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Duke Ellington: Symphony of the Body and Soul

But more than anything else, the music of Duke Ellington, taken together it was beginning to sound like a triumphant passacaglia... in continually evolving, emerging ode to joy.
A study in sepia

It was the package that arrived, which prompted me to open an album of memories in the first place. Looking at the photograph, I recall some—not all—of the many details of the evening it was taken. The boy in the photograph is I, and I am in a black mood. Suddenly my memory stirs vigorously, and it is then that I to go back to a dusky evening in 1963. My father who is on my left has his hand on my head and is ruffling my hair. On my right is my father's brother, Rui. I call him "Padrinho," using the Portuguese salutation for Godfather, as a sign of deep respect. Tiu Rui is a world-renowned ballroom dancer who had brought a few stars from his school of dance on a tour of South East Asia. So here we are, seemingly trapped in this photograph... It is evidence that we just happen to be in Bombay, India when the Duke Ellington Orchestra is on a US Government-sponsored tour of that country as well.

Now the memory is aglow in a shade of burnished yellow. And the sepia photograph comes to life again. My father stroking my hair, my uncle Rui—who had just presented an exhibition of ballroom dance in which my father and mother swept across the floor doing the pasa doble and then the rumba—has a hand on my right shoulder and behind me is Duke Ellington, who just happened to be staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel with members of his orchestra when the dance recital was on. And this was just two days after a command performance by the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the National Center.

Duke gave my father a copy of a record, Paris Blues (Warner Brothers, 1961), a vinyl with music from the soundtrack of a film—starring Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Louis Armstrong—written by Duke and Billy Strayhorn. I clutch the record like a prize that I do not want anyone taking away from me. Although the full import of being in such illustrious company was not lost on me even then, I never fully grasped the singular importance of that moment. Upon review today, I now recognize Billy Strayhorn and Duke's big baritone saxophonist, Harry Carney.

In a gushing new flood of memories, I remember that night as if it were unfolding again. I now remember wanting to stay on and listen to Billy Strayhorn play dazzling runs on the gleaming Bosendorfer Grand—that had also been played by Arthur Rubenstein—at the Grand Ballroom at the Taj Mahal Hotel. A few of my father's friends stay behind to listen. Something is going on in Strayhorn's head. Duke and my uncle are talking. A cigarette is burning softly between his fingers and there is one in my father's hands too. My father is speaking in his soft baritone. Duke laughs. Then he turns abruptly to Strayhorn and calls him "Sweetpea..."

I remember the name very well even though I was only eight years old then. I also remember that the concert was memorable and it changed my life. I am sure that this encounter was eventually one of the turning points in my yearning to become a jazz pianist one day. In fact right there and then, I still recall that no longer did I want to play like Beethoven. I have a recurring vision of a cold and wet afternoon in which I was sitting at the beautifully tuned Brasted upright piano we had at home in London, I was playing "Come Sunday" and in my vision Duke was pleased. In fact, I was his "Sweetpea" too and I felt ecstatic.

A black and tan fantasy

The Duke looks majestic in the photograph... and charming too. I remember that day very well. My mother was so taken by him and the compliments that he paid her that I was concerned that she would grow faint from holding her breath.

Of course I did not know then who they were and from whence they came, but I know now that that band, which Ellington had brought to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan was the same one that swept triumphantly through Europe at the tail end of winter 1963. Men like Cootie Williams and Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney and Sam Woodyard and Ernie Shepard... And, of course, Billy Strayhorn.

By 1963, the Duke Ellington Orchestra had long since hit its stride and was performing music that was in fact creating the Songbook for the 20th century—perhaps re-creating is a better word. Many critics were still confused and unwilling to give up their stilted ideas that Duke's music and the music of Parker and Gillespie, Mingus, Monk, Miles and Coltrane and some other musicians should have already been known then as the "classic" music of the 20th Century.

The sound that Ellington created was unique. To me it was just classical music that sounded very different compared to anything I was used to listening as part of my academic regimen. Even without the extensive string section it still captured the vast palette of tones and textures of sound. It was rhythmically inventive. And the music could be both subtle and forthright. But more than anything else, the music of Duke Ellington—even in the 1960s—was a beautiful and richly laden document of the history of a people, which had emerged through tormented struggle into an exuberant sunshine of almost spiritual proportions. It was the document of a triumphant journey—that began in with the lament of the blues and... well taken together it was beginning to sound like a triumphant passacaglia... in continually evolving, emerging ode to joy. This swirling migration into human freedom began, in many respects, more than three decades ago...

It was time, time to put away the photograph of that day back between the dark pages of the old album of childhood memories.

Now I pick up the box that I received in the mail a week or so ago. It is one I have been expecting for some time and I am thrilled that it has finally arrived. I tear open the wrapping tape and its contents are revealed. This is Duke Ellington: 1936-1940 Small Group Sessions (Mosaic, 2006).

Duke Ellington has always occupied a very special place in my memory and in my heart. He was my second and most powerful inspiration. I wanted to look like him, tap my feet like him, sound like him when he spoke. Sit at the piano and play like him. At eight years of age, I knew that I would be asking Ludwig von Beethoven to make room for Duke Ellington. Now once again, I know why.

I spin the first of seven discs. The tape hiss is pronounced, but the magic and majesty of the music is unmistakable. I hear it all very clearly—despite the early primal rhythms that folks once called jungle music—yet I detect a thick sophisticated canvas of color and texture where notes and phrases meld and drip like life-giving sap from an age-old tree in a dense forest. It is misty and the mist too is alive. I am enraptured and seduced by the intense rhythm of the bass and drum and the growl of the Rex Stewart's cornet sharing melody with the svelte glissandos of Johnny Hodges' alto... horns in strange yet beautiful harmony. Mesmerized, I travel further back in time.

Now, as Alejo Carpentier did as he undertook that mind-expanding journey in search of the source of music in the Amazon years before, I retrace The Lost Steps. No longer a "baiano" I am a Yoruba now. The immense sophistication and architecture of this old-yet-new music and the scale of the compositions appear to dwarf all else in the world—including me. I am a bedazzled interloper now and I have an epiphany.

In it I see the how the Duke hears sounds. He hears everything differently. He hears sound and sees the color of each tone individually. He puts the two together in the notes he conceives for each of his musicians: Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, Tricky Sam and the others... Each, it appears has an individual living taste, an odor and a color and tone... Duke hears this in every note they will ever play, so he begins to live these sounds too as he conceives of them and writes them, these notes ascribed to each and his instrument both of which are indelibly hewn in the rocks of ages and which inhabit a unique color and texture and vibration. This explains how each trombone has a different hue... Trumpets growl and sing and the bass swings sexily, punctuated by tickling, rattling and rolling and rim-shooting... "Indigo Echoes" are subtly expressed in each take on disc 1. They are filled with a subtle grace that comes from a distillation of everything else to leave behind only the purest of pure sounds.

This is more than merely the work of a Washingtonian—albeit one who writes in the 1930s and 40s. It is the artistry of an alchemist of sound. One who is able to bypass the filigreed sound that fluffed the dance-bands of the era and the elegant puffery of the dance hall. It is the sonic secrets revealed at the hands of a veritable druid of sound.

The proverbial grail for Ellington was the orchestra that he came to lead with magical elegance. Anyone who cared to sip from the cup of the then new sound that in the late 1930's broke the cacophony of pedestrian entertainment so to speak knew that they were imbibing something special; something that so altered the music they were used to hearing that it couldn't but change the effect on mind and heart. Such was the effect that the music of Duke Ellington's small groups that it was to establish a new sound in the classical music of the 20th Century—a new era for all music that came after this to become—the "swinging-est" music yet, written and performed.

Oddly enough that was not quite the way Duke Ellington saw it. But then Ellington always saw and heard things differently. He always heard what no one else did in the first instance. He was blessed with a peculiar characteristic: He became immersed in his musical environment with all his six senses, all at once. His response to stimuli was like a total-body experience. So he saw and heard, smelled and felt the world around him with fecund tactility, experiencing it as if with a sweeping in all its completeness of tone and texture and with a heartfelt rhythmic intensity—if such a thing is at all possible. The Duke: a remarkable visionary and connoisseur of sound. And he also experienced it from the twin polarities of the musical phenomenon: as artist-instrumentalist and as audience at the same time.

No one was more aware of this extraordinary gift that Ellington himself. He often spoke of how the music was made and how he was driven to make it. He suggested that he was a relentless artist, who was filled with the impulse to continuously create music from his extraordinary palette of vision and color and sound. He once said that he heard and saw and felt notes much like a chef could sense the dish that was to be created merely by imagining the ingredients that would go into creating it.

Again as a master chef the Duke cooked his musical fare with rare dexterity. He experienced the aroma of sound! And then he conjured up such a delicious fare that it left a memorable and potent taste on the musical palette of his audiences wherever he chose to serve these remarkable recipes for entertainment that he put together between 1936 and 1940. This is the subject of the documentation that I hold in my hands while the music plays.

Harlem circa 1923

They call themselves the Washingtonians alto saxophonist, Toby Hardwick, Arthur Whetsol, who wailed on trumpet, banjoist Elmer Snowden, guitarist William Escoffrey and, well, Bill and Felix Miller. Of course there was Edward Kennedy Ellington, The Duke, around whom everything revolved. The final ingredient in the Ellington coalesces when William "Sonny" Greer finds his way from Long Branch, New Jersey to Washington D.C. Greer dresses sharp and plays with flamboyance. He is in a pit band at The Howard Theatre. Ellington, Whetsol and Hardwick go to hear him play and they think he passes the test. In fact Sonny Greer comes with a line of jive and lays them low! Nevertheless, the real "Washingtonians" are born. Ellington is already a very busy musician. But the real Ellington sound is about to take shape.

The Washingtonians were playing svelte melodies all the way, thanks to Hardwick and Whetsol. All that changed when the band hit a lean period and Whetsol decided to return to school in the fall of 1923. Then came Bubber Miley. He used to growl all night long, playing gutbucket on his horn. Bubber Miley quickly gained a reputation as a brilliant soloist with a fine range of tonal colors and a devilish control of dynamic tension. He was the master of plunger and mute used in unison to produce a magnificent growl— a technique that became the hallmark of the Ellington "Jungle" style. He and Ellington composed the seminal chart "East St. Louis Toodle-o" (Vocalion, 1927), which heralded the new sound. Miley eventually left Ellington in 1926 three years before succumbing to tuberculosis, but not before the irrepressible, uninhibited master-showman left an indelible mark on the Ellington orchestra, one that was to characterize the band for decades to come.

In 1926 Duke Ellington's first recording for a major label was made. Irving Mills put the whole gig together and it was as a result of his hearing an unusually fine performance of "St. Louis Blues". This was the record that featured "East St. Louis Toodle-o" and "Birmingham Breakdown" and set the stage for the first great Ellington band—the Kentucky Club Orchestra—including the great growling horn meister, Bubber Miley, who also shared compositional honors with Duke as well as Toby Hardwick on saxophones, Joe Nanton on trombone, Prince Robinson on clarinet Fred Guy on guitar and banjo, Mack Shaw on tuba and of course, the magnificent Sonny Greer on drums. This was, said the Duke, the end of "sweet music," with Bubber "growling all night."

This was the much vaunted "jungle music"—raw, gut wrenching and beautiful beyond. It cut to the chase... boogie, no baloney! It was also the shape of things to come, the precursor to everything that Ellington did. It shaped the poetics of his music... and the dynamic of his sound. The Duke that great chef the concocter of all sound was now hearing the new sound... he was creating the sound that launched him into the world, and the world was never the same after that... never the same because of him.

The analogy of the chef is not an invention of mine. Duke Ellington saw himself as that kind of artist. A druid, a medieval apothecary, a possessor of the key to locking the many ingredients of the sound of surprise... and also the possessor of the key to the magical ingredient that would ultimately fire up the final dish, the song complete! What made him so special was that he was acutely aware of the fact that he had access to the innumerable riches and a veritable Garden of Eden of possibilities when it came to cooking his magic musical potion. And he could make the same ingredient work in different ways, depending on the potion he wished to create that day.

The Making of a Band...and the music

This raw and gutbucket sound, this primal vision of the soul... It all began with Bubber Miley who growled so hard you could forget the "sweet" music of the day and bring the blues to life!

Then Cootie Williams—another celebrated growler—followed and also Stewart, who would growl too, but could also purr and so could also be creamy... then Rex Stewart, who could also be sweet on any given day... in fact that's what he was chosen to be—but he could also add that extra hot "spice," although he could be just as sweet-talking and suave, as was Sonny Greer as well.

When big Harry Carney brought his fat and surround sound baritone saxophone and clarinet to Duke's place... that was like a renaissance discovery Carney played off the sharp wail of the brass... And then the Rabbit jumped in and it was like a circle closing in.

Johnny Hodges... featured alto and master the art of glissando and legato. Music came from him like arias from another world. His was a svelte voice that carved the sultry ballads that Duke loved to write... seemingly just for him or to conjure Bechet perhaps...

And then Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton growling again, gut-bucket- sliding on the trombone... Tricky had to be there... no one told the story of the blues like the born griot, "Tricky Sam."

There were others at the start of the new history... all were culled from a group of—first twelve and then—fourteen musicians who became the mainstay of the Ellington Orchestra that roared its way into the world of jazz music via such legendary venues as The Cotton Club.

The trombones of Juan Tizol and Lawrence Brown joined Nanton in building a section that talked gutbucket and sang with sliding gracefulness... Lest we forget, Barney Bigard also came, to add not just the sound of his woody clarinet, but also to set pulses racing with dazzling glisses! And then there was the ubiquitous Irving Mills, who signed on a Duke's manager to make him, by the 30s, perhaps the most recognizable musician of America, anywhere in the world. Billy Strayhorn, the doppelganger, the alter ego and virtual shadow for the master came some years later, in 1938, almost as if to help put finishing touches one of the most celebrated relationships in the music of the 20th Century.

But it was two other relationships that also ensured that the Duke's music would soar towards the middle of the last century—under the management of Irving Mills. In fact—for these recordings at least—it was Mills and Helen Oakley who were responsible for bringing Ellington to the studio during this time, to pull sections of the band into the studio for these classic Variety, Vocalion and Okeh small group sets. It was to be a few years after the glorious tour of Europe that many of these fine recordings were made. Mills appointed as producer, the Toronto-born, Helen Oakley to record almost all of the small groups that Ellington would write for in his inimitable style of making the instruments of the band speak like soothsayers and griots, of the height of segregation and bigotry, despite Ellington being one of the most recognizable names in American music.

Duke had a sixth sense about the art of music...always. He planned it all. And from 1936 to 1040, helmed by Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams and Duke the himself, the small units made some of the finest Ellington music... and some of the most enduring relationships too. Not only were the "Indigo Echoes" portents of things to come, so was "Caravan," "Blue Reverie," and "Lament for a Lost Love" (all from 1935 to 1937). The there was the "Jeep's Blues," and the legendary sliding Hodges solo on "Prelude to a Kiss," a vocal version with Mary McHugh. And even if you were not paying attention, you caught your breath when Cootie Williams' and His Rug Cutters broke the first notes of "Lost In Meditation" and "Echoes of Harlem".

And, of course this was the time of two of the most important musical relationships that Duke ever had throughout his career. First was the addition of Jimmy Blanton on bass—replacing Braud and Taylor. Duke first heard Blanton with Fate Marable and sat in later. He proceeded to try and trick Blanton into faltering as he rang in the changes. But Blanton was always in step, following the Duke as if he had anticipated what was coming next. Naturally, Duke decided that Blanton was his after this...naturally. And finally there was the introduction to Billy Strayhorn, who was to become, as Duke once said: "my right arm, my left arm... all the eye in the back of my head...my brain waves in his head and his in mine." There probably was no closer musical relationship that Ellington's and Strayhorn's... none that was so rich and indelible... So much so that there were times when one could not tell the two apart—not at the piano, nor in the music...And it all began here, with these bewitching small group recordings. I put on the first of seven CDs and amid the hiss of the tape on which they were once recorded, the eyes grow moist and the heart stops the breath as some of the most memorable music ever committed to tape begins to growl, then turn smooth... then, as some of the musical history of the 1930s and 1940s, unfolds a dance with Duke Ellington, body heart and soul begins...

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