Part III in a series exploring the history of the Swing Era's greatest songs.
It Don't Mean A Thing
Unlike many big band leaders, Ellington was always uncomfortable with the swing music craze and had little to gain from it. For one thing, his distinctive musical imagination and complex arrangements were more appropriate for listening than jitterbugging. He was more interested in exploring a wide range of moods and emotions than the dance bandleaders, who rarely composed their own music. Finding the balance between art and popularity was a problem that plagued him during this time. It's no wonder, then, that he had an uneasy relationship with swing; "Jazz is music, he said. "Swing is business. He longed to get away from the three-minute pop song and devote his time to longer, more ambitious compositions. Although he would soon get his wish with "Black, Brown, and Beige, his best-known works, and those that are considered his masterpieces, are the shorter pieces from the thirties and forties that employed the talents of one of the greatest big bands of all time.
Ellington liked to recruit members for his band that gave him a wide tonal palette to work from. Bubber Miley was the first to develop the unique plunger mute sound that became a distinctive Ellington trademark; Tricky Sam Nanton also took the growl style and ran with it. Ellington also developed pieces built around the talents of the various players in the band; "we write to and for the band, not the instruments, he said. Quite naturally, this developed the role of the soloist in big band music. As Ellington's players grew territorial over their featured songs, he was forced to include a number of solo spots in his performances to make sure everyone got their time in the spotlight. But nothing solidified the band like the addition of the double threat of Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster.
The Blanton-Webster Band
Blanton was a bassist in the four-to-the-bar mode of Walter Page from the Basie band, but he also approached the bass as a musical instrument and not just a timekeeping device. His bass lines logically linked chords together in a way no one else had before, and he swung with steady precision. He also helped to tighten up Ellington's rhythm section. Ellington was a great band pianist, but not a rhythm player along the lines of Basie, and drummer Sonny Greer didn't propel the beat as much as go along for the ride, adding colorful accents along the way.
Ben Webster, on the other hand, was already recognized as a superior jazz player before his stint with the Ellington band. Webster was a tough talking tenor player who once challenged Joe Louis to a fight in a bar. He developed his style from Coleman Hawkins, yet eventually began to draw on the romantic sensibilities of Johnny Hodges for his inspiration. Given his demeanor, it was surprising that he made romantic ballads his specialty. Webster wasn't served well by the restrictions of the 78; he preferred to develop his solos slowly and patiently in a manner that the constraints of the three-minute song didn't allow.
He first heard Ellington through radio broadcasts and reported that "it was always my ambition to play with the Duke. Everytime I'd run across Duke I'd hit him for a job. In the mid-thirties, he was featured with Cab Calloway, but became frustrated with a lack of soloing time. He went to Chicago, where Ellington was playing, and asked for a job. Ellington hired him, and the story made front page news in Down Beat.
With edition of Blanton and Webster, Ellington now had a solid crew that could outplay virtually any band around and starting in the forties, the Ellington band peeled off one great recording after another. In one magical session on May 4, 1940, Ellington cut two classics: "Never No Lament and "Cotton Tail. "Never No Lament eventually evolved into "Don't Get Around Much Anymore, one of Ellington's best-known songs. But "Cotton Tail was the real artistic triumph that would point to the direction jazz would take in the future.
Breaking the Law
Ellington had already developed a penchant for breaking rules; in several songs he flaunts convention, almost to see if he can find a way to attempt musical puzzles that were previously thought to be unsolvable. The use of the flatted sixth, for instance, became an Ellington trademark that would have sounded hideous in the wrong hands.
"Cotton Tail begins defiantly from the start; Ellington leaps right into the tune with no introduction and leads his band through a jagged head with a nebulous tonal center based on the popular changes to "I Got Rhythm. It therefore follows the thirty-two bar form of the popular song, at least to start off. But after a run-through of the main theme, Ellington introduces an entirely different four-bar theme, just when the listener expects a repeat of the first. Then Ben Webster comes in.
"Cotton Tail features one of Webster's best solos, and also one of the greatest ever recorded. Gunther Schuller writes that Webster's solo "finds a remarkable balance between a whole world of musical ideas: swinging eight-note phrases interspersed with long and expressive held notes, some of these embellished with passionate vibratos and shakes, tonal colorations ranging from soft hues to hot and raspy timbres, all a rich mixture of the predictable and unpredictable. To the listener, it comes across as a solo of remarkable logic and craft, deviating from the established changes, yet melodically making sense. It has become a cliché to say that a solo tells a story, but Webster achieves just that: a commanding introduction, the development of key phrases, the build to a climax, all of which has a distinct narrative quality to it. Surprisingly, it was nailed in one take.
After a brief stride piano solo by Ellington, the remainder of the tune features the high-powered riffing that Ellington's band excelled at; as Mark Tucker says, "the orchestra could roar ahead like an express train and stop on a dime. Powered by Blanton and Greer, the band builds in intensity to a dissonant climax, yet with an extraordinary control of dynamics, before a recapitulation of the main theme.
"Cotton Tail was, at the time, a startlingly modern composition, an example of modern jazz before there was ever such a term. The beboppers of the forties in particular were influenced heavily by the record's angular melody, tricky structure, and advanced harmonic theory. "Cotton Tail emphasizes ninths and flatted fifths, two notes that in the future would be important to the development of the bebop vocabulary and fit in with the maverick rule-breaking of established musical ideas that Parker and Gillespie would make their specialty.
But perhaps more importantly, "Cotton Tail represented a new approach to composition that included improvisation as a key element. Ellington developed his melodies not just as songs; he also carved out room to showcase his band members. "Cotton Tail is as much of a blowing tune as he ever wrote, and an up-tempo number clearly not intended for dancing. It helped shape a new role for jazz that was beginning to emerge during the Swing Era: jazz didn't have to be music for jazz dancing, it could exist for its own sake. Soon jazz would alter drastically, becoming more complex and artful, and its function would depend on a listening audience that was willing to go along for the ride. While "Cotton Tail was merely a blip on the radar for Swing music fans, plenty of musicians absorbed what it had to offer. Leave it to Ellington to be ahead of the pack.
Collier, James Lincoln. Duke Ellington. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Hasse, John Edward. Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.