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Monday, March 07, 2011

Duke Ellington, Before My Time | By Nat Hentoff -

Duke Ellington during concert break at Jahrhun...Image via WikipediaDuke Ellington, Before My Time | By Nat Hentoff -

I first had the opportunity of being mentored by Duke Ellington in the 1940s when I was part of the Boston jazz scene. In those days I had a radio show that combined music and interviews, and as a part-time reporter for Down Beat, I got to know Duke. Off the air, he once told me: "I don't want listeners to analyze my music. I want them open to it as a whole."

And I was there when he played dances, just to get as close to the bandstand as I could. One night, the band played a number entirely new to me. During one of their quick breaks I whispered to a sideman, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, "What's the name of that?"

"I don't know," he said. "He just wrote it."

Another sideman, Rex Stewart, who played trumpet and cornet and with whom I used to hang out, told me—and later mentioned in his book, "Jazz Masters of the 30s"—"He snatches ideas out of the air. . . . On the Ellington orchestra's Pullman, he'd suddenly jump as if a bee had stung him . . . and scribble madly for hours—or sometimes only for a minute."

And I learned to come early to performances. While the band would wait for some late- arriving "stars," Duke would often sit at the piano, improvising intriguing stories, sometimes simultaneously starting a new composition.

After I became New York editor of Down Beat in 1953, I talked quite often with Duke, and was instructed not only in music ("Don't listen by category, but to individuals") but also in his deep interest in the history of his people in this land, which became part of his music.

In 1957, I was very surprised and honored when the RCA Records label asked me, with Duke's approval, to select and write the notes for a compilation, later titled "In A Mellotone," of 1940-42 sides—previously unreleased on album—by what was then regarded internationally as his especially nonpareil orchestra. I felt I had been knighted.

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'Chord changes? Listen, sweetie.'

Having treasured his music of that period, I knew little of his earlier recordings on other labels until now, with the release of the invaluably illuminating "The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra" (Mosaic), produced by Scott Wenzel and Steven Lasker. The latter also wrote the deeply researched and absorbing liner notes that are of permanent value to global listeners, including jazz historians of the Ellington phenomenon.

Mosaic's overall executive director is Michael Cuscuna, who has developed jazz reissues into a high art. He and his team search unremittingly for the original masters and then contact the surviving participating musicians to ensure discographic accuracy. They also take care of all licensing requirements and payments to the musicians' estates. Anything on the Mosaic label is—in jazz parlance—"in the pocket."

As Mr. Lasker notes, when the first recordings in this set were made in February 1932, Duke was nearly 33. He had come to New York from his hometown of Washington nine years before with his five-piece combo, Duke Ellington's Washingtonians. The band continued expanding, reaching eight musicians by 1927. The Ellington impact was being felt strongly at Harlem's Cotton Club. At the same time, he was beginning to be heard nationally on the radio. (Being only 2 at the time, I missed those broadcasts.)

During the summer of 1929, the orchestra appeared in Florenz Ziegfeld's revue "Showgirl." Its performance roused that legendary producer to call the orchestra "the finest exponent of syncopated music in existence. . . . Some of the best exponents of modern music who have heard them during rehearsal almost jumped out of their seats over their extraordinary harmonies and exciting rhythms."

Now, thanks to Mosaic, I have almost jumped out of my seat because the sound engineering by Mr. Lasker and Andreas Meyer brings these Ellington orchestras swinging right into the room. As Billy Strayhorn (eventually Ellington's associate arranger) put it in Down Beat in 1952: "Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is the band. Each member of the band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I call the Ellington Effect." That characteristic sound is as present in these recordings as it would later be in the 1940s and beyond.

Long ago, Duke explained to me: "A musician's sound is his soul, his total personality. I hear that sound as I prepare to write, and that's how I am able to write." And he added, smiling, "I know their strengths and weaknesses."

He did have a preference for one section of the orchestra. "Duke loves his brass," sidemen would tell me, and throughout these recordings, you hear how gladdened his brass made him, as he would smile broadly when they drove the ensemble. Also, while his band was his instrument, he was a spurring accompanist on the piano.

With the orchestra as his instrument, this collection is an aural kaleidoscope: tone colors, rhythms and tempos of longing, romance, an exultant life force, urgent love and, of course, what he memorialized in his song, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing)."

Among the surprises is the vocalist in "St. Louis Blues" on disc one. At first I couldn't tell who it was. He certainly had lived the blues, fitted right into the band and knew how to scat sing. Then it hit me. It was a young, grooving Bing Crosby.

To younger listeners, two of Duke's vocalists during those years may be new: the vividly magnetic Ivie Anderson, and Adelaide Hall. So is a guest, the largely forgotten Ethel Waters, who moved so deeply into the lyrics that her singing had the power of autobiography. Mosaic should issue a boxed set of her career.

Relatively few sidemen left the orchestra. One who did, Ben Webster, told newcomer tenor-saxophonist Harold Ashby: "Vibe the Governor and Rab [Duke and Johnny Hodges] a little smile from me. Now you'll get your Ph.D. in music because you're with the Boss."

I asked Duke what he looked for when he was screening replacements. "He has to know how to listen," he said.

Trombonist Buster Cooper explained what this meant in my book, "American Music Is.": "I first joined the band in a recording studio. He was writing and said to me: 'Buster, I want you to take eight choruses on this tune.'

"I said, 'Fine, but where's the chord changes?' Duke said, 'Chord changes? Listen, sweetie.'"

Duke was always listening intently to the audience. "At a dance," he said to me, "when [alto saxophonist] Johnny Hodges is telling a love story in a ballad, there's sometimes a sigh from someone in the audience. That sigh becomes part of our music."

In 1966 Duke told interviewer Harvey Cohen ("Duke Ellington's America") why he often assured his audience he loved them madly: "I gets a giggle every now and then, but it's true. I love those people madly. . . . You go up there and they react and you can taste it. . . . Oh, maybe 30 years ago I used to think, 'I play for myself. I express me.' And an artist has to please himself first. But . . . when someone else happens to like what you're doing too, this brings on a state of agreement that is the closest thing there is to sex, because people do not indulge themselves together unless they agree this is the time."

The last time I heard from Duke was in April 1974. He was in the hospital for what turned out to be a fatal illness. Visitors told me that Duke, in bed, was still composing. And that April, I—as did others he knew—received a Christmas card from him.

I was startled but not surprised. He always preferred to look ahead, and in case he wouldn't be around in December, he was bringing seasons's greetings while he could. I was depressed at what I took to be "Goodbye." He died in May.

What came back to me as I looked at that card was what sideman Clark Terry told me: "Duke wants life and music to always be a state of becoming. He doesn't even like definitive song endings to a piece. He'd often ask us to come up with ideas for closings, but when we'd settled on one of them, he'd keep fooling with it. He always likes to make the end of a song sound as if it's going somewhere."

Duke Ellington is, of course, still with us. For many around the world, it's always renewing to open ourselves to his music, as it keeps us going.

Mr. Hentoff writes about jazz for the Journal.

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