The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
Big Band Jazz
'The world's most glamorous atmosphere. Why, it is just like the Arabian Nights!' said Duke Ellington, the first time he saw Harlem.
There was music in every neighbourhood, just as in New Orleans; even the poorest family had a 'moth-box' (a piano -- you could buy one for $100 on a time-payment plan), and keyboard ticklers were employed in every tavern. The East Coast stride piano style was based on ragtime, with complete freedom in the right hand, and the left paying harmonic tribute as it strode along, tenths in the bass being common when a strong beat was wanted. But the great artists of classic stride could also play the melody in the bass, while improvising beautiful ornamentation with the right hand: the artist was a Chopin or a Liszt, and the rediscovery of the tradition of the recitalist as improviser was complete.
Charles Luckyeth 'Luckey' Roberts was drawn to Harlem by 1910, along with many other talented and ambitious blacks. In 1913 he published 'Junk Man Rag' and 'Pork and Beans'; he saw more than a dozen of his musical comedies produced, and part of one of his tunes, 'Ripples on the Nile', was slowed down and became Glenn Miller's 'Moonlight Cocktail' in 1942. Roberts fronted a Harlem club for many years, and was a society bandleader; a favourite of President Roosevelt and the Duke of Windsor, he advised the Duke on his collection of hot records. He was an extraordinary pianist who played the instrument like an orchestra; sadly he recorded very little.
Willie 'the Lion' Smith was born William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith, and had an outsized personality to match his name. Like the ragtime 'perfessers' who preceded him, he was a dapper dresser; he would stride into a club growling a warning: 'The Lion is here.' Like Jelly Roll Morton, he was fond of bragging and could back up everything he said. His compositions include 'Contrary Motion', 'Rippling Waters', 'Echo of Spring', 'Portrait of the Duke' and 'The Stuff is Here (and It's Mellow)' (the latter, written with Clarence Williams and Walter Bishop, was recorded by Cleo Brown, who sang and played piano on Chicago radio and recorded for Decca in the 1930s). Like Roberts, Smith played distinctive harmonies and arabesques, and had a pop song recorded by Glenn Miller, 'Sweeter than the Sweetest'. One explanation of his nickname put it down to his bravery during the First World War, but he said that James P. called him 'the Lion' because of his spunk. 'The Lion named him The Brute. Later we gave Fats Waller the name Filthy. The three of us, The Lion, The Brute and Filthy, and a guy called Lippy used to run all over town playing piano.'
Jelly Roll Morton is thought to have visited New York as early as 1911. It is delicious to speculate that his New Orleans freedom might have had an influence like that of Louis Armstrong more than a decade later, but, on the contrary, it is said that Morton's ego took a beating from the skills of the New York pianists. The best piano players on the East Coast sooner or later went to New York; Luckey Roberts was from Philadelphia, Eubie Blake from Baltimore and James P. Johnson from New Jersey. Earlier New York ticklers, such as the legendary John 'Jack the Bear' Wilson (fl. 1900, and another subject of an Ellington portrait), are lost to history; so too are Raymond 'Lippy' Boyette and his contemporaries Stephen Henderson (known as 'the Beetle'), Corky Williams (whose speciality was playing and singing salacious material, such as 'The Boy in the Boat', which became Waller's 'Squeeze Me'). Willie Gant and Cliff Jackson, however, became recording artists and bandleaders.
The 1920s was the era of the rent party: for an entrance fee which helped pay the rent, food, drink and dancing were available, as well as first-class piano playing. Such parties were later celebrated in Waller's hit 'The Joint is Jumping'. Lippy was said to be able to ring anybody's doorbell in the middle of the night, saying, 'It's Lippy, and I've got James P. with me', and gain immediate entrance.
James Price Johnson was the undisputed king of the stride piano style, with his walking bass and his incredible right hand: his 'Carolina Shout' was the number all the others had to be able to play. He was taught by Roberts, and in turn taught Fats Waller. His numerous other tunes include 'Snowy Morning', 'Keep off the Grass' and 'Charleston' (from the show Runnin' Wild, which became the biggest dance fad of the Jazz Age. With Waller he was one of the composers of the show Keep Shufflin'. ('Charleston' and a great many other piano classics, such as Morton's 'King Porter', were originally created for cotillions, dances which were unofficial contests for showing off and more or less direct descendants of cakewalk exhibitions.)
Johnson's ambitions as a 'serious' composer were as doomed as Joplin's. Some of his music was performed, but the white musical establishment of the time would not reply to his letters. Fragments of his symphonies and other music are still studied by scholars, among them the Negro Rhapsody, or Yamekraw, inspired by the Negroes who spoke the Gullah dialect from the south-east coastal area Gershwin visited when writing Porgy and Bess.
The Lion and the Brute recorded much more than Luckey Roberts; the Lion played on Mamie Smith's 'Crazy Blues' in 1920, and on hit records in a trio with organist Milt Herth and drummer-vocalist O'Neill Spencer in 1938. But Filthy outdid them all: Fats Waller became one of America's best-loved entertainers.
Waller flashed through popular music like a shooting star, but another Harlem piano player became a bandleader, and so had more direct influence. Nothing like as good a pianist as the others, Fletcher Henderson, nicknamed Smack, nevertheless became one of the most important innovators. Born into a middle-class family in Georgia, he played piano from the age of six. He went to New York to do postgraduate work in chemistry, but there were not many jobs for black chemists; he played for Pace-Handy Music and became recording director for Harry Pace's Black Swan label; he accompanied blues singers and led a band on tour with Ethel Waters (who advised him to listen to James P. Johnson's piano rolls). He was elected leader of a band that was resident at the Club Alabam in 1923 and moved to the Roseland Ballroom in 1924. It included Coleman Hawkins and arranger Don Redman on reeds, trumpeter Joe Smith and renowned trombonist Charlie Green (known as Big Green or Long Boy). The band played pop tunes, novelties and pseudo-blues at first, but jazz was in the air. Although Louis Armstrong stayed only a year, his effect was incalculable; New Orleans clarinettist Buster Bailey played intermittently in the band.
Ross Gorman, Paul Whiteman's former clarinettist, led a pit band for Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1925, and recorded one of the tunes from the revue with a sixteen-piece band. 'Rhythm of the Day' was prophetic, a simple tune with interesting chord changes in an uncluttered arrangement that gave solo space to Red Nichols and Miff Mole. Despite a dixielandish ride-out, it was a remarkably forward-sounding hint of what was to come.
After Armstrong, Henderson's band was further influenced by the white band of Jean Goldkette. Born in France, Goldkette went to the USA in 1911. He could have been a concert pianist, but formed a dance band in 1924 and hired such arrangers as Russ Morgan and Bill Challis, and sidemen Bix Beiderbecke, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Frankie Trumbauer, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti; he took over Detroit's Graystone Ballroom when it could not meet his payroll. His band was smaller and more flexible than Paul Whiteman's, and soon became famous. Long after a meeting in October 1926 at the Roseland Ballroom, cornettist Rex Stewart, who was with Henderson at the time, wrote about 'this Johnny-come-lately white band from out in the sticks ... We simply could not compete ... Their arrangements were too imaginative and their rhythm too strong ... Jean Goldkette's orchestra was, without question, the greatest in the world.'
The arrangements that Stewart admired were those of Bill Challis, who came from the same coal-mining country as the Dorsey brothers, where there was a strong brass band tradition, as there still is today in the coal-mining parts of Britain. Challis was virtually self-taught, and first worked for a local bandleader called Guy Hall (who wrote 'Johnson Rag', a typically simple and attractive Swing Era riff). Challis's arrangements are full of witty little surprises that still delight today, nearly seventy years later. But Eddie King, A&R man at Victor, did not like the arrangements and would not let the Goldkette band record them. The band was expensive to operate and it was a struggle to get enough bookings; on top of everything else, violinist and arranger Eddy Sheasby, a volatile drunk, disappeared one day, taking all the band's scores with him, including Challis's. So despite having hit records, Goldkette disbanded in 1927 to concentrate on management, but not before his band had cut the Henderson outfit. Challis had already been hired by Paul Whiteman; Beiderbecke and Trumbauer joined a new band led by Adrian Rollini that played the sort of music they liked. But that band went broke, and they too ended up with Whiteman; thus the legend grew that a band that played pure jazz could not make money.
The Casa Loma band, originally one of Goldkette's groups, was formed around 1929. Saxophonist Glen Gray was elected leader when the band became a corporation; other key members were guitarist/arranger Gene Gifford, clarinettist Clarence Hutchinrider and trumpeter Sonny Dunham. It recorded prolifically and was very popular. Some writers have ignored this band, perhaps because it was white and because it played sweet -- ballads such as 'For You' and 'It's the Talk of the Town' were sung by Kenny Sargent. But such recordings as 'I Got Rhythm' and Gifford's 'Casa Loma Stomp' (both 1933) prove that the band could play as hot as any. Gifford was an influential arranger, and in its twenty-year history the band included plenty of first-rate sidemen; its early popularity on college campuses whetted the nation's appetite for swing.
The conservatory-trained Don Redman could play any reed instrument, and wrote virtually all Henderson's arrangements until 1927. He refined the Hickman/Grofé concept of the dance band, no doubt under the influence of Challis, dividing brass and reed sections and having saxophones doubling clarinets and trombones playing against trumpets. He played voices against each other in call-and-response patterns; he wrote music for sections as though they were improvising in unison, while leaving space for hot soloists, behind whom sections often played riffs. While the white music business could not accommodate the real stuff, Redman continued to develop big-band jazz, as Henderson's men began to swing.
This was an even more impressive achievement than it sounds. Armstrong had changed the rhythmic nature of jazz, effectively breaking up each bar into smaller pieces in order to put rhythmic emphasis wherever he wished. This not only left behind the collectively improvised counterpoint, but brought about a new counterpoint between the soloist and the rhythm section. Instead of a 2/4 beat, as in New Orleans jazz and ragtime piano, there was now a 4/4 beat, though it was some years before the change was completely reflected in rhythm-section playing. The stride pianists had also been working in this direction, setting the bass free from the 2/4 of ragtime piano. Redman's scores (or 'charts') had to incorporate these rhythmic advances so that entire sections could play in unison.
Coleman Hawkins (aka 'Hawk' or 'Bean') began playing louder, with a stiff reed, to be heard over the band. He rescued the tenor saxophone from its role as a tubby comedian, abolishing the slap-tongue technique, and finally, inspired by the young pianist Art Tatum, began to improvise on the tune's chord structure: he singlehandedly established the tenor saxophone as a primary instrument in jazz.
By the late 1920s Fletcher Henderson's band was known to musicians and in Harlem to be the hottest in the land. To list some of the players who passed through is to list the best: trumpeters Tommy Ladnier, Bobby Stark, Henry 'Red' Allen, Joe Smith and Charles Melvin 'Cootie' Williams, cornettist Rex Stewart, trombonists Benny Morton, Jimmy Harrison, Claude Jones, J. C. Higginbotham and Dicky Wells and drummer Kaiser Marshall. In 1927 Waller sold Henderson tunes, probably including 'Whiteman Stomp', 'St Louis Stomp' and 'Variety Stomp'; he allegedly asked for a bag of hamburgers as payment, but Henderson insisted on paying him $10 a tune. He played on one Henderson recording session, including a solo on 'Whiteman Stomp'.
Despite the lack of firm leadership and money (tracks labelled as by 'The Dixie Stompers' seem to have been recorded acoustically, or at least on inferior equipment, as late as 1927), musicians stayed because the music was so good: 'St Louis Shuffle', 'The Stampede', 'Tozo', 'Henderson Stomp', 'Hop Off' and scores more represent a treasure-house of jazz, to say nothing of earlier (mostly acoustic) recordings with Louis Armstrong. To point out just one nugget: on 'The Stampede' (1926) Joe Smith plays a lovely solo, pretty and perfectly constructed; after a bridge, Rex Stewart comes up and pushes the beat with his ferocity, tearing the notes off the page with a terminal vibrato at the end of each phrase: they are two first-class jazzmen, each doing it differently.
Redman left Henderson in 1927, having been hired by Goldkette as music director of a black Detroit band, McKinney's Cotton Pickers. It was fronted by former circus drummer William McKinney, and became the best of the territory bands as Redman refined his skills. When McKinney went out front to stay, he was replaced on drums by Cuba Austin. The band's discographies were long confused, because Goldkette paid Redman to rehearse some of his white bands as well, and because business in Detroit was so good that the band was not allowed to go to New York in 1929 to record, whereupon Redman recorded there with a group of Henderson's sidemen. To complicate matters still further, a Redman Chocolate Dandies date in 1928 was essentially played by the Cotton Pickers.
Under Redman the Cotton Pickers became a more modern jazz-oriented dance band, performing in a smoother but still swinging style. He added a fourth man to the reed section, making possible harmonies in that section so that to modern ears, the Cotton Pickers' records have dated less than those of most of the bands of the late 1920s. The band's number one hit (and its theme) was 'If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight', with a vocal by reedman George 'Fathead' Thomas and an alto solo by Benny Carter; another big hit was 'Milenberg Joys', credited to Walter Melrose, Jelly Roll Morton and Leon Roppolo, whose clarinet solo from the New Orleans Rhythm Kings' recording (which included Morton) was transcribed and harmonised in Redman's arrangement.
Redman recorded his own pretty tune, 'Cherry', twice in 1928, once with the Cotton Pickers (sung by Jean Napier), and once with a pick-up group including the Dorseys and Jack Teagarden (no vocal). (The Cotton Pickers recorded for Victor, which is how 'Cherry' landed in Ralph Peer's portfolio.) Redman recorded in Chicago with Louis Armstrong's Savoy Ballroom Five, a date that included two of his own tunes. At his Chocolate Dandies date in 1928 he made one of the first recordings of Hoagy Carmichael's 'Stardust', a bouncy, medium uptempo version with a fine guitar solo by Lonnie Johnson. (Johnson recorded as a soloist with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and in duets with Eddie Lang. He also made a great many blues records and had an R&B hit, 'Confused', in 1950; when criticised in later years for not playing a purer style, he complained about fans 'trying to shove a crutch under my ass'.)
At the 1929 recording session at which he used members of Henderson's band, Redman sang in his own slyly intimate, half-conversational style on 'Miss Hannah', 'The Way I Feel Today' (delicately accompanied by Waller), 'Wherever There's a Will, Baby' (which has a fine Hawkins solo) and his own 'Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You?'
In 1931, armed with management and recording contracts, Redman took over the Collegians; led by Horace Henderson, Fletcher's brother, the band had included Benny Carter and Rex Stewart in its day. Horace was at least as talented as his more famous brother, but made only a few recordings under his own name; Redman kept him on as pianist and arranger for a couple of years, after which he worked with Fletcher. Of about 120 arrangements recorded by Fletcher from March 1931 until 1939, many are uncredited, while others are by Edgar Sampson, Russ Morgan, Will Hudson or Dick Vance; but of those for which information is available in discographies, Fletcher and Horace apparently did about the same number -- 28 or 30 -- and Horace was the composer of tunes that are often credited to Fletcher.
Redman's first recordings in 1931 were credited to 'Harlan Lattimore and his Connie's Inn Orchestra'; Lattimore was a pleasant pop singer whose straight vocals sometimes made a useful contrast with Redman's patter and comedy, as on 'I Heard'. In 1932 the fourteen-piece band included Langston Curl (from the Cotton Pickers), Shirley Clay, Sidney De Paris and later Harold 'Shorty' Baker on trumpets; Claude Jones, Benny Morton and Quentin Jackson on trombones; Ed Inge in the reed section and always Bob Ysaguirre on tuba, then string bass, and Manzie Johnson on drums; Horace Henderson was pianist and arranger until he was replaced in 1933 by Don Kirkpatrick. Redman first recorded his theme, 'Chant of the Weed', in 1931; the modern-sounding arrangement proves that there is no such thing as a wrong note, using all the notes in a whole-tone scale. Redman recorded it again in 1940, and still later arranged it for a Duke Ellington album.
Redman was the first black bandleader to have his own radio show. He was an excellent teacher, and his arrangements were well known among musicians for their difficult passages, for example the reed chorus in 'Tea for Two' (which pitted Lattimore's straight vocal against the furiously swinging band) and a trombone chorus in 'I Got Rhythm'. 'Nagasaki' was also a brilliant piece of swing, but Redman's band never played so fast for speed's sake that it sounded uncomfortable. He invented the 'swing choir', in which the band chanted a hip paraphrase of the words to a song while a soloist played the melody, as on 'Exactly Like You' and 'Sunny Side of the Street' (1937). The device was copied by others, for example by Tommy Dorsey on 'Marie', one of the biggest hits of the whole era (which Dorsey had got from the obscure Sunset Royals).
Redman recorded for Brunswick, then ARC labels, and by the time he transferred to Bluebird and Victor in 1938 it was a smoother swing band. 'Sweet Leilani' used the swing choir device, 'I Got Ya' had a Redman vocal ('Youse is in mine power!') and 'Rip Van Winkle', a hip rewrite of the legend, was sung by Bootsie Garrison.
Tired of the grind and not achieving the fame he deserved, Redman disbanded the group in 1940; he fronted Jay McShann's band in 1942, and in 1946 took a band to Europe (including saxophonist Don Byas), which was credited with introducing post-war jazz there. Among his freelance work was the lovely 'Just an Old Manuscript' for Count Basie in 1949. His recordings and broadcasts were an inspiration to young Canadians Gil Evans and Robert Farnon; he showed Farnon how to lay out a score, and Farnon became one of the most influential arrangers in the business. In 1951 Redman became music director for Pearl Bailey, who had a hit with 'Takes Two to Tango' in 1952. In 1954 he played a policeman in Harold Arlen's show House of Flowers; in 1957 he made two albums of big-band sides, some with Hawkins. He was a delightful man, whose personality is evident on the recordings and in the few short films he made, as well as an important innovator of popular music.
In 1928 Fletcher Henderson had suffered head injuries in a car crash; he had always been lackadaisical, and now became even less willing to take care of business. The band broke up in 1929, after a date to play a show produced by Vincent Youmans. Originally called Horse Shoes, Great Day! was modelled on Show Boat, and required a black band; Duke Ellington had turned the job down. When Youmans's white conductor began firing Henderson's men one at a time and he did nothing about it, that was the last straw for many of them. But Henderson formed another band, with Hawkins, Harrison and sometimes Morton, and the parade of talent continued: this is when Red Allen, Claude Jones, J. C. Higginbotham and others joined. He lost the Roseland Ballroom booking to the more responsible Claude Hopkins. The band's business was as unreliable as ever, but money meant little: racial equality was not on offer anyway, and one could live on a musician's salary during the Depression.
Henderson recorded for Victor in 1932 (including vocals with Harlan Lattimore). He lost a gig at the Cotton Club to Irving Mills's Blue Rhythm Band and a European tour to Cab Calloway. At a Victor recording session in 1934 three of the four arrangements were by Russ Morgan or Will Hudson; Morgan was recording director at ARC, and Henderson may have hoped to curry favour, but it didn't work. Coleman Hawkins gave up and left for Europe, succeeded by Chu Berry, Lester Young and then Ben Webster: thus Henderson managed to employ, however briefly, all four of the greatest tenor saxophonists in pre-war jazz. And it was in 1934 that Henderson, in spite of everything, hit his own stride. His band was never the same after Redman left, for it lost the consistency that had made it a legend; having let alto saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter go, and possibly also feeling the heat of competition from his brother Horace, he took on more of the arranging himself. He further refined the style that Redman had developed to make a smoother music that was specifically for dancing, but still jazz-oriented, and allowed plenty of space for soloists. 'Sugar Foot Stomp' (from Oliver's 'Dipper Mouth Blues') and Jelly Roll Morton's 'King Porter Stomp', which had been Henderson staples for years, continued to be polished. Henderson began recording for the new Decca label, which was signing up all the best black bands, and 'Down South Camp Meeting', 'Wrappin' It Up' and Horace's 'Big John Special' (a tribute to John Reda, the boss at Big John's in Harlem, a favourite hang-out for musicians) were added to the store. His band broke up again and he made no recordings at all in 1935, but that was the year that lightning struck. He sold these charts to Benny Goodman, who had hits with all of them, and it was Fletcher Henderson's 1934 style that touched off the Big Band Era, or Swing Era.
Henderson formed a new band and made more good recordings: as Dicky Wells later wrote, 'You just had to play the notes and the arrangement was swinging.' Waller's 'Stealin' Apples', Horace's arrangement of Edgar Sampson's 'Blue Lou', 'Christopher Columbus' (a hit, based on riffs by Chu Berry and others) and Louis Prima's 'Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing)' were all recorded in 1936, and were also recorded by Goodman. Henderson continued to write for Goodman, for whom he arranged Youmans's 'Sometimes I'm Happy' and 'I Want to be Happy' and Berlin's 'Blue Skies'. He joined Goodman's sextet as pianist in 1939 and in 1941 formed another band with Goodman's help, but that was almost his last spark as a leader. He led a band at the Club DeLisa in Chicago in 1947, where Sonny Blount (whose real name was Sun Ra) was influenced; he led a sextet in 1950, but later that year had a stroke and never played again. The album Tribute to Fletcher Henderson (1957) was a joyous, swinging alumni success, unlike most all-star performances. It captured the joy in the music that Henderson played for a decade before the music business co-opted what came to be called swing, and white bands made most of the money.
It is a truism, to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, that the black bands played the best music during the Swing Era. Once jazz and the big dance band had come together in the late 1920s both black and white bands were charting the course; but the white-dominated music business would not tolerate too much pure jazz except in the 'race music' category, so it was the black bands and their sidemen who continued to provide the innovation.
One of the most commercially successful of all the black leaders was vocalist Cab Calloway, the exuberant, scat-singing, zoot-suited 'Highness of Hi-de-ho'. He attended law school, but left to pursue a career as a musician and toured with his sister's band. Blanche Calloway was a star in the late 1920s; a fine singer who hired good musicians, she was soon eclipsed by Cab's fame and passed over by booking agents who wanted him. Ironically, others traded on the name after Cab became famous -- their brother Elmer did not play or sing, but fronted a band for a promoter, and there was Jean and/or Ruth Calloway, who was not even related -- while Blanche went bankrupt.
Cab fronted a band called the Missourians, then in 1929 appeared in Connie's Hot Chocolates and led the Alabamians at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. After returning to the Missourians, he changed its name to Cab Calloway and his Orchestra and followed Duke Ellington into the Cotton Club, where he became famous, as Ellington had, through live broadcasts. (On their first hit recording, 'St Louis Blues', Calloway's men were billed as The Jungle Band.) The band made several films, and signed with Victor in 1933. The pianist was Benny Payne, who later accompanied Billy Daniels and recorded duets with Fats Waller; other members were such future stars as tenor saxophonists Ben Webster and Chu Berry, trumpeter Shad Collins, bass player Milt Hinton ('The Judge', who probably played on more recordings than anyone else in the business) and Dizzy Gillespie (1939-41).
Cab's act was full of physical energy, and his long black hair flew; he made 'hi-de-ho' a national catch-phrase. He was an underrated ballad singer, as 'You Are The One in My Heart' shows. He had a top ten hit in 1942 with 'Blues in the Night', and the band of the early 1940s was his best. It played arrangements by Buster Harding, who later wrote for Count Basie's 1947 band, and it also had tremendous esprit de corps. As one of the highest-earning leaders for nearly two decades, he could and did pay his men well. Furthermore, he gave them credit, saying to George T. Simon, 'I'm up front there doing my act, but it's the guys themselves who are making this band what it is.' The early 1940s band would have made more recordings but for the musicians' union strike, of which more later; but this was the band that was seen and heard in the film Stormy Weather (1943), and the one admired by musicians. Its rhythm section played slightly behind the beat in a way that left no doubt that there was plenty of power in reserve.
When the Big Band Era was over, Calloway led a sextet (1948), and occasionally formed a bigger band for tours and special engagements. His personality was already permanently established in American popular culture, but he never stopped making new fans: among his albums in the microgroove era were The Hi-de-ho Man (RCA, 1958), recorded with an excellent big band including Hinton, trumpeter Joe Wilder, trombonist Urbie Green and drummer J. C. Heard. He appeared in the film biography of W. C. Handy, St Louis Blues, in 1958, and starred as Horace Vandergelder opposite Pearl Bailey in an all-black version of Hello, Dolly! in New York in 1967. (His daughter Chris played Minnie Fay.) He published an autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, in 1976. He sang 'Minnie' in the film The Blues Brothers (1980) and appeared in the show Bubbling Brown Sugar and was portrayed by Larry Marshall in the film The Cotton Club (1984), which featured 'Minnie', 'Lady with the Fan' and 'Jitterbug', all Calloway compositions. He made a television film The Cotton Club Comes to the Ritz (broadcast in the UK in 1985), in which he sang 'Blues in the Night'. His revue Cotton Club Revisited toured North America that year with Chris, who has had a recording career of her own. Calloway's influence has been incalculable, reaching up to new jive-jump bands in the 1980s and such pop stars as Joe Jackson.
Chick Webb was a hunch-backed drummer whose band clobbered Goodman's in a famous battle a few months before Webb's death; twenty thousand people were allegedly turned away from the Savoy Ballroom that night. Krupa, then the most famous drummer in the business, said that he had never been beaten by anybody stronger, but Webb was killed by tuberculosis of the spine just as recording engineers were learning how to record him. Webb's arranger, Edgar Sampson, who also played violin and reeds, wrote some of the biggest hits of the era: 'Stompin' at the Savoy', 'Don't Be That Way', 'Blue Minor', 'If Dreams Come True', 'Blue Lou' and 'Lullaby in Rhythm'. Webb also discovered Ella Fitzgerald when she was only sixteen and adopted her (she was an orphan); 'A-tisket, A-tasket', with Ella and Louis Jordan on tenor saxophone, was a big hit in 1938.
The Mills Blue Rhythm Band, a black band run by white music publisher Irving Mills, made many fine recordings with sidemen such as Red Allen and J. C. Higginbotham. It was taken over by its frontman Lucky Millinder, who went bankrupt in 1939 but formed a new band in 1940 which became one of the most popular in Harlem. Millinder employed early modern jazzmen, among them Freddie Webster and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpets), Lucky Thompson and Lockjaw Davis (reeds) and Sir Charles Thompson and Bill Doggett (piano). Vocalists were Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who also played electric guitar ('Shout, Sister Shout!' / 'I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa', 1942), and Wynonie Harris ('Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well?', 1945). Millinder's band shrank as the Big Band Era came to an end and in the early 1950s was effectively a jump band on the King label (which also recorded rhythm and blues hits with Harris). A good anthology of Millinder's work would illustrate the change from big-band jazz to rhythm and blues that took place in those years.
Trumpeter Erskine Hawkins joined a band at Alabama State Teachers College in 1935, came to New York the next year as its leader and from 1936 to 1948 had hits on Bluebird and Victor. His first, 'Until the Real Thing Comes Along', featured vocalist Billy Daniels (who later became famous for his delivery of 'That Old Black Magic'). The band's biggest hits were 'Tuxedo Junction', its own composition, on which the fine muted trumpet of Dud Bascomb may be heard, the bluesy 'After Hours', with its composer Avery Parrish on piano, and 'Tippin' In', also a bluesy instrumental.
Pianist Claude Hopkins led a band that accompanied Josephine Baker in Europe in the 1920s. By the early 1930s, when it played at Roseland for three years, it was a very popular band noted for its use of cup mutes and soft rhythm. Hits included 'Margie' (1934), with falsetto singer Orlando Robertson. Among its various sidemen were lead trumpeter Russell 'Pops' Smith (from Fletcher Henderson's band, where his brother Joe was a star), the superb New Orleans clarinettist Edmond Hall and trumpeter Jabbo Smith. Hopkins continued to play fine piano into the 1970s.
Jimmie Lunceford formed a school dance band with Jimmy Crawford on drums; they soon picked up alto saxophonist Willie Smith from Fisk University, where Lunceford had studied. After a few years it became a well-drilled show band that was enormously popular with white and black dancers alike. Other members were vocalist/trombonist Trummy Young and tenor saxophonist Joe Thomas (not to be confused with trumpeter Joe Thomas, who played in Henderson's and many other bands). Lunceford's biggest hit was 'Rhythm is Our Business' in 1935. The vocal groups included Young, Smith, Thomas, trumpeter and arranger Sy Oliver and trumpeter Eddie Tompkins, but the whole band could sing like a glee club. They would imitate Paul Whiteman and Guy Lombardo; Tompkins would copy Louis Armstrong; the trumpet section would throw its horns in the air and catch them in unison. Some other bands looked down on Lunceford's 'trained monkeys', but they could play as well as they could clown. Will Hudson's 'Jazznocracy' and 'White Heat' were popular, if regarded as second-rate by Crawford. In Sy Oliver's arrangements, for example 'Ain't She Sweet' and 'Cheatin' on Me' (with vocal trio) and 'Well, All Right Then' (in which the whole band sings) a vocal trio and a rhythm section are in 2/4 while the rest of the band is in 4/4. They are irresistible, and prove that a 2/4 beat does not have to be lumpy. Oliver and Young were responsible for 'T'ain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)', a Swing Era anthem; trombonist and guitarist Eddie Durham also wrote arrangements for Lunceford. At the time there were several hit versions of Will Hudson's 'Organ Grinder's Swing', an irritating pop song, but Oliver's arrangement for Lunceford was an outstanding piece of orchestral writing, full of contrasts and instrumental timbres.
Despite 'For Dancers Only' and 'Blues in the Night', the band's popularity in ballrooms was not well illustrated by its recordings. The grinding life of one-night performances began to take its toll, and Lunceford died suddenly. (Trummy Young always believed that he was poisoned by a bigoted restaurant manager after insisting that the band be fed.)
The Savoy Sultans, led by reedman Al Cooper, was the house band at the famous ballroom; although it was only an octet, visiting bands were not immune from a thrashing. Drummer Razz Mitchell used a riveted Chinese sizzle cymbal; Rudy Williams was a fine alto saxophonist; Sam Massenberg played trumpet; bass player Grachan Moncur II was the father of modern trombonist Grachan Moncur III. The band's name was carried on in the late 1940s by drummer Panama Francis, who had worked with Millinder opposite the Sultans; in 1976 he formed another band under the venerable name, and it made some delightful albums.
Earl 'Fatha' Hines, one of the best pianists in jazz, was a prominent bandleader from 1928 until 1947. He had developed a 'trumpet' style, playing an octave higher in the right hand so as to be heard over an ensemble; in the late 1920s his left-hand style was more advanced than that of the great New York stride pianists. He made himself famous before 1930, playing and recording first with Louis Armstrong and then at Chicago's Apex Club with the unusual small band of clarinettist Jimmie Noone (1928), which had two reed players but no brass; his solo recordings in 1928-9 include eight for QRS (Quality Reigns Supreme, the piano-roll company, which also made gramophone records).
In 1928 Hines led a ten-piece group which grew to a full 'big band' while broadcasting from Chicago Grand Terrace Ballroom in the 1930s. His contract with the ballroom made him a prisoner of gangsters, and, as he put it, 'I couldn't afford to buy stars, so I had to find them.' He hired excellent men, among them trumpeters Shirley Clay, Freddie Webster and Walter Fuller, Trummy Young (before he joined Lunceford) and saxophonist-arranger Albert 'Budd' Johnson. Popular vocalist Herb Jeffries joined him in 1934 (and was later with Duke Ellington). Hines bought arrangements from Horace Henderson, Jimmy Mundy, Eddie Durham, multi-instrumentalist Edgar 'Puddinghead' Battle and Johnson. Budd Johnson wrote for many bands -- notably those of Hines, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman and Boyd Raeburn -- at the time in the 1940s when they employed most of the best young players, both black and white, of what would become bop, and then 'modern Jazz'. Johnson's contribution to music is enormous. After disbanding his orchestra, possibly to get away from Chicago's gangsters, Hines formed another on the West Coast in 1940. In that decade, given his need to recruit youngsters, his band was inevitably an incubator for new stars: Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, trombonist Bennie Green and vocalists Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan.
In 1947 he gave up, along with many other leaders, and worked with Louis Armstrong's All Stars for a couple of years; he was gradually reduced to playing dixieland in West Coast clubs. But in 1964 Stanley Dance and Dan Morgenstern talked him into coming all the way across the country for a short engagement as a trio at New York's Little Theatre, with just bass and drums; then there was a New Yorker profile by Whitney Balliett, and thereafter Hines toured the world, both with small groups (often including Johnson) and as a soloist. He made a great many albums in his last two decades (about twenty of them solo), every one of which is a monument to the sheer joy of music-making: again and again, as on 'Tea for Two' (produced in London in 1965 by Alan Bates) and 'C-jam Blues' (from a three-disc collection of Ellington tunes made from 1971 to 1975), he walks a tightrope without falling off, the wit and beauty in the music always triumphing over technique for its own sake.
Hines's big band was regarded as a territory band in the mid-1930s, as was Benny Moten's; it played a style then called western swing by New York musicians, who admired it. Kansas City was a hothouse of jazz and blues which exploded at the height of the Swing Era. Corrupt local Democratic party boss Tom Pendergast ran the town until 1938, when he was indicted for tax fraud, and neither Prohibition nor its repeal, nor indeed the Depression, made much difference in Kansas City: the town was wide open and twenty or thirty clubs were doing business (while Pendergast went to bed at nine). Musicians did not get paid much, but they played all night. The Kansas City style that emerged was a blues-based, riffing style, at once looser and tighter than mainstream swing.
Bennie Moten's group, based in Kansas City, was the most prolifically recorded of all the territory bands -- it made about a hundred sides for Victor between 1923 and 1932. Bill Basie, from New Jersey, had toured with vaudeville acts at the instigation of Fats Waller; stranded in Kansas City, he joined bass player Walter Page's Blue Devils, which also included trumpeter Oran 'Hot Lips' Page, arranger and alto saxophonist Henry 'Buster' Smith and jazz and blues vocalist Jimmy Rushing. Basie then joined Moten on piano, so that Moten (also a pianist) had more time for administration; he was featured on Moten's 'Prince of Wails' in 1932. When Moten died having his tonsils out, Basie took over the remnants of the band.
In 1936 Basie was leading a nine-piece group at the Reno Club in Kansas City; record producer John Hammond heard a broadcast on a car radio in Chicago, and told booking agent Willard Alexander about it. Basie hired more men and went to Chicago, but had signed a bad recording contract with Decca. Meanwhile, in October Hammond took a Basie group into a small studio in Chicago and recorded one of the most astonishing sessions of that decade, or any other. The quintet -- Basie, Page, drummer Jo Jones, tenor saxophonist Lester Young and trumpeter Carl 'Tatti' Smith -- was billed as Jones-Smith Incorporated. They recorded 'Shoe-shine Boy' and 'Lady Be Good'; Rushing was added on 'Evenin' ' and 'Boogie Woogie'. It was Young's first recording session, and he never played better in his life.
Lester Young began performing in his family's band. Inspired by the pretty sound and thoughtful craftsmanship of Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody saxophone, Young's style was lyrical and linear; he said that in a ballad he liked to keep the words of the song in mind. He had a unique tone without much vibrato, and played at the high end of the instrument's range, sometimes sounding almost like an alto instead of a tenor. His swing was incomparable, and he became one of the most influential musicians of the century.
In fact, the white Chicagoan Bud Freeman had already presented a lighter alternative to the big-toned, chromatic Coleman Hawkins style of tenor saxophone which was then dominant. But during the Swing Era Freeman led his own smaller groups or was a sideman in such bands as Tommy Dorsey's or Benny Goodman's, which were commercially oriented, however strong the jazz content. Lester Young came to fame in Basie's band, which made less money than those of Dorsey or Goodman, but was a much better place for a genius like Young to make his mark. It is true that Young was a greater musician than Freeman; nevertheless, in popular music it has often been true that the further you are from the mainstream, the more likely you are to be able to develop your own full potential. In 1941-2 Young led a renowned band on the West Coast with his drummer brother, Lee, but it never recorded. (Lee Young played in film studios and with Nat 'King' Cole, among others; from the early 1960s he worked for Vee Jay, Motown and other record labels.)
Lester Young was a gentle, humorous, private man; he spoke an argot of his own, some phrases of which entered the language (such as 'I've got eyes', signifying approval); it was he who gave everybody nicknames, including Sweets for trumpeter Harry Edison, and Lady Day for Billie Holiday. An unlikely soldier, born in Mississippi, Young was frightened of racism; after he was drafted the Army put him in a stockade in Georgia, which didn't do him any good. When he came out he found that half the tenor players sounded like Lester Young, but the orthodox canard that he was no longer himself is not true: he knew what he was doing on his horn until the end.
Walter Page was called Big Four. 'He started that "Strolling" or "Walking" bass, going way up and then coming right on down. He did it on four strings, but other bass players couldn't get that high so they started making a five-string bass,' said Edison. Jo Jones was the best and fastest drummer of the Swing Era, but also the smoothest. He was not necessarily the first to keep time on the top cymbal, but did so with such finesse and consummate swing that he permanently altered the course of jazz, partly by setting the rest of the drum kit free to be used as a musical instrument rather than a device for constant timekeeping, as Krupa was doing at the time.
Buster Smith, an important influence on Young and on Charlie Parker, did not want to leave Kansas City (and was still performing in Dallas, Texas, in 1988). Hot Lips Page had been lured away by Joe Glaser, who hoped to make another Louis Armstrong of him; he led a good band from 1938 to 1940 and sang on Artie Shaw's hit version of 'Blues in the Night'. So Basie had not only to add men to make his octet a big band, but also to replace some of them, as well as putting up with John Hammond's meddling. When his band reached New York, it did not make an immediate impact; some of the men did not read music well, and they had trouble playing in tune because they were too poor to buy good instruments. (Don Kirkpatrick wrote arrangements for the band; tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans would tear up his part if it had too many sharps and flats in it.) But they began recording for Decca in early 1937 and soon blew open New York's Famous Door, a long, narrow room which must hardly have been able to contain the band's sound.
The playing of pianist Earl Hines or of Basie's rhythm section has been said to 'swing like a (well-oiled) machine', but machines do not swing; the phenomenon is in fact indescribable. No one had ever heard anything like the classic Basie band, which soon included rhythm guitarist Freddie Green. (The young trombonist Dennis Wilson said of Green, nearly fifty years later, 'It's as though they said in the Bible, "Let there be Time", and Freddie started playing.') This was a rhythm section that played music as it swung, Green strumming chords and Page always walking in the direction of the tune.
Buck Clayton played lovely and distinctive open and muted trumpet for decades. Herschel Evans played fine tenor in the style of Hawkins; Basie encouraged an opposition with Young that was like 'Ham 'n' Eggs', as one of the band's instrumentals was called. At his peak Dicky Wells's trombone playing was second only to Teagarden's, reminding us of Whitney Balliet's description of jazz as 'the sound of surprise'. (He made some of his best recordings in Paris with Django Reinhardt in 1937 before joining Basie.) Jack Washington played baritone saxophone, Earle Warren alto; among the trumpeters were Edison, Ed Lewis and Shad Collins; at one point the trombones included Benny Morton as well as Wells and Dan Minor.
The life of guitarist, trombonist and arranger Eddie Durham, one of the most productive in popular music, was celebrated by New York's WKCR radio with a marathon sixty-nine-hour broadcast for his 79th birthday, comprising interviews, lectures and music. He wrote for Lunceford, then Basie; Wells said, 'Basie and Ed would lock up in a room with a little jug, and Basie would play the ideas, Ed would voice them.' It was probably Durham and Buster Smith who created 'One O'Clock Jump', a head arrangement first called 'Blue Balls': a player would think of a good riff and start riding it; other members of the section would play along; somebody in another section would create a piece of harmony, or an opposing or answering riff, and a new tune was born. 'One O'Clock Jump' was one of the era's biggest hits. Durham wrote or co-wrote 'Out The Window', 'Time Out', 'John's Idea' (for Hammond) and 'Swinging the Blues'; 'Topsy' (with Edgar Battle) was revived in 1957 for a pop hit by drummer Cozy Cole; 'Good Morning Blues' and 'Sent For You Yesterday And Here You Come Today' were written with Basie and Rushing. (He wrote the 1941 hit 'I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire' for Bon Bon, a black sweet pop singer with the white dance band of Russian-born violinist Jan Savitt.) Durham was music director of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a very good all-girl band that was formed in an orphanage and ran away; he later worked for R&B singer Wynonie Harris, and was still working in the 1980s. An early master of the electric guitar, he may be heard on an enchanting Lester Young small-group date for Commodore in 1938 (as the Kansas City Six); Young plays lovely clarinet as well as tenor, along with Clayton, Green, Page and Jones.
'Basie never did play much with his left hand, so Freddie [Green] substituted for it,' said Clayton. Basie led the band from the keyboard with an economy that became famous, saying more with one note than others did with several. The band's Decca recordings, other than those named above, included 'Jumpin' at the Woodside' (written by Basie) and 'Texas Shuffle' and 'Doggin' Around' (by Evans), 'Blue And Sentimental' featured Evans, while 'Roseland Shuffle', 'Honeysuckle Rose', 'Every Tub' and 'Cherokee' (a two-sided 78) and many others featured Young. Rushing sang 'Pennies from Heaven', and the wonderful Helen Humes 'Dark Rapture', 'Blame It on My Last Affair' and 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy'. Billie Holiday sang with the band in 1937, but could not record with it for contractual reasons (one of the great missed opportunities of the era); 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' is a famous broadcast aircheck. Among Basie's recordings for Columbia from 1939 to 1946 are 'Taxi War Dance', 'Lester Leaps In', 'Dickie's Dream' (written by Young for Wells) and 'Ham 'n' Eggs'. He also played with the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1940 and on many other small-group recording sessions.
Basie recorded for Victor from 1947 to 1950, as the Swing Era was winding down. He had a number one novelty hit in 1947, the most popular of several versions of 'Open the Door, Richard' (with a 'vocal' by Edison), so untypical it is never included in compilation albums; today it is strange to hear Jones's smooth high-hat on what is basically a piece of R&B jive. The band's original stars were mostly gone (though Green stayed until the end); the trumpets included Edison, and such fine players as Clark Terry, Joe Newman and Emmett Berry, and the reed section Buddy Tate, Paul Gonsalves and Lucky Thompson. The excellent fare is well represented by such songs as 'Cheek to Cheek', Redman's 'Just an Old Manuscript' and a lovely, affectionate updating of Moten's 'South'.
Basie was the most famous but far from the only graduate of Kansas City. Harlan Leonard and his Kansas City Skyrockets was a twelve-piece band, many of whose members had split from Moten in 1931; Leonard had led Moten's reed section. Thamon Hayes played trombone, Ed Lewis trumpet and Jesse Stone piano. The band was initially successful, and in 1934 went to Chicago, where it was run out of town by James Petrillo's musicians' union. Hayes quit in disgust to run a music store in Kansas City, but Leonard re-formed the band as Harlan Leonard and his Rockets, briefly employed Charlie Parker (who could not turn up on time) and made sixteen sides for Bluebird in 1940, playing arrangements by Stone, Durham, Buster Smith, Tadd Dameron and Rozelle Claxton. Tenor saxophonist Henry Bridges had received an offer from Benny Goodman when he was drafted, and Fred Beckett was an advanced trombonist who died of tuberculosis contracted in the army.
Reedman Andy Kirk took over Terrence Holder's Dark Clouds of Joy in Dallas in 1929 and settled in Kansas City. Pianist-arranger Mary Lou Williams joined in 1931, and with popular singer Pha Terrell the band had big hits from 1936 to 1938, among them 'Until the Real Thing Comes Along'. Kirk carried on until 1948. Williams was a great talent whose compositions included 'Walkin' and Swingin' ' for Kirk, 'Roll 'Em' for Benny Goodman and 'Trumpet No End' for Duke Ellington. Her friendships with Thelonious Monk and others made her a guru for the bop movement, and late in life she bravely played in a duo with the avant-gardist Cecil Taylor.
Pianist and band leader Jay 'Hootie' McShann in later years became a vocalist as well. Charlie Parker, trumpeter Buddy Anderson, bass player Gene Ramey and drummer Gus Johnson were members of his Kansas City band; his singers were Walter Brown (with whom he wrote 'Confessin' the Blues', which became a standard) and Al Hibbler ('Get Me on Your Mind'). Ramey and Johnson worked with Basie in 1952-3 and again with McShann in the 1970s. McShann, who was still playing fine piano, was the subject of a film, Hootie's Blues, in 1978, and recorded occasionally in the 1980s. Pianist and singer Julia Lee, another Kansas City artist, worked with Walter Page and McShann, but mostly as a soloist. A daughter of Missouri, she performed at an inaugural party for Harry Truman. She was best known for songs of a risqué nature (for example 'King Size Papa' and 'I Didn't Like It the First Time'), though they do not show her talent to best advantage.
McShann's recordings have always been of special interest to jazz fans because of Parker. Kansas City bands made a contribution to American music that can stand by itself, but their rhythmic freedom and blues feeling, together with outstanding soloists like Lester Young and Parker, had a direct effect on modern jazz and hence are still influential today.
Benny Carter is one of the grandfathers of popular music. As an alto saxophonist, he was one of the most influential, but he also recorded on trumpet, trombone, tenor saxophone, clarinet and piano. He played with Webb, Henderson, the Cotton Pickers, Ellington and others, and by the age of twenty-one was already a well-known composer-arranger. His trademark of writing reed choruses along the chords of a tune perhaps represents the essence of this kind of music. The most famous of many Carter tunes is 'When Lights are Low'. In the late 1930s he was a staff arranger at the BBC, and led a ten-piece band in Europe which contained musicians of nine nationalities, among them two Englishmen.
Having often led his own bands in the 1940s, Carter then spent twenty-five years in film studios, where he wrote film and television scores and helped to desegregate the film industry; there were two albums written for Count Basie in 1960-61, and his own Further Definitions (1961), in which four saxophones together with a rhythm section provide more rich beauty than many a bigger group. This famous album re-created Carter recordings made in Europe in 1937, and was itself re-created on a CD in 1988 and at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1989. He was still writing and playing in 1993. Listening to Benny Carter's beautiful music, one wonders again why this sort of music, so central to our popular culture, is today rarely heard on the radio.
Of all the bands that entertained crowds during the Swing Era, Duke Ellington's was one of the few that had already become well known in the late 1920s, and the only one that carried on with its leader's musical identity intact into the 1970s.
Ellington's father was a butler at the White House, and a blueprint maker for the US Navy. Duke acquired his nickname as a teenager from his elegant dress and demeanour; his parents and his middleclass upbringing gave him confidence and a knowledge of his own worth which never left him. But he was black, and made his living playing jazz, and was among the first great black musicians to become weary of the term. He was not the first to say, 'There are only two kinds of music: good and bad', though from him the aphorism had a special poignancy. He was a pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer, but essentially unclassifiable, because he was all of these things at once; one of the greatest American musicians of the century, he ruled a band of unruly geniuses until he died.
He had a piano teacher called Miss Clinkscales, but was largely self-taught. A talented artist, he had won an NAACP poster-design contest and left high school to start a sign-painting business, but found that piano playing drew the girls. He performed locally, attracting more work than he could handle himself. He went to New York in March 1923 and did not find work, but returned in September with a band called the Washingtonians, led by Elmer Snowden and including trumpeter Arthur Whetsel, saxophonist Otto 'Toby' Hardwick and drummer Sonny Greer. Vocalist Ada Smith (later famous as Bricktop) recommended them for a job at Barron's Exclusive Club, their first important engagement; then they played for four years at the Hollywood Inn (renamed the Kentucky Club after a fire).
Elmer Snowden was an indefatigable musical businessman. He made countless delightful recordings under various names (the Jungle Town Stompers, the Musical Stevedores, etc) and at one point got into trouble with the musicians' union because he was running so many bands. Ellington became leader of the Washingtonians when Snowden left in 1925 (possibly because Greer didn't want to be leader). At the beginning of this period it was just another dance band; at the end it was Ellington's, playing his music. Whetsel left to study medicine and was replaced by Bubber Miley; Fred Guy played banjo; Charlie Irvis, who played a growling trombone, was replaced by Joe 'Tricky Sam' Nanton, and they were joined for a brief period by the profoundly influential Sidney Bechet. Duke wrote music for the revue Chocolate Kiddies, which toured Europe with Sam Wooding, but it is not clear whether Ellington's music was used. Ellington's band went to the Cotton Club when King Oliver turned down the job because it did not pay enough, performing there from December 1927 until February 1931, except during a few short tours. The band made a short film, Black and Tan Fantasy, in 1929 in New York, and became famous through broadcasts from the Cotton Club.
Sam Wooding, a success in Europe who toured as far as Russia, had also turned down the Cotton Club job because he thought that $1,100 a week was an insulting offer. He soon returned to Europe, where (he told journalist Chip Deffaa in 1985) audiences liked a hot black band better than they liked Paul Whiteman's style. Wooding's men were proud of the fact that they could double on bassoons, oboes, French horns and so forth; and anyway, as Rae Harrison, the beautiful vocalist who became Mrs Wooding, said to Deffaa, 'Why would they want to go back to Harlem, where they've been all their lives?' But Ellington had nowhere better to go, and probably appreciated the importance of the radio wire. Among the men Wooding valued most highly in his band was reedman Garvin Bushell, who said many years later that if they had understood the impact that radio was having, they would have paid $1,100 a week to play at the Cotton Club.
Charlie Johnson, a pianist from Philadelphia, went to Harlem after working in Atlantic City; he was a surrogate father for Wooding, and helped him to focus on music. He led his Paradise Ten at Smalls' Paradise for more than a decade, and was another leader who smarted because of Ellington's radio success. Johnson's band made lovely records for Victor in the late 1920s, such as 'Hot Tempered Blues', 'You Ain't the One' and 'Boy in the Boat', and his band did not get a chance to play live on the radio. But lightning occasionally strikes in the right place: Ellington wrote and arranged music for the Cotton Club's floor shows, and began to create a unique body of composition; when Wooding returned from Europe for good during the Depression, there were no recording contracts to be had, while Ellington was already justly famous.
Many of the Harlem clubs became legendary. Smalls' Paradise admitted blacks, if they could afford it; waiters danced the Charleston while balancing trays, and owner Ed Smalls encouraged the band to park their cars in front on quiet nights to make the place look busy. Connie's Inn, owned by George and Connie Immerman, was where Fats Waller began as a delivery boy (with bottles of bootleg alcohol hidden about his already large person) and where Waller's shows Keep Shufflin' and Hot Chocolates were later first produced. But the most famous spot was the Cotton Club, built in 1918 at the corner of Lenox and 142nd Street, where there was a theatre on the ground floor and a dance hall upstairs. Boxer Jack Johnson turned it into the Club Deluxe, then bootlegger Owney Madden renamed it the Cotton Club: it was an outlet for his beer that offered entertainment for white downtowners. The cream of society went there, including Mayor Jimmy Walker and Lady Mountbatten (who dubbed it 'The Aristocrat of Harlem'). It moved downtown to Broadway and 48th in 1936, but by then the Harlem Renaissance was over, having been based on a shaky foundation of white patronage fuelled by Prohibition, which ended in 1933.
During the Cotton Club's heyday much of the music for its revues was written by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields (daughter of vaudeville comedian Lew Fields), then by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. McHugh had written 'When My Sugar Walks Down the Street' with Gene Austin, who had a big hit with it in 1925; publisher Irving Mills was also credited as co-author. McHugh and Fields wrote songs for shows and revues, such as 'Diga Diga Doo', 'Bandana Babies', 'Harlem River Quiver', 'Doin' the New Low-down', 'Harlemania', 'Doin' the Frog', 'Hot Feet', 'I Must Have That Man', 'Exactly Like You', 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' and 'On the Sunny Side of the Street' (though the last two tunes may have been bought from Fats Waller). Many of these were recorded by Ellington, and some by Don Redman as well. In Ellington's arrangement of 'Diga Diga Doo' a clarinet trio whistles through the trees like a banshee, while his introduction to 'Bandana Babies' features Wellman Braud's bass prominently and has a vocal by Irving Mills and Ozie Ware. McHugh and Fields went to Hollywood and wrote 'Don't Blame Me', 'I'm in the Mood for Love' and others for films. (Both worked with many others, Fields's important partnership with Cy Coleman in the 1960s yielded the show Sweet Charity.)
Harold Arlen was mentioned earlier as Alec Wilder's favourite songwriter, and a distinctively American one. He fell in love with jazz, and played piano in cafes at the age of fifteen; he published songs in 1928 (his 'Album of My Dreams' was recorded by Rudy Vallee), but did not intend to write for a living. While working as a rehearsal pianist for Vincent Youmans, he invented an introductory vamp and was advised by Will Marion Cook to publish it before somebody stole it: it became his first big hit, 'Get Happy', with words by Koehler.
Arlen and Koehler were hired to write for the Cotton Club when McHugh and Fields were busy on Broadway: from 1931 to 1934 they wrote 'Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea', 'Kickin' the Gong Around' (a drug song, which was recorded by Louis Armstrong, among others) and 'Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day' (all of which were recorded by Cab Calloway), 'Stormy Weather' (always associated with Ethel Waters, but also an instrumental hit for Ellington in 1933 and a sensation for Ivie Anderson with him in England that year), 'As Long As I Live' (introduced by Lena Horne at the age of sixteen), 'I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues' (recorded memorably by Jack Teagarden), 'It's Only a Paper Moon' and 'Let's Fall In Love'. Arlen's career was a long one: with Yip Harburg he wrote the songs for the film The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and 'The Man That Got Away' in 1954 (from A Star is Born), for Judy Garland. His Broadway shows included Bloomer Girl (1944, with Harburg), St Louis Woman (1946, an all-black show, with Johnny Mercer), House of Flowers (1954, with Truman Capote) and Jamaica (1957, with Harburg).
Ellington's band could play as hot as any other black outfit, but he was thus influenced by first-class show music almost from the beginning. His natural talent for tone colours contributed a sensual beauty to his music that was and is unique. His first recordings had been made in November 1924; in the Cotton Club period recordings were issued on many labels and under many names: the Washingtonians, the Ten Black Berries, the Jungle Band, the Harlem Footwarmers, the Whoopee Makers, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra or his Cotton Club Orchestra and so on. All the early records have ended up in the vaults of MCA, CBS or Victor, and all are fascinating: almost from the beginning he had the confidence to break the rules, to do as he wished just to see what it would sound like.
The New Orleans bass player Wellman Braud, who had played with Oliver, first recorded with Ellington in October 1927, and shortly after recruited his home-town friend, clarinettist Barney Bigard. Bigard later wrote that at first he found some of the chords he heard behind him strange, but soon realized that Ellington knew exactly what he was doing. Legend has it that European critics, especially Constant Lambert in the UK, were the first to compare Ellington's tone colours to those of Delius and Debussy; in fact (as James Lincoln Collier has pointed out), Robert Donaldson Darrell, later a distinguished classical critic, was the first to do so in Disques, an American magazine, in 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 knowing 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 alternative takes) as the young composer experimented.
Other classics of the era included 'Birmingham Breakdown', 'Jubilee Stomp' and 'Flaming Youth'; such titles as 'Jungle Blues', 'Jungle Nights in Harlem' and 'Jungle Jamboree' reveal the flavour of the club, where the musicians were black and the patrons white. Nanton and Miley used a growling 'yow-yow' instrumental device (in Miley's case inspired by King Oliver), which later had to be learned by Miley's replacements, Cootie Williams and then Ray Nance. Nanton stayed with Ellington from 1926 until his death; Miley was an unreliable alcoholic, but his influence from 1924 to 1929 was profound: the main ideas for 'East St Louis' and 'Black and Tan Fantasy', among others, were Miley's, and Ellington later wrote that 'that was when we decided to forget about the sweet stuff '.
'Rockin' in Rhythm' (1930) became the band's theme (replacing 'East St Louis'); years later they still played 'The Mooche', 'Black Beauty' (for Florence Mills, the first of many portraits) and 'Creole Love Call'. Adelaide Hall had improvised a wordless obbligato offstage during a performance of 'Creole Love Call' while standing near an open mike; she was overheard by Ellington, who then included her in a 1927 recording. In Europe Hall had worked in the show Chocolate Kiddies, 'with Josephine Baker at one end of the line and me at the other'. Hall was famous for her rendition of 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love'. She went back and forth to Europe before settling in England, where she had a radio show with bandleader Joe Loss and was seen and heard in Alexander Korda's film The Thief of Bagdad (1940). She was still working (and receiving excellent reviews) at the end of the 1980s.
On Ellington's recording of 'Jungle Nights in Harlem' in 1930 the reed section consisted of Barney Bigard, Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges, though it sounded much bigger; the Victor recording, with the acoustic bass prominent, sounds astonishingly up to date today. In 'Mood Indigo' (1930) the classic tune is blended by Nanton, Bigard and Whetsol, showing the formidable skill of the arranger. Ellington had begun writing for specific players, and was an infallible judge of what each could do. In 1930 the band included Whetsol, Cootie Williams and Freddy Jenkins (trumpets), Nanton (trombone) and Juan Tizol (valve trombone), Hodges, Carney and Bigard (reeds), Guy (banjo, later guitar), Wellman Braud (bass) and Greer (drums). All were virtuosos, and most of them played intermittently with the band for decades.
If we had to name a sound that was the most important element of all in the band, it would have to be that of Harry Carney. When he joined (with his mother's permission) at the age of seventeen, he played clarinet and alto saxophone, but he soon changed to baritone, and remained the anchor of the band in more ways than one for nearly half a century. He was perhaps Ellington's closest friend; in later years they often drove together from gig to gig in Carney's Cadillac. Carney did for the baritone saxophone what Coleman Hawkins did for the tenor. His modesty and gentleness of spirit were always evident; at his appearance in a master class at the University of Wisconsin in 1973 he looked as though he still could not believe his good fortune in receiving so much affection from the public.
Johnny Hodges (also known as Rabbit or Jeep) had taken lessons from Sidney Bechet; he occasionally played soprano saxophone until 1940, but his main instrument was the alto. He joined Ellington in 1928 and stayed for life, except for the years 1951-5 when he led a successful smaller band of his own. He was the most widely admired alto saxophonist until Charlie Parker, and even after that, nobody could play a ballad like Hodges (Parker called him the Lily Pons of the instrument, and meant it as a compliment), and his hot playing in the Cotton Club period already revealed an unmistakable voice. He put on a veneer of gruffness, but, according to Bigard, was actually shy, and quite a prankster if you got to know him.
Irving Mills managed Ellington's band and published the music, sometimes writing lyrics and often taking credit as co-composer; some recordings were even issued under the name Mills' Ten Black Berries. Mills and his older brother Jack, who had been a song plugger for Waterson, Berlin and Snyder, had formed Mills Music in 1919. Irving, the 'outside' man, bought songs from people at recording sessions for 'three for a dollar' labels which they supervised. Their house group was the Hotsy Totsy Boys: Irving Mills, Mills Music's manager Jimmy McHugh, Sammy Fain (later a very famous songwriter) and Gene Austin. Later the Hotsy Totsy Gang, Goody's Goodtimers and other recording groups included Dick McPartland and the Dorsey brothers, and sometimes Irving (using pseudonyms) sang; we have seen that the black Mills Blue Rhythm Band became the Lucky Millinder band. The purpose of all this was to plug the songs.
Irving's most valuable discovery was Ellington. He helped the band get the job at the Cotton Club and landed the first good recording dates, as well as work in the film Check and Double Check with the enormously popular radio comedy stars Amos'n'Andy (1930). He also arranged the band's first trip to Europe in 1933. After leaving the Cotton Club (where it was replaced by Cab Calloway), the band was provided by Mills with Pullman cars when it travelled: unlike many black bands on the road, Ellington's and later Calloway's never worried about where to sleep.
Ellington understood better than most leaders the importance of recording, and of recorded balance. To this day Ellington's early records sound better than those of most of the others; he knew what he was doing in the studio. The band was first called Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra at a session for Brunswick in early 1931, when 'Creole Rhapsody' was recorded on a two-sided 10-inch 78; it was recorded again in June for Victor on a two-sided 12-inch record, Ellington's first attempts to exceed the limitations of the medium. In February 1932 trombonist Lawrence Brown and singer Ivie Anderson made their first recordings with the band, among them 'It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing', which helped to name the era.
The band recorded medleys on long-playing records for Victor the same month. In this early attempt to achieve longer playing time the 78rpm disc was simply slowed to 33 1/3; it failed because the technology of the time was inadequate. But for some reason two microphones were used to cut different masters of the same take: these were combined to make very good stereo recordings more than fifty years later, on the album Reflections in Ellington (issued on the Everymans label in the USA in 1985, later on a Natasha Imports CD). Hardwicke 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. It was as well that he was on his guard; serious critics would take him almost too seriously.
The orthodoxy that the years from 1940 to 1942 represent Ellington's greatest period is difficult to refute, but there is a large number of masterly miniatures from every decade. The best big-band pieces were tone poems -- integrated compositions for a group of specific virtuosos -- and no one did this better than Ellington. His recordings in the 1930s included uptempo showpieces such as 'Stompy Jones', 'Jive Stomp', 'Merry-go-round', 'Showboat Shuffle' (with a paddlewheel effect in the brass section), and also smoochy ballads and mood tunes: 'Prelude to a Kiss', 'Sophisticated Lady', '(There is) No Greater Love', 'Caravan' (written by Tizol), 'Azure' and 'The Gal From Joe's'.
'Solitude' (1934) had a solo by Carney, 'Clarinet Lament' (1936) featured Bigard and on the other side was 'Echoes of Harlem', featuring Cootie Williams. 'Caravan' in 1937 was followed later in the year by 'Dusk on the Desert', also with Tizol's name on it, which has Ellington's percussion contribution, using a cardboard box. There were many, many more. To describe just one of these treasures: 'In a Jam' contains the simplest of brass riffs, a string of outstanding solos, a muted Nanton delicately traced by Bigard's clarinet, a dialogue between Hodges and Williams, an early guest appearance by Ben Webster and a ride-out by Rex Stewart.
Ivie Anderson, one of the best female singers of the era, with excellent diction and a warm vocal colour, joined Ellington in 1931. Her numerous sides, many of them hits, include 'Truckin' ', 'I'm Satisfied', 'Isn't Love the Strangest Thing?', 'There's a Lull in My Life' and 'If You Were in My Place (What Would You Do?)'. She sang 'All God's Chillun Got Rhythm' with the band in a Marx brothers film, and they recorded it twice.
'Diminuendo in Blue' and 'Crescendo in Blue', recorded on a two-sided 78 in 1937, was a composition that the band could not then play properly, especially with respect to intonation, according to Gunther Schuller in his The Swing Era (1989). It had been preceded by 'Reminiscin' in Tempo' in 1935, written on tour after Ellington's mother died. Schuller's essay on this is exemplary. Spread over four sides, the piece is still only about thirteen minutes long, a composition specifically for Ellington's musicians, but without much improvisation or even swing. In its skilful integration of its themes and episodes, Ellington probably never exceeded it. It is true that some of his more ambitious later 'extended' compositions are unsuccessful, or, to put it another way, that the best ones are literally suites, or strings of miniatures. But he did what he did so beautifully that it is impossible to complain that he did not have the formal training necessary to write symphonies and operas. As it was, while he was making the hit parade, he was also transcending it.
His treatments of others' tunes include a lovely 1933 version of the 1905 chestnut 'In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree', with a muted solo by Jenkins, and 'Rose of the Rio Grande' (1938), which featured Lawrence Brown and Ivie Anderson. (Brown had to play that solo for many years.) Ellington's own 'Pussy Willow' became a staple and 'I'm Checkin' Out Goombye' is the only recorded example of the jive repartee that Anderson and Greer developed in the live act; 'The Sergeant was Shy' and 'Tooting through the Roof' were all made in 1939. In the 1930s Ellington had recorded mostly for Brunswick, but the 1938-9 sides often appeared on Columbia; at his last session there in early 1940 he recorded remakes of 'Stormy Weather', 'Solitude' and 'Mood Indigo', with Anderson vocals, and a new instrumental, 'Sophisticated Lady'.
Irving Mills and Jack Kapp must have been equally energetic entrepreneurs, unwilling to take advice. Russell Sanjek reports that in 1935 Mills offered to take over the recording of all dance music for Decca, and lectured Kapp and his staff on his expertise, whereupon Kapp directed that no talent connected with Mills was to be used. Mills's opinion of himself was justified, however, for in the mid-1930s he was the only contractor of recording artists in the business. In early 1937 he launched the 75-cent Master label and the 35-cent Variety label, distributed by Yates's ARC, and was successful for a while; among Ellington's hits were a remake of 'Caravan' with 'Azure' on the other side. But Mills failed to form an overseas affiliation, and soon turned back to selling his product to ARC labels.
Meanwhile, Wellman Braud had left Ellington, and from 1936 to 1938 the band had two bass players. In late 1939 Ellington discovered Jimmy Blanton playing a three-stringed instrument in a St Louis hotel, and advanced him the money for a four-stringed model. In the short time before he died of tuberculosis, Blanton revolutionized bass playing, not just with his unique time, but playing melody and harmony as well. Bigard had doubled on tenor saxophone, and Ellington had no star tenor player until Ben Webster became a full-time member. Arranger, composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn became more than Ellington's collaborator: in later years they worked together so closely that sometimes they could not remember who had written what (or so they said).
In 1939 the agreement with Mills was severed. Ellington had done well out of it, charging a great many living expenses to Mills which would otherwise have come out of his own pocket. As James Lincoln Collier has pointed out, Ellington was not the type to be much interested in saving anything, but only in living well. There was pressure from the black press, where Adam Clayton Powell accused Ellington of being a 'musical sharecropper', but it is hard to believe, as Collier does, that Ellington, always his own man, would have let this affect him very much. But Mills was always busy trying to build an empire, and still selling Ellington's recordings to what were now CBS labels, and Ellington decided to move to RCA Victor.
Ellington's first session for Victor since 1934 was recorded in March 1940, and it was immediately obvious that a new page in Ellington's book had been turned; the quality of the music reached a new peak. 'Ko-Ko', from Ellington's uncompleted score for a stage work, came to be a jazz classic; its unforgettable opening bars were underpinned by an urgently mysterious one-note motif from Carney's baritone. 'Jack the Bear' was notable for Blanton's amazing ability to make the whole band sound like it was dancing on tip-toe; the furiously swinging 'Cotton Tail' included a controlled explosion from Webster. 'Harlem Air Shaft' had more ideas in it than most bandleaders had in a year, as did 'Sepia Panorama'. Strayhorn's 'Take the "A" Train' became the band's theme. Non-Ellington hits with pop songs were 'You, You Darlin' ' and 'Flamingo' (vocals by Herb Jeffries) and 'At a Dixie Roadside Diner' (with Anderson). The hit 'I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good', sung by Anderson, came from Ellington's Los Angeles revue Jump for Joy which was ahead of its time. (Not even Los Angeles could take 'I've Got a Passport from Georgia [and I'm going to the USA]'; it was dropped from the score.)
There are too many great records to list here, but a few are 'Bojangles (a Portrait of Bill Robinson)' 'A Portrait of Bert Williams', 'Me and You' (with Anderson), 'In a Mellotone', 'C-jam Blues', the erotic 'Warm Valley' and the lovely 'Across the Track Blues' and four duets by Ellington and Blanton. Strayhorn wrote 'The Flaming Sword', 'After All', 'Chelsea Bridge', 'Raincheck' and 'Johnny Come Lately', as well as transmuting the 1927 pop song 'Chloe' into Ellingtonia, with an elegant Nanton 'jungle' introduction. Tizol wrote 'Bakiff' and the instant classic 'Perdido', a riff which summed up jazz composition for a whole generation. Ellington may have been having problems with royalties or income taxes at this time; at any rate, his son Mercer, who was already credited with 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be', was now listed as composer of 'Jumpin' Punkins', 'John Hardy's Wife' and the tragic 'Blue Serge'. The band was recorded live on 7 November 1940 at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota, where fans took disc-cutting equipment to a dance: the result includes a Webster essay on 'Star Dust', never recorded commercially; perhaps it was suggested by Coleman Hawkins's 'Body and Soul' of the previous year.
Cootie Williams had left in 1940 to join Benny Goodman, with Ellington's blessing: Goodman could pay more, and Williams disliked the lackadaisical attitudes of Ellington's men and preferred playing with Goodman's Sextet. He later described this period as the happiest of his life, but the music business was shocked: bandleader Raymond Scott wrote 'When Cootie Left the Duke'. Williams's multi-talented replacement was Ray Nance, who also played violin (as on 'C-jam Blues') and sang delightful novelty vocals. Late in 1941 Alvin 'Junior' Raglin replaced Blanton, who was dying.
Small groups from the band had begun to record as early as 1930, soon under the nominal leadership of Barney Bigard (and his Jazzopators), Cootie Williams (and his Rug Cutters), Rex Stewart (and his Fifty-second Street Stompers) and Johnny Hodges (and his Orchestra); Ellington was usually at the piano, though Strayhorn began playing on some tracks in 1939. Rex Stewart also recorded in Paris in 1939, with his Feetwarmers: Bigard, Billy Taylor on bass and Django Reinhardt on guitar; on later issues of these tracks the group was called Rex Stewart's Big Four. Among Stewart's Ellingtonians, which recorded in 1940, were several non-Ellingtonians, for example Billy Kyle or Jimmy Jones on piano; the records were issued in a limited edition for a private jazz record club (but reissued on Fantasy's OJC label in 1985). Cootie Williams's Gotham Stompers, which recorded in New York in 1937, included Bigard, Hodges, Taylor and Carney, with such non-Ellingtonians as Tommy Fulford on piano and Chick Webb on drums. Rex Stewart and his Big Eight and Billy Taylor and his Big Eight also recorded for Keynote in 1944, and Hodges and Carney did some particularly tasty moonlighting.
Wherever any of these people played during this era they brought a flavour of Ellingtonia with them; but the cream of the Ellington small-group sessions took place in 1940-41 for Victor. Bigard, Stewart and Hodges each recorded eight tracks, as, for example, 'Johnny Hodges and Orchestra (an Ellington Unit)'. Williams, Nance, Brown, Webster and Tizol played on various recordings; common to all were Ellington (or Strayhorn), Carney, Blanton and Greer. The men were all at the peak of their powers; they had no axes to grind, no reputations to make, no trails to blaze. They played music of a quality which cannot be surpassed, because it is unique. Bigard wrote 'Ready Eddy' for his boss, whose ' "C" Blues' soon became 'C-jam Blues'; 'Charlie the Chulo' was a perfect uptempo showcase for Bigard's enormous skill. From the Stewart session, 'Subtle Slough' later became 'Just Squeeze Me (But Don't Tease Me)', with words by Lee Gaines. Stewart growled like a fey lion on the charming 'Menelik (the Lion of Judah)' and Carney played a few bars of alto saxophone on 'My Sunday Gal'; 'Poor Bubber' was a salute to Miley, and 'Mobile Bay' to Cootie Williams. But if I had to choose, perhaps the most beautiful of all these recordings are those featuring Hodges: 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be' was that unforgettable tune's debut; 'That's the Blues, Old Man' was the first appearance of a riff that became, a decade later, the climax of the R&B classic 'Night Train'; 'Passion Flower' was an early example of the way Strayhorn's lyricism and Hodges's unique ballad style -- erotic, but always elegant, almost understated -- complemented each other. On 'Squaty Roo' (another of Hodges's nicknames) the flawless, pulsating time of the performance almost sums up (if anything could) the contribution Blanton made to all these tracks, and indeed to the whole era. In the early days Sonny Greer had been as much showman as timekeeper; he never played better than he did with Blanton.
Billboard began printing its 'Harlem Hit Parade', the first black chart, in 1942. The following were number one: 'Never No Lament' (with a new title, 'Don't Get Around Much Any More', and soon to have words); 'Concerto for Cootie', a three-minute concerto for Williams, which had become 'Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me'; 'Sentimental Lady', with 'A Slip of the Lip (Might Sink a Ship)' on the other side (a wartime novelty with a hip vocal by Nance: 'It's so bodacious / To be loquacious'); and the dramatic, driving 'Main Stem'. During the recording ban of 1943-4 earlier recordings reached the charts, including 'Going Out The Back Way', from Hodges's 1941 date.
Ivie Anderson had to stop singing with the band because of the asthma that eventually caused her early death. She was replaced by Joya Sherrill, a better than average pop singer whose Ellington tracks would make a fine album by themselves: after the ban 'I'm Beginning to See the Light' (with lyrics by Don George) was followed by 'I Didn't Know About You', the non-Ellington '(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings' (with a simple but spell-binding Strayhorn arrangement), 'Everything But You', 'Tell Ya What I'm Gonna Do' and 'Come To Baby, Do'. The Victor output up to 1946 included vocals by Ray Nance and Al Hibbler (who replaced Jeffries) and a series of remakes (for example, 'Black Beauty' and 'Caravan'). On a remake of 'It Don't Mean a Thing' Sherrill, Kay Davis and Marie Ellington (no relation) introduced the tune as a round.
There was always much beauty and joy, but the burst of creativity that had marked the early years of the decade seemed to be over. Barney Bigard, who left the band in mid-1942, said later to British journalist Max Jones: 'after the original band began to break up, Duke's orchestra was never the same. Never. Cootie Williams left, other people left, and later Tricky Sam took sick and died ... he had to get different people and change the music.' This is certainly true as far as it goes, but for the genuine Ellington fan, the band always sounded unique: if he wrote specifically for his own musicians, of course he wrote differently as the band changed. Yet it never sounded like anyone's music but his.
At his first Carnegie Hall concert early in 1943 Ellington introduced his fifty-minute composition Black, Brown and Beige: Tone Parallel to the American Negro. Excerpts were recorded by Victor; the complete concert was issued on Prestige after decades, and the piece has had several more recordings by other hands. The lovely 'Carnegie Blues' (recorded in 1945) and the beautiful hymn 'Come Sunday' were taken from it. The Carnegie Hall concert was an annual event for several years: Ellington's new works included Blutopia (1944); the twelve-minute New World a-Comin' (inspired by a Roi Ottley novel) and The Perfume Suite (both 1945). ('Dancers in Love', a delightful duet for piano and bass, was also the subject of a George Pal 'Puppetoon' semi-animated short film.) Deep South Suite (1946) comprised four parts: the first was 'Magnolias Just Dripping with Molasses' and the last the train anthem 'Happy-go-lucky Local'. The latter's big tune was the same riff heard earlier from Hodges's small group, later used without credit by Jimmy Forrest as 'Night Train'.
Ellington's musical show Beggar's Holiday in 1946 was an updating of the Beggar's Opera (in which Macheath is recast as a gangster) with lyrics by John Latouche. (Latouche also wrote the Vernon Duke show Cabin In the Sky in 1940 -- the Ellington band appeared in the film version in 1943 -- and the Douglas Moore opera Ballad of Baby Doe in 1956.) Beggar's Holiday ran for just fourteen weeks. In his exhaustive American Musical Theatre Gerald Bordman says it failed because 'Latouche's sting and Ellington's intimacy [were] lost in the cavernous auditorium of the large, inconvenient Broadway theatre'. But its producer, John Houseman, had another explanation. On arriving at the scene, he wrote many years later, he found that Latouche
had been working on several other projects during the summer. He had written a number of lyrics but only the roughest draft of our first act and almost nothing of the second. Ellington, teeming with tunes and mood pieces, still had not faced the necessity of writing a musical score ... [The producers on the spot] were not only inexperienced and inefficient -- they were desperately short of money. Finally, owing to the Duke's enormous list of future commitments, we had no leeway at all but must start rehearsals within four weeks or not at all.
Houseman and Nicholas Ray tried to put the production together during the day, and at night worked on the script. The racially mixed cast was chosen for acting ability; as a result, Broadway star Alfred Drake fell in love with a black police chief's daughter in 1947. Libby Holman and Zero Mostel were also in the cast. (The sets, by Oliver Smith, were used a few years later almost without change for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.) During rehearsals, whenever they needed a bit of music, Strayhorn would run up to Duke's apartment and fish out of a drawer, crammed with unperformed music, whatever tune seemed to fit the scene. Some were wonderful, and with Latouche's lyrics, remained for years in the repertory of Lena Horne and other well-known singers. But this did not make up for the absence of a score and a book.
Since it was constantly running out of money, the production had to pay for the sets at the last minute and have them built with thirty hours of 'golden time'. (Expensive overtime is the common lot of those putting on a show that has been inadequately prepared and financed.) The dress rehearsal could not be completed and the last twenty minutes of the opening night in New Haven (under the title Twilight Alley) had to be improvised. The show was still a mess when it got to New York; Broadway genius George Abbott was hired to replace Houseman, but it did not help, and Houseman blamed himself, for agreeing to go into rehearsal with a show that was not ready. Houseman described Ellington as 'one of the world's great spellbinders', but if Beggar's Holiday was typical of his working methods, in that it relied too much on spellbinding, this would go some way to explain his shortcomings as a composer in larger forms.
The band's immediate post-war period, when there were six trumpets, and Oscar Pettiford on bass, was one of the most poorly documented. But more and more material comes to light: a wealth of broadcasts was made in 1945-6 for the US Treasury to sell bonds; another transcription series (1946-7) includes Strayhorn's works for Hodges's sensuous alto saxophone, 'Violet Blue' and 'A Flower is a Lovesome Thing' (later entitled 'Passion'), as well as Ellington's 'Sono' (a feature for Carney) and a version of 'Happy-go-lucky Local' .
Webster, Hardwicke, Stewart and Tizol had left, and Nanton had died in 1946. There were some hard years ahead for the Ellington ensemble, though Duke was famous as the great American artist he was. Meanwhile, the rest of the Swing Era represented a highwater mark in the quality of popular music.