Duke Ellington: Symphony of the Body and Soul

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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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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