diminuendo or crescendo, but Woodyard set up a driving beat egged on by ringside fan Jo Jones, and Gonsalves, assigned to play a bridge between two sections, did his party trick of 27 choruses. By the end the audience was standing and cheering and there was a famous photograph of a blonde dancing in the aisle; the concert made headlines, the Columbia LP made the top 15 albums and Duke made the cover of Time, his status as elder statesman of American music never again in doubt.
[The best-selling LP of the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival was not only incomplete but had actually been largely re-recorded in the studio, with Newport announcements and applause dubbed in, except for the famous 'Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue', the excitement of which could not have been recreated: in fact the attempt to do so was said to have been one of the few times when Ellington lost his patience with a record label and told the band to pack up (though that story has been disputed). The biggest problem with the Festival recording was that Gonsalves had played his famous 27 choruses into the wrong microphone: a separate recording of the concert made for the Voice of America using the correct microphone was finally combined with Columbia's recording to make a new document largely in true stereo, and the whole lot issued in a marvelous 2-CD set in 1999, produced by Phil Schaap.]
The band had made films including Murder At The Vanities and Belle Of The '90s '34, a film of a play Cabin In The Sky '43; now Ellington scored and did cameos in Anatomy Of A Murder '59 and Paris Blues '61; scored Assault On A Queen '66; wrote music for a Canadian production of Timon Of Athens, and a show My People '63 on the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation, including sections called 'King Fit The Battle Of Alabam' and 'What Color Is Virtue?'. Among the best Ellington LPs of later years were Such Sweet Thunder '57, good music having little to do with Shakespeare, and the lovely mood set Ellington Indigos '59, both for Columbia, and The Queen's Suite '59 for Elizabeth II (one copy made for her; there was no commercial issue until after Ellington's death). The band recorded Ellington/Strayhorn's four-part 'Suite Thursday' '60, at 16 minutes one of Ellington's most successful, its themes and colours hanging together wonderfully, and played extremely well on the recording. Thinking of the 1940 band we took the 1960 band for granted, but music schools should have their charges trying to play this music this well. Unfortunately 'Suite Thursday' was available only on a Columbia CD with Ellington/Strayhorn's adaptations of Grieg and Tchaikovsky, recorded the same year: despite the sexy sugar-plum fairy, this is light stuff. Somewhere during the Columbia period the band set down what must be the hippest recording of 'Jingle Bells' ever made.
In his remaining years Ellington made recordings for various labels, one at a time, often parking in a studio with the band, constantly on tour, to cast a few pearls. The trio set Money Jungle (Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach) plus superb small-group sets Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington And John Coltrane, all '62, were each very different masterpieces; world tours resulted in The Far East Suite '66 (including Strayhorn's 'Isfahan') and Latin American Suite '69; a moving tribute on Strayhorn's death And His Mother Called Him Bill '67 included Strayhorn's last tune 'Blood Count', and Ellington's touching solo as the band was packing up on 'Lotus Blossom'. At a joyous piano workshop at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival in 1965 (now on Mosaic), 19 tracks captured Duke, Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Willie 'The Lion' Smith, Charles Bell and Billy Taylor, including two solos by Duke and a duet with Hines. The band accompanied Ella Fitzgerald's two-disc sets of Ellington songs, later two-disc On The Côte D'Azur. Reprise albums '64-7 included Concert In The Virgin Islands, disappointing Francis A. And Edward K. (with Sinatra) and songs from Mary Poppins; Will Big Bands Ever Come Back? reworked Swing Era hits, Greatest Hits reworked Duke's; The Symphonic Ellington was recorded in Paris, Milan, Stockholm; Afro-Bossa was the best of the lot. This One's For Blanton! '72 on Pablo is a duet with Ray Brown, revisiting the 1940 duets with Blanton; Seventieth Birthday Concert later on Blue Note opened with a riotous version of 'Rockin' In Rhythm', once again the band's theme. The late masterpiece New Orleans Suite '70 had five parts interleaved with portraits of Louis Armstrong (featuring Cootie Williams), Wellman Braud (by Joe Benjamin on bass, b 4 November 1919, Atlantic City NJ; d 26 January 1974, Livingstone NJ), Sidney Bechet (by Gonsalves on tenor: Ellington had tried to pursuade Hodges to polish his soprano, but he died days before the session) and Mahalia Jackson. The suite's opening 'Blues For New Orleans' featured Wild Bill Davis on organ, but the organ effect in the Jackson portrait was made by three clarinets, tenor sax and flute, using the tone-painter's palette of which someone said, 'Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture, and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, ''Oh yes, that's done like this.'' But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don't know what it is.' With those named above plus Mercer Ellington, Cat Anderson, Carney and Procope, the New Orleans Suite included new boys Harold 'Money' Johnson (b 21 July 1931, New Orleans), trumpet; Julian Priester (b 29 June 1935; ex-Sun Ra), Booty Wood (b c.1919; d 10 June 1987, Dayton OH) on trombones; Norris Turney (b 8 September 1921, Wilmington OH, d 10 January 2001; own first album Big, Sweet 'N Blue '93 on Mapleshade), Harold Ashby (b 27 April 1925, Kansas City MO; d 13 June 2003: own CDs on Criss Cross and Mapleshade), reeds; Rufus 'Speedy' Jones, drums (b 1936, Charleston SC; d 25 April 1990 Las Vegas; played with Basie '64-6), others.
In 1965 the Advisory Board of the Pulitzer Prize Committee rejected the unanimous recommendation of its music jury that Ellington should be awarded a special citation; jury members resigned amid murmurs of racial prejudice, but more likely the committee simply did not take his accomplishment seriously. Duke said, 'Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young.' It hurt, but other honours were heaped on him, including medals from LBJ, Nixon playing 'Happy Birthday' on the piano, honorary degrees, etc. His last trio recital was Live At The Whitney '72 on Impulse (half the tracks piano solos). The Sacred Concerts (not highly regarded by critics) began in San Francisco '65 (including 'Come Sunday' from Black, Brown And Beige, 'New World's A'Comin' ', new 'In The Beginning God', singers included Esther Merrill, dancer David Briggs), the Second Sacred Concert in NYC '68 (all new music, with singers Alice Babs, Tony Watkins, Devonne Gardner, Roscoe Gill). In January 1973 Ellington was hospitalised in Los Angeles for eight days, his problems described as influenza and fatigue; he was certainly fatigued, having just played five continents in two weeks, but his illness was pneumonia. If he was already suffering from the lung cancer that killed him 16 months later, the doctors didn't diagnose it at that time. The third Sacred Concert took place at Westminster Abbey, London, in October; he could not attend the fourth, performed on his 75th birthday in Aprl 1974 in NYC, directed by Gill and pianist Brooks Kerr (b 26 December 1951, New Haven CN). He died the next month.
Duke was one of the first to tire of the word 'jazz', one of several to point out that 'There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.' Among his innovations were recording Braud's bass prominently in 1928 and using an echo chamber in 1938; he and Tizol were among the first to explore Latin jazz; but he never stopped creating tonal beauty (always requiring the reedmen to be able to double on clarinets, for example, long after the clarinet had become unfashionable). The albums named above have been more or less continuously available and many more are still being issued, e.g. a 1962 recording of Harlem on Pablo, and more from Valburn and Towers: Duke Ellington And His Famous Orchestra: Take The 'A' Train on VJC is the 'legendary Blanton/Webster' transcriptions made in Hollywood in 1941; more complete and more accurately described was the two-CD set on Soundies of The Complete Standard Transcriptions. Duke's Joint! On Buddha/BMG compiled broadcasts from 1943 and (mostly) 1945. Cornell Concert '48 on MusicMaster had rarities such as two-part 'The Symphomaniac' and a rare live recording of 'Reminiscin' In Tempo'. Cool Rock on LaserLite was an absurdly cheap collection of amusing scraps, studio recordings from Chicago '65 and Toronto '72, including 'P.S. 170', which as Stanley Dance remarks in the notes must have been a school in Spanish Harlem. The Private Collection was a series of ten CDs of 1956-71 sessions in excellent sound (on Saja in USA, Kaz in UK) including live dance dates, The Degas Suite, The River and his last thoughts on Black, Brown And Beige and Harlem. Indeed, there are hundreds of CDs, more Ellington than was ever available during his lifetime.
Since Depression-era record label mergers, early Ellington is all the property of MCA, RCA/BMG and Columbia/Sony. GRP have done a marvellous job for MCA compiling the Brunswick and Vocalion recordings 1926-31, a three-CD set called Early Ellington. The Victor 1927-34 material should have been done complete and chronological, but the series of single CDs on Bluebird included Early Ellington, Jubilee Stomp, and Jungle Nights In Harlem. To its credit, RCA/BMG took on the 1940-46 material as one of its first big projects in digital transfer; the first attempt was botched in 1987, the second comprised two three-CD sets The Blanton-Webster Band and Black, Brown And Beige, and it still wasn't good enough. The label put out a huge limited edition 24-CD box of everything in their vaults for Duke's centenary, and the third transfers were later trickling out in small batches: Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band and The Complete RCA Victor Mid-Forties Recordings are the best yet, using original materials from the vaults (though a couple of the earliest tracks sound like the metal parts or test pressings must have been worn; they might have been better off using a good original pressing). There is so much Columbia/Sony material, originally from many different labels, that only a few reissues have been done, piecemeal on two-CD sets: The OKeh Ellington 1927-30 has notes by Stanley Dance, Braggin' In Brass: The Immortal 1938 Year by Nat Hentoff, and The Duke's Men: Small Groups (volumes 1 and 2, four CDs altogether) were annotated by Helen Oakley Dance, who produced the recording sessions in 1934-9. Mosaic put out a limited edition box of The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion and Okeh Small Group Sessions on seven CDs, still available in 2008, remastered by the reliable Stephen Lasker, who also wrote the booklet.
The first biography was Duke Ellington by Barry Ulanov in 1946; there were books by Peter Gammond '58 and G.M. Lambert '59; The World Of Duke Ellington by Stanley Dance '70 is a valuable oral history, interviews with members of the band; Duke Ellington In Person by Mercer Ellington was done with Dance '78; Duke Ellington by James Lincoln Collier '87 was easily superseded by Beyond Category: The Life And Genius Of Duke Ellington by John Edward Hasse '93. Don George's Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington '81 is full of racy anecdotes, intensely disliked by the self-appointed papal enclave that now surrounds Ellington's ghost. Ken Rattenbury's Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer analyses five works 1939-41; hard going but rewarding is Ellington: The Early Years, by the late Mark Tucker, who also edited The Duke Ellington Reader '93, an extremely valuable collection (musician and scholar Tucker d 6 December 2000 of lung cancer).
As a composer Ellington wrote phrases and structures of any length he liked rather than being limited to four-or eight-bar phrases and a 32-bar structure, as in most popular songs, and his talent as a tone-painter was unique, but throughout his career he had trouble with development in longer pieces. In an essay in Jazz Monthly in 1964, Max Harrison pointed out that Ellington was of necessity a miniaturist: 'Committed to decades of one-night stands with his band, having to cope with many commercial pressures in order to keep that band together, his development, in brief, stunted by jazz having unhealthily close links with the popular entertainment industry, it is not surprising that Ellington's technique, evolved solely by experiment with his band, had major weaknesses.' (The essay is included in Harrison's A Jazz Retrospect '76, republished '91, and in Tucker's Reader.) Ellington's suites are strings of often lovely pieces, but even the greatest musical genius is not born knowing how to write symphonies and operas, and Ellington was not going to disband, get off the road and study music. He himself wrote in 1944, 'To attempt to elevate the status of the jazz musician by forcing the level of his best work into comparison with classical music is to deny him his rightful share of originality.' Furthermore he gave Strayhorn more credit for helping with the later works than the guardians of Ellington's tomb are willing to give now. The canonization of Ellington since his death by the self-interested rentiers of academia is unworthy; he was not a black Beethoven, but Duke Ellington, and we were lucky to have him as he was, given the nature of the American commercial music industry.
Ellington's book Music Is My Mistress '73 is not an autobiography; it does not even mention Mercer's mother, and is not impolite to anyone. Ellington actually began writing it in longhand, then asked Carter Harman, who wrote the Time magazine story in 1956, to help him, but Harman wanted to collaborate on a real book, warts and all, which was out of the question. Duke then asked his old friend Patricia Willard, who had handled his publicity for many years and had written other things that appeared under Duke's name, but that arrangement didn't work out either. The frantic publisher (Doubleday) finally hired Stanley Dance to finish the job, and Ellington complained to Willard that Dance was changing what he had written. Among the things Dance left out was Willard's role, apparently because he disapproved of women working.
Ellington sometimes didn't write down his music, let alone his life, and did not even leave a will; but he left us the recordings and masses of music and other material that will be studied for generations. He held together a band of unruly talents for almost half a century; when they drank or took drugs he took the attitude that they were grown men and would have to be responsible for themselves. He was urbane, witty, vain, superstitious, a womanizer; he was a world-class schmoozer and bullshit artist: that is how he kept the band together and kept himself private. James Lincoln Collier examined the enigma of the band and its members as a composing machine: nobody can be sure who wrote what, Collier thought, except that Duke was always in charge. Collier patronizes Ellington, but in the end compares him to a master chef, who 'plans the menus, trains the assistants, supervises them, tastes everything, adjusts the spices ... and in the end we credit him with the result'. The result was a body of timeless American art.