Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra                                       Courtesy of the Steven Lasker Collection

The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra arrived on Christmas Eve as news of Jack Towers’ death was circulating. Seventy years ago, Towers and his friend Dick Burris were at the right place at the right time with the right RCA microphones, cutting discs of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra’s November 1940 dance date at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota. It was one of the more consequential meetings of enthusiasm and greatness in jazz history, resulting in what are now considered to be among the greatest jazz concert recordings ever made. Towers went on to become one of the most respected experts in restoring vintage recordings like the equally fabled Dean Benedetti collection of Charlie Parker solos; but none of his many achievements rise to the level of the Fargo recordings, the audio engineering equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle.   

This 11-CD collection can be heard as Elllington’s long winding road to Fargo, a supremely circuitous route through months-long club stands and hundreds of one-nighters, if only because it concludes with four tracks by what has become known as the Blanton-Webster band. The arrival of bassist Jimmie Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster marked a new chapter in the Ellington saga; they were true innovators, if not revolutionaries on their respective instruments (Webster had occasionally played and recorded with the band since the mid ‘30s; compared to his playing at Fargo, he was still cutting his teeth on tracks like the frisky “In A Jam” from 1936). Blanton does not solo on the Valentine’s Day, 1940, session, and Webster’s satisfying turns on staples like “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady” that day only hint at what he brought to the Ellington band. By the time the Ellington orchestra hit Fargo nearly nine months after the Chicago studio session that concludes the Mosaic set, he and Blanton were collaborating on arrangements; Webster seized upon the opportunity presented by Towers and Burns to record their take on “Star Dust,” which turned out to be the night’s rarest treasure.

This new chapter was also marked by the then recent departure of trumpeter Cootie Williams, whose use of the plunger mute and development of the growls pioneered by Bubber Miley made Williams central to what Billy Strayhorn often referred to as “the Ellington Effect.”  Among the many tracks that feature Williams’ mute work, “Caravan” and “Echoes of Harlem” summarize his wide range of expressive techniques. He initially supports the exotica of “Caravan” (1937) with sinewy phrases before shifting the rhythmic feel with a wah-wah effect. A precursor of sorts to “Concerto for Cootie,” “Echoes of Harlem” (1936) features Williams using contrasting mute-enhanced timbres in the opening and closing sections, while employing a suave open-bell sound in the middle. Even when the charts limited him to a few growls as on “Diminuendo in Blue” (1937), Williams made a lasting impact.

Still, the overall stability of Ellington’s personnel during these years is nothing short of astounding, given the great sea changes occurring in jazz during the Depression. One of the more profound, permanent musical changes was the ascent of the saxophone, which brought a more urgent, visceral sense of rhythm and soul to the music; subsequently, the clarinet was soon relegated to the second tier of jazz solo instruments, a condition that lamentably persists. Concurrently, the popularity of Louis Armstrong notwithstanding, New Orleans’ influence on the music was steadily waning. Still, the clarinet was a linchpin in Ellington’s orchestrations, a principal conveyer of his distinctive sepia tones and soaring swing, a wide spectrum of duties for which the New Orleans-raised Barney Bigard was perfectly suited. On features like “Clarinet Lament” (1936), the “Mood Indigo” co-composer’s rich woody sound in the lower register, his soulful wails and his finesse in inserting cascading runs into the tight weave of Ellington’s charts made him essential to Ellington’s music in this period.

This collection covers most of Bigard’s fourteen years with Ellington, a tenure spanning the ’29 stock market crash and Pearl Harbor. Despite the eclipsing of dixieland by more urbane sensibilities, Ellington occasionally evoked it through compositional materials and stage-managed polyphony like the three-way exchanges on “In A Jam,” in which Bigard smartly bobs and weaves between Ellington and trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton. Additionally, early Ellington hits were at least a decade old in the late ‘30s and ripe for revisiting.  “The New East St. Louis Toodle-o” (1937) reflected the modernization of the Ellington band since the original “East St. Louis Toodle-o” (1926), which featured banjo and tuba, staples of dixieland bands. Steven Lasker, who co-produced the Mosaic collection and the 1994 Decca/GRP collection of early Ellington Brunswick and Vocalion sides, called the first “Toodle-o” one of “the first recordings recognizable as truly presenting the Ellington sound” in his authoritative notes for the latter. Although the ensembles are beefier and brassier, the newer version makes cartoonish use of orchestra chimes and wood blocks; Williams gamely reprises Miley’s groundbreaking performance; Nanton, who was featured in the “solo routine” of the original, is curious benched; but Bigard again maximizes the few bars allotted to him and makes the one contribution that seems to aspire to more than rehashing the past.

Retrospection is also at the root of one of Ellington’s most pivotal compositions – “Reminiscing In Tempo” (1935). Inspired by the death of his beloved mother, it is built around one of Ellington’s most lachrymose themes; spanning four 78 sides, it was Ellington’s first two-fer. The piece also exemplifies how Ellington created forward momentum through the use of contrasting orchestral palettes and key shifts. One reason “Reminiscing In Tempo” is a central item in the Ellington canon is that it crystallized the tension between Ellington’s early ‘20s moorings in parlor music, classical music and early jazz and a proto-modernism represented by the piece’s nearly thirteen-minute duration, the presence of two basses  (played by Hayes Alvis and Billy Taylor), and the absence of improvisation. Still, Ellington maintained his practice of tailoring the piece for individual voices in the band; the sweet trumpet of Arthur Whetsel in the first part and the creamy toned alto saxophone of Johnny Hodges in the second part signifying Ellington’s fondly remembered past. However, Ellington intriguingly has Bigard playing against type in the third part, the clarinetist’s formal bearing buttressing those harmonic properties of the piece that have been compared with Ravel and other early 20th Century composers. Bigard arguably delivers the piece’s most forward-leaning aspect.

The tug of the future is infrequently heard in Ellington’s music during this period; his main focus was remaining current, fashionable and, implicitly, profitable. This collection is rife with examples of Ellington dishing up gravity-free ditties like “When My Sugar Walks Down The Street (All The Little Birdies Go Tweet-Tweet-Tweet)” as late as 1938, indicators of Ellington’s absorption into the emerging masscult of swing. However, “Reminiscing In Tempo” is the first major occasion that the usually on-board-for-business Ellington confronted the suits over how his music was presented. Had he folded, the trajectory of his music may have been flattened for years, if not permanently. By prevailing, Ellington permanently extended the horizon of jazz composition: yet, it was a victory that he did not then exploit. Instead, he returned to cutting three-minute gems, of which there are many in the last years covered by this collection, including the wistful “Azure” (from two different 1937 sessions), the beaming “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” (1938) and the sublime – and innovative, by virtue of Ellington’s ad hoc hand percussion – “Pyramid” (1938; co-penned with trombonist Juan Tizol). Large-scale works take time, a luxury for the helmsman of a perpetual motion machine like the Ellington orchestra. After all, Ellington had a payroll to meet. What else would propel him to Fargo and Jack Towers and Dick Burns?

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