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Duke Ellington: At The Cotton Club

Chris Mosey By

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These recordings by Duke Ellington from 1937-39 emphasize his unique place in the history of jazz.

On the eve of the Swing Era, they open with a solo piano piece. Ellington introduces it as "Swing Session" but it's actually "Soda Fountain Rag," the first piece he ever wrote, in 1913, aged 14, while working as a soda jerk in the Poodle Dog Café on Georgia Avenue in his home town, Washington D.C.

Ellington recalled: "We had a pianist in the Poodle Dog who was one of the best when he was sober, but that wasn't often. When he got to where he couldn't play any better than I could, the boss would throw him out, take my place behind the soda fountain, and have me play piano. The only way I could learn how to play a tune was to compose it myself and work it up, and the first one was 'Soda Fountain Rag.'"

Ragtime, swing, jazz—it was all just music as far as Ellington was concerned. In 1932, without realizing it, he wrote the anthem for the so-called new music that was about to take America by storm: "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing."

The numbers on this landmark double album on the Danish Storyville label were recorded from the radio by Joseph Schillinger, a composer who arrived in the U.S. from Russia in 1928 and collected music to support his musical theories. Following "Swing Session," Ellington plays a medley of two of his more famous compositions, "Solitude" and "In A Sentimental Mood."

After this Paul Douglas, compere of "Saturday Night Swing Session," announces Ellington's departure for the Cotton Club, from where all but the last three numbers of this collection would be broadcast. The original Cotton Club where Ellington made his name was in Harlem but by 1937 it had relocated downtown to Broadway and West 48th Street.

No expense was spared for Ellington's opening night. Rex Stewart, the band's cornet player, recalled: "When we appeared on stage, the audience gasped. We wore white mess jackets, boiled tuxedo shirts with wing collars and white bow-ties above crimson trousers and crimson shoes. The Duke personified elegance and contrast in his sombre midnight tails."

But there was a downside to the razzamatazz. The emphasis was on popular tunes (and some Ellington was hoping to make popular), a great many sung by Ivie Anderson, who had joined the band in 1931 as it's first full-time vocalist.

Anderson sings "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" in the style of Louis Armstrong. It sounds incongruous now but, despite her angelic stage persona, she saw herself as "one of the boys." Rex Stewart described her "bossing the poker game, cussing out Ellington and playing practical jokes."

As with Ellington's Treasury radio shows which Storyville are also releasing, these recordings are important in providing a look at the working band.

Duke was pretty shameless in exploiting Anderson, using her in a bid to launch what he hoped would be a new dance craze, the "Scrontch." Manfully, she forces the lyrics to scan: Scrontch, do a quick turn; Scrontch, let your shoes burn; Scrontch, it's the new dance that everyone—she takes a deep breath—really should learn.

Cootie Williams supplies most of the jazz interest. He leads a "jam band" featuring Ellington, Joseph "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Billy Taylor and Sonny Greer on the rollicking "Downtown Uproar" and does a great job with the full orchestra on "Echoes Of Harlem" over a "walking" piano accompaniment by the boss, who can be heard urging him on towards close of play.

The orchestra's version of "In A Sentimental Mood" is cut short, presumably due to problems with Schillinger's otherwise state-of-the-art equipment. Anderson's sensitive vocal on Juan Tizol's lovely tune "Lost in Meditation" suffers a similar fate.

Tacked on are highlights from Ellington's 40th birthday concert at the Stockholm Concert House, featuring the newly composed "Serenade to Sweden," which Duke didn't use much afterwards, although Lawrence Brown might sometimes play it in quartet and Alice Babs occasionally sang it after joining the band towards the end of Ellington's life.

The collection ends with an 80-second video clip of Lennox Avenue in Harlem and a glimpse inside the original Cotton Club. Chorus girls strut their stuff and guess who's sitting at the piano, smiling serenely?

Track Listing: CD1: Swing Session; Medley: Solitude; In A Sentimental Mood; Harmony In Harlem; If You Were In My Place; Mood Indigo; East St. Louis Toodl-Oo; Oh Babe, Maybe Someday; Dinah’s In A Jam; If Dreams Come True; Scrontch; You Went To My Head; Three Blind Mice; Solitude; Downtown Uproar; Dinah’s In A Jam; On The Sunny Side Of The Street; Ev’ry Day; Azure; Carnival In Caroline; Harmony In Harlem; At Your Beck And Call; Solitude; The Gal From Joe’s; Riding On A Blue Note; If Dreams Come True. CD2: Oh Babe, Maybe Someday; I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart; Birmingham Breakdown; Rose Room; If Dreams Come True; It’s The Dreamer In Me; Lost In Meditation; Ev’ry Day; Echoes Of Harlem; East St. Louis Toodle-Oo; Jig Walk; In A Sentimental Mood; I’m Slapping 7th Avenue; Lost In Meditation; Alabamy Home; If You Were In My Place; Prelude in C Sharp Minor; Rockin’ In Rhythm; Serenade To Sweden; Rockin’ In Rhythm; In A Red Little Cottage.

Personnel: Duke Ellington: piano; Ivie Anderson: vocals; Wallace Jones, Cootie Williams: trumpets; Rex Stewart: cornet; Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown: trombones; Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwick, Harry Carney: reeds; Freddy Guy: guitar; Billy Taylor: bass; Sonny Greer: drums.

Title: At The Cotton Club | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Storyville Records

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