Friday, July 14, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 023: Duke Ellington Orchestra: The Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943

I don’t think there was ever a better big band. I don’t think there was ever a greater version of the Ellington band. I’m pretty sure that there was never a more perfect and sublime combination of Ellington players and Ellington charts than on this wartime set. And I’m very damned sure that Ellington was one of the greatest composers in the history of American music.

There have been two different types of great bandleaders in American music, a group that includes John Philip Sousa, Bill Monroe, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buck Owens, James Brown, Prince, Frank Zappa, Count Basie, and a few others: the type of bandleader for whom players played above themselves, better than they ever had or would on their own, and the type of bandleader whose ensemble functioned as a kind of “finishing school” or post-grad education, for whom players played great and then left. Monroe, Blakey, Miles, Muddy, JB fall into the latter category: with an astonishing eye for talent, they recruited brilliant youngsters before anyone else had recognized their brilliance, paid them relatively short bread, and watched them move on; Sousa, Wolf, Owens, Zappa, Prince, Basie fall into the former category: an astonishing eye for talent, but players never played as well elsewhere as they did in those seminal bands. The result was that the smarter players stayed in those bands, sometimes for generations.

That was never more true than in the Ellington band: some of his sidemen played with him for 3 or 4 or 5 decades, and none of them (with the exception of this 1943 band, which was an exception in many other ways as well) were as successful outside the band’s orbit.

And what a staggeringly brilliant band: trumpets Rex Stewart and Ray Nance (the latter a triple threat on violin and voice as well as trumpet); an incredible and diverse ‘bone section of Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, Tricky Sam Nanton, three distinctively different players (Brown a technician, Tizol a valve trombonist, Nanton a specialist in vocalisms and the blues), and the staggering saxophone section of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Otto Hardwicke, and Chauncey Haughton, Hodges, Hardwicke, and Carney multi-decade veterans and Ben Webster a short-term powerhouse. Very few of these players ever went elsewhere, and Ellington took pains to make it pleasant for them to stay, both musically (by writing beautifully-tailored parts for each individual soloist) and financially (he overpaid them, saying “I let them have all the money, and I have all the fun”). He kept the band on the road for almost 50 years, often losing money on tours and subsidizing it with income from song copyrights, so that he would have the band as a composition workshop (“I can write something that morning and hear it that night”). Virtually no other American composer has had that kind of laboratory, and even only a few of the other leaders I cite were not really composers. The exceptions are JB, Zappa, and Prince, who also developed astonishingly brilliant, complex, and virtuosic on-stage procedures (absolutely incredible live shows from all three).

And what compositions! This January 1943 program shows the fantastic diversity of Duke’s writing: Black and Tan Fantasy, the gorgeous and sexy “jungle music” of the ‘20s; Rockin’ in Rhythm, which I’ve always heard as another in Duke’s series of fantastic portraits of trains (also including Daybreak Express from 1936); the beautiful “tribute” pieces Portrait of Bert Williams and Portrait of Bojangles, which also served as features for various soloists, as do Jack the Bear (for the young bassist Jimmy Blanton) and Boy Meets Horn (for Rex); the knotty complexity of Ko-Ko and Bakiff; and the beautiful, heartfelt, often misunderstood or derogated extended works he wrote as tributes to his people: Black, Brown, and Beige and Come Sunday (the latter featuring the greatest Ellington soloist of all, alto player Johnny Hodges).

There is no way to contain all of Duke Ellington’s genius on a single recording. I teach a 16-week intensive seminar on his music and feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s there. But if you want a sampling of his greatest band and most classic compositions, this is a great place to start.

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