A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

David Murray
David Murray, 1983                                   Michael Wilderman©2007

One Spring day in 1986, I was in an office at Warner Bros. Records in New York. I had just finished interviewing Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny on the occasion of their collaborative album, Song X. Andy Freeberg was photographing the pair, separately and together, for the Down Beat cover, and had asked that they bring their instruments to pose with. In between shots, Metheny sat on his amp, noodling random phrases and fragments on his guitar. At one point, he casually played something that sounded familiar to me. “Isn’t that ‘Dewey’s Circle’ by David Murray?” I asked. “Never heard it,” replied Metheny.

Now, the guitarist may have struck upon that particular succession of eighteen notes by coincidence, or he may have heard Murray’s tune at some point and either not remembered or realized it, and the theme—a simple but striking ascending scalar passage—stuck in the back of his mind. Or, possibly, he might have known the theme from an earlier incarnation….

A few months later I was listening to a Charlie Parker reissue on Stash when I heard a phrase that snapped me to attention. Of course I knew the tune—it was Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop,” here played by Bird and trumpeter Howard McGhee in a 1946 performance. But this time, I made a connection I had never thought of before. Sure enough, Dizzy’s initial melody, following the fanfarish introduction, was the same theme as “Dewey’s Circle” and Metheny’s noodle, phrased differently, and ending at the octave, thus cutting off the final four notes. But the body of the line was unmistakable.

Gillespie’s first recording of “Bebop” was released in 1945. Did he come up with the theme on his own? Quite likely. But it wasn’t long before the plot thickened. Relistening to a chunk of Ellingtonia while preparing a review of RCA’s Black, Brown & Beige collection, I came across Duke’s 1945 remake of “It Don’t Mean a Thing…” and pow! There, smack in the middle of Al Sears’ booting tenor saxophone solo, amid massed brass explosions, was the same theme—again, rephrased, but this time with the four-note tail heard in Murray’s version. (There’s no trace of it, by the way, in Ellington’s original 1932 recording.) Of course, knowing Murray’s penchant for Ellington’s tenor saxophonists, there’s a possibility this is where he encountered it.

But then, while I was doing research for a piece on Shorty Rogers, the theme popped up again, as a background saxophone riff behind Red Norvo’s vibes solo on the Woody Herman band’s 1946 recording “Backtalk.” (Rogers and Norvo penned the tune; Rogers was responsible for the arrangement which included the theme.) Three recordings (not counting Parker’s remake of “Bebop”) making use of the same theme within a year’s time. Had Sears heard Gillespie’s new record and spontaneously quoted the theme? Did Rogers, consciously or not, borrow from the master, Ellington, or from fellow trumpeter Diz? Could these similarities be due to sheer, unrelated, chance?

There the question might have remained, strictly a jazz footnote, but for my hearing a Folklyric compilation of calypso protest songs relating to Turbal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, a well-known local worker’s reform leader. The introduction to “Commissioner’s Report” by one Atilla the Hun (calypso singers, like reggae stars, rappers and DJs, liked to adopt colorful sobriquets), played by the Cyril Montrose String Orchestra was, note for note, our friend, the theme. Recording date: February 26, 1938.

Discovering the theme on an obscure 78 rpm calypso disc from Trinidad was a surprise, I must admit. Not that I thought this was where the melody had originated, for by now the frequency of its appearance had convinced me that it was just a case of cosmic coincidence, a common sequence of notes stumbled upon by a variety of musicians. After all, it’s an almost comically obvious pattern; unornamented, in the key of A, on piano it is merely an alternation of white keys up the scale in a two-step forward, one-step back chain, minus G: that is, A-C-B-D-C-E-D-F-E-A. But what is it about this melody that is so addictive, so capable of inspiring such distinctive musicians to set it into different tempos, phrasings, moods? Hard to say. But it did worm itself into my brain, and all this time, while checking and double-checking the different versions, running the theme in its various phrasings and instrumental tones through my mind, I could hear a vague echo of it in yet another guise, but I couldn’t quite place it. Low register brass instruments growling, a slow, swaggering tempo…

It wasn’t long before it dawned on me. The trail once again led back to Ellington. And not obscure Ellington, but his original theme song, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.” The dark, ominous initial melody, with its panther-like tread over which, in all three of its 1927 recordings (for three different labels, by the way), cornetist Bubber Miley snarled so passionately, is another version of the theme—minus a few redundant notes and, significantly, turning back down the scale just before landing on the octave. James Lincoln Collier, in his controversial 1987 book on Ellington, credits Miley with the invention of this theme, and it’s certainly possible, given Ellington’s documented tendency to rework material that emerged from band solos. But couldn’t it be that the tune’s foundation—the theme, so provocatively orchestrated—was the work of Ellington, while Miley conceived the pungent brass countermelody which he played so persuasively? Moreover, since it’s also known that Ellington, a one-time wannabe visual artist, saw note combinations on the keyboard as shapes, which he used as motives and melodies, wouldn’t this succession of white key notes be a readily apparent design for him to visualize and adopt?

Not that it matters if Ellington was the originator either. More than ever I suspect the same theme will turn up in a Bach cantata, or maybe a Turkish taksim, one of these days. But knowing more of its past uses does seem to affect the way we relate to its various transformations. For example, the big band ornamentation of David Murray’s “Dewey’s Circle” (on Live at Sweet Basil Vol. 2, Black Saint) wears its raucous New Orleans-style polyphony well, but the intimation of “jungle period” Ellington seems stronger than ever. Even more so, Murray’s 1980 octet arrangement (on Ming, also Black Saint) now sounds like an act of homage, whether intended or subconsciously implied. The frenzied, hell-bent, boppish phrasing of the theme that opens and closes the performance nods to Dizzy, while the wah-wah brass, the band riffing behind George Lewis’ trombone, and cornetist Olu Dara’s lovely Miley-esque spirit and tonal distortions, bow to the Duke. It’s not a matter of history repeating itself, or even of one artist or another borrowing from the past—especially if you agree with William Faulkner, when he wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s simply how art spreads, survives, and thrives.

Art Lange©2007


Latham Records

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