The Old Circus Train Turn-around Blues

Rehearsing in the midst of composition

La Cote d'Azur Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald

The Old Circus Train Turn-around Blues was recorded in concert at Juan les Pins on La Côte d'Azur in July 1965. Its filmed rehearsal gives a fascinating insight into Ellington's method of composing and reworking his compostions with the band.

Extracts from the rehearsal dialogue July 28, 1966 (transcribed from the CD with notes)

Procope: You've got a hold over this note, what does this mean? Would this be the ending?
Ellington: That's the Circus Train. Now look, the main thing we have to do with this one is we have to put in a couple of divisions, separations.
Ellington: I want to play those eight bars, and repeat them. Now, that chord that's on the end doesn't go in there yet, just the first eight bars. The chord on the end is for when we come back to this and use it as an ending. I would have had it all written out for you, fellas, but we were short of time. I had to write this very quick this morning. Intimacy, this is a very intimate train. The train is way in the distance, you know, and it's got all those circus wagons on it. If you know any circus music, put it in there (sings melody from The Skater's Waltz) - the acrobats.
   Hodges: You want me to do something else in there?
   Ellington: Where?
   Hodges: Where you just said.
   Ellington: No, you've got the top note there.
   Hodges: No, I don't. (plays 8 bars)
   Ellington: Oh, not there
   Hodges: You mean (plays other 4 bars)? You mean right there?
   Ellington: Yeah.
   Hodges: What do you want me to do with that? Join in there?
   Ellington: Yeah.
   Ellington: I think that letter B we better make a 12 bar blues, instead of making it 8 bars, we better add another 4 bars on it.
   Hamilton: Where's this going on?
    Ellington: Letter B, as in ... brown.
    Gonsalves: And also letter F, too.
    Ellington: and letter F, add four bars to that too. Put a 4 bar rest in... in other words. Make them all 12 bars.

From this we can see the piece was probably drafted or at least roughly compiled that morning (probably before Duke retired for the night), then rehearsed and reworked before the concert planned for the evening. The copyist made changes while the group worked a couple of other charts, and they wound up the rehearsal with one complete run through. To a certain extent this was artificial, because Norman Grantz was filming the event and asked for the last run through of Circus Train as a closing sequence for his film.

I'd have to say the composition was done on the calendar day of July 28; i.e., after midnight that morning, but before the evening gig. The piece was performed twice at the Juan les Pins concerts, but never recorded otherwise, so far as I know.

The Smithsonian does not have copies of the chart (you can ask them for copies of charts in their collection). There's a bit more dialogue in the booklet - I chose just a few extracts to whet your whistle and validate my dates.

The rehearsal takes up all of disc 8 and is a hoot to listen to. I take a great deal of pleasure from the ambience of the recorded rehearsal of Old Circus Train and Blue Fuse #2. T he first thing I noticed was how comfortable I felt, having been in many rehearsals over many years. It's great to know the professionals work the same way as us amateurs.

I noticed also how nothing seemed to phase Duke - he's calling instructions, but there's an incredible amount of chatter and laughing going on - I wonder if that's band members, or just hangers-on...

-David Palmquist