Duke Ellington Tames The Savage Beasts: Lions and Tigers and Bears (and Gazelles!)
I begin this edition of Old, New, Borrowed and Blue with a confession. I have an unabashed love for the music of Duke Ellington. From his brilliantly scored compositions, to the singular instrumental personalities in his band(s)with Ellington, Jimmy Hamilton and Johnny Hodges ranking at the top of my listEllington seems to transcend the "big band" tag and his music really deserves the designation of "fine art." Writers have been treating this music as such for over seventy five years, with R.D. Darrell's 1932 "Black Beauty" piece considered to be the first serious critical look at Ellington's work, and no stone has been left unturned since that time.
Pieces have been written about specific albums, individual sidemen, the legendary Fargo concert and recording, Ellington's small group work of the late '30s, "The Blanton-Webster Band," his working relationship with Billy Strayhorn, The Cotton Club, his Newport performances, his sacred music, his suites and a variety of other topics. His music has been analyzed, with students and scholars breaking down the harmonic progressions of these songs, transcribing solos and exploring song forms, and some of Ellington's note-for-note arrangements have even made their way into school jazz band programs through Jazz At Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington program. With all of this examination of Ellingtonia it seems highly unlikely that anybody has overlooked anything.
Ellington as composer is well documented and his ability to write, not only for specific instruments but also for the specific individuals in his band has been discussed ad infinitum. So, you might wonder, what hasn't been covered? Duke Ellington as zookeeper is a good place to start. This months column looks at Ellington's unintentional "Wizard of Oz Suite"referencing Lions and Tigers And Bears (Oh My!)with a bonus track thrown in for good measure.
While it can be tough to gain universal consensus from a group of critics or writers, few would argue with the assertion that "The Blanton-Webster Band" was one of the great big bands of all time, and perhaps Ellington's most indelible outfit. This band, taking its name from two key instrumentalists in the grouptenor saxophonist Ben Webster and bassist Jimmy Blantonwas a brief two year snapshot in the musical photo album of Duke Ellington's life, but it created some of the most enduring recordings in the big band canon. One such song, and the first major bass feature for Blanton, is "Jack The Bear."
When Ellington first heard Jimmy Blanton play, in St. Louis in the fall of 1939, he heard something special in the bassist and appreciated his ability to take the bass beyond a simple timekeeping role and into true soloist territory. The real "Jack The Bear," according to Mark Tucker's liner notes for Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird, 1986), "was a Harlem bass-player who, as reed-player Gavin Bushell recently recalled, had a tailor shop at the corner of St. Nicholas and Edgecombe Avenues." While that particular man has become a simple footnote in the story of this song, jazz history recognizes Blanton as the larger than life being in this piece. As the song begins, Blanton plays in between the band statements and his facility and the clarity in his playing is a wondrous thing, basically unknown in jazz until this time. After this brief episode, Ellington enters and Blanton immediately falls in line, walking with the rhythm section and backing the other soloists. To say Blanton is the only game in town on this song would be unfair, and Barney Bigard's soaring clarinet flights, Cootie Williams' exuberant trumpet cries, Harry Carney's swinging saxophone and Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton's muted trombone statements are all part of the package. The ensemble work is another key element at play here, and the band continually builds things up until Blanton takes the spotlight back for the last thirty seconds-or-so. His oddly angular line at the end of his solo was so far ahead of its time that it still sounds thoroughly modern today.
Mosaic Recordsknown for their highly comprehensive limited edition boxed sets, exhaustively researched liner notes and music vault excavationshas been a key force in preserving, uncovering, and bringing important jazz recordings into the public light, since Michael Cuscuna and Charlie Lourie first began releasing product in 1983. While these behemoth sets were the order of the day when things started, the label eventually began making "select" three-CD sets and then, thankfully, started reissuing important, neglected, long out-of-print albums as single CDs.