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Duke Ellington: Symphony of the Body and Soul

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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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".


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