Jazz Column 10 ..


The Jazz Column

by Michael Ullman


  When I was sixteen, I literally ran into Duke Ellington, who is the subject of two fascinating recent books: John Hasse's Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington (Simon and Schuster); and Mark Tucker's The Duke Ellington Reader (Oxford). The Elllington orchestra was appearing at a soon-closed outdoor theater north of Boston. Few fans made it to this obscure location, so the audience was padded with friends and relatives of the band. As two of the rare paying customers, I and my friend sat in the front row, and heard the band play a long, relaxed concert in true stereo, with the ineffable sound of Johnny Hodges's alto to our left and the warm subterranean power of Harry Carney's baritone on our right. We heard solos by Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, and Ray Nance, as well as "Jeep's Blues" and other numbers by Johnny Hodges. I remember Ellington announcing Hodges brightly, even hopefully, only to receive a baleful stare in return. As the band began, Hodges shuffled to the microphone, arriving just as his solo was to began. I was holding my breath. I didn't know that this was a nightly ritual between Ellington and his star soloist.

  After the concert, we approached Hodges, who was fooling around at the piano and talking desultorily to a nine-year-old boy. We asked for his autograph. I wasn't surprised that he ignored us. We then went careening around the stage, asking every stray musician and stage hand if he knew where Ellington could be found. Following a lead, I spun around and, regrettably, rammed into the master's capacious belly. I stammered an apology, told him that I enjoyed the concert, and asked for his autograph. He gave me that, and a speech. Looking over my six-foot- five-inch friend and myself--we looked like Mutt and Jeff--he told us how honored he was that two such fine young gentlemen as ourselves had not only come to hear his band, but had been so thoughtful as to tell him about it afterwards. Perhaps because my friend was black and I much paler, Ellington went on to tell us that we were the present hope and future leaders of America. (It hasn't turned out that way.) We went away bedazzled.

  By the mid-sixties, when that concert occurred, people had been going away from the Ellington show--the music and the personae--bedazzled for four decades. He was a splendid man. His public language was a wise mixture of elegance and put-on. "Duke puts everyone on," Miles Davis once said admiringly. He seemed to let you in the joke, though, even when the joke was on yourselves. Privately, he was unfathomable. He once wrote a piece called "The Eighth Veil." People who knew him well frequently used the image of the veil to describe him: behind every veil of his personality there is another. John Hasse quotes record producer Irving Townsend, who said that Ellington organized his life in a series of concentric circles, beginning with the inner circle of his family; a middle circle of close friends such as his collaborator Billy Strayhorn; and then a wider circle of contacts that went worldwide. He kept the circles separate. But Ellington's ex-wife Edna added, "Duke..is a lonely man. He masks his emotions. Never wants you to know how he actually feels." And many of his musicians agreed.

  Not that he was reticent. Mark Tucker's anthology of Ellingtonia contains critical pieces, appreciations, reviews and reminiscences that date from 1923--his first review--to 1993. It also contains invaluable interviews with Ellington and articles by him. For a jazz musician, Ellington was a slow starter. He was twenty-eight in 1927 when he opened at the Cotton Club, and began recording his most characteristic music. But from that time until his death in 1974, he seemed to know exactly what he was doing. In 1931, at a time when naively racist reviewers were still praising his "chocolate" orchestra, Ellington in his first article stressed his need to get beyond the supposed restrictions on jazz: "I am not content with just fox-trots," he announced. He wanted a larger canvas than the thirty-two bars of a popular song and he wanted to feel free to shift tempos. Ahead of his time, he objected to the word "jazz": "What is still known as "jazz," he wrote in 1931, "is going to play a considerable part in the serious music of the future." He stressed the music's background. The history of his race, he said, ensured that azz would be serious: "The music of my race is something more than the 'American idiom.' It is the result of our transplantation to American soil, and was our reaction in the plantation days to the tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly we expressed in music, and what we know as 'jazz' is soemthing more than just dance music. ..It expresses our personality."

  "When I began my work," Ellington said in 1947, "jazz was a stunt, something different." Then he added, "For that reason, I feel that I was extremely lucky to enter the picture when I did!" To Ellington, every challenge was an opportunity. He wrote that trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton only had a handful of good notes. Ellington had to write his part, and those the other bandmembers, to bring out his strengths. He faced the challenge of making jazz serious early. One learns in Mark Tucker's anthology how receptive--and how perceptive--some early critics were to the personality of Ellington's music. (It's a myth that Ellington was first appreciated in Europe.) A 1932 piece by R.D. Darrell is rightly called here "A Landmark in Ellington Criticism." From the beginning, reviewers noted Ellington's unique musical textures and moods, his innovative arrangements, his way of extending the range of jazz.

  That goal brought him controversy in the forties when he climaxed a series of extended "tone parallels" with the Carnegie Hall debut of his "Black, Brown and Beige." Some contemporaries such as John Hammond felt that Ellington had betrayed jazz. A down beat reviewer admitted he didn't like what he heard, but in an unusually candid article, tells us how he talked himself into admiring the work. Ellington himself, though, was the best critic. He revised and shortened "Black, Brown and Beige," which began with a stolid fanfare that didn't seem to lead anywhere, and that continued with some with some exquisite, characteristic Ellington items linked awkwardly by unduly elaborate connective material. It's not surprising that he had a problem making a long, one movement symphony on his first try. His three minute masterpieces are notable for the invigorating brusqueness with which he changes keys and moods, as in "Concerto for Cootie."

  The controversy over Ellington's longer works persists today in an era when younger critics seem unwilling to disparage any music they grew up with, including late Ellington. The Tucker anthology ends with what seems to me extravagant praise by Stanley Crouch of Ben Webster's last gasp efforts, and by Gary Giddins of a Paul Gonsalves album. Reacting to those who say that the greatest period of Ellington was from 1938 to 1941, Crouch opines, with little argument to support the assertion, that Ellington "went on to deepen the clarity and conception of his craft." Crouch's golden decade was from 1957 to 1967.

  The publication of these two books should sharpen our ideas of Ellington and of his achievements. Hasse's pleasantly written biography sets out the life in accurate, perceptive terms. For the beginning fan and for the experienced as well, he ends each chapter with an intriguing review of the relevant Ellington recordings from each era. Tucker's anthology is a treasure trove of material, most valuable for the words of Ellington himself.

  At Ellington's funeral, held in New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Memorial Day, 1974, Count Basie sat in the first row, weeping. Thanks to a new 10 compact disc box, The Complete Roulette Studio Recordings of Count Basie and His Orchestra (Mosaic 10-149), I've been thinking about Basie in happier circumstances. These are recordings made between October 21, 1957 and July 26, 1962. In 1957, the Basie band, long the near-victim of the big band slump that followed the war, was on its way to recovery. (He may have been helped by the renewed interest in big band music that followed Ellington's triumphal 1956 concert at Newport.) Singer Joe Williams had joined Basie in 1954, and he already had a hit with "Every Day." In '57 Basie went to Roulette from Verve Records, and, drawing on contemporary arrangers such as Neil Hefti and bandmembers Ernie Wilkins and later Thad Jones, he initiated a new repertoire, more heavily arranged than the earlier Basie, but still lean and swinging. In two days of late October, Basie, with a band featuring the great tenor saxophonist Eddie Lockjaw Davis, recorded a group of Hefti arrangements for an album provocatively named The Atomic Mr. Basie. The cover displayed a fiery-red photograph of an atomic explosion.

  The Atomic Mr. Basie's most celebrated number is Hefti's slow-moving, walking-on- eggshells classic, "Lil Darlin.'" The album also contained a rare uptempo feature for Basie himself, "The Kid From Red Bank," the sinuous "Midnight Blue" and, featuring Lockjaw Davis, "Flight of the Foo Birds." Later sessions produced some of my favorite post-thirties Basie, including "Blues in Hoss' Flat." There's a wealth of music here: four records worth of Joe Williams, and two notable sessions arranged by the great Benny Carter that were first issued as The Legend and Kansas City Suite. (Mosaic boxes are available only through the mail: 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn. 06902.)

  The Smithsonian Institution decided to celebrate the swing era in two issues. Edited by Martin Williams and Gunther Schuller, the first, Big Band Jazz focussed on great arrangements and compositions and band performances. The newly reissued four-disc set Swing That Music! (Smithsonian RD-102) puts the attention on the great soloists and singers, ranging from Bing Crosby singing "After You've Gone" with Paul Whiteman to Dizzy Gillespie playing "I Can't Get Started." It also includes the most famous "I Can't Get Started," the magisterial performance by Bunny Berigan. Berigan is broad and romantic, singing to the stars; Gillespie is sly and suggestive. He's pulling at our coattails and winking at the same time. Expertly selected by Martin Williams, Swing That Music! is a joy. It has six classic cuts by Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins's "Nagasaki" and Chu Berry's wonderfully full-bodied "A Ghost of a Chance." Ellington is represented by a host of vocals and by Johnny Hodges playing "Passion Flower" and Cootie Williams growling in "Echoes of Harlem." Sarah Vaughan sings "Lover Man" and "Mean To Me" in her early, unaffected style--she's accompanied by Dizzy Gillespie. There's Hot Lips Page, Jimmy Rushing, Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes and, later on, Stan Getz's famous "Early Autumn" solo with Woody Herman, and Bill Harris on "Everywhere."

  True romantics, and music historians, will want to hear a complementary Smithsonian collection, the two-disc We'll Meet Again: The Love Songs of World War II (Smithsonian RD 100). Although it includes Artie Shaw's "Moonglow," Stephane Grappelli's "Star Eyes," and Ellington's "Flamingo," this is not exactly a jazz anthology. It's a collection of famous songs done in the versions most popular during the war years, whether by Xavier Cugat ("Time Was"), The Ink Spots ("Someone's Rocking My Dream Boat") or Frankie Carle ("A Little on the Lonely Side"). Interestingly, there is nothing here by that other Frankie, but there are two numbers by the wonderful Connie Boswell, and Peggy Lee's "We'll Meet Again."

  Stephane Grappelli recorded "Star Eyes" in 1943. Fifty years later this astonishing jazz violinist stepped onto the stage of Carnegie Hall for his eighty-fifth birthday concert with two trios, one featuring guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and bassist bassist Jon Burr, and the other, the Rosenberg Trio, guests that Grappellie met in Montreal. (They come from Amsterdam.) The disc that captures what happened is aptly entitled 85 and still Swinging (Angel CDC 54918 2 1). Grappelli steals the show of course. He plays an uptempo "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" and "Sweet Georgia Brown," and swings through "Them There Eyes." His energy seems boundless; his rhythmic drive unparalleled. He dances through melodies and effortlessly elaborates them with bold slides upwards, heavy accents and breathless scales. Mostly he bounces along blithely. Those who want to hear Grappelli in earlier (much earlier!) versions of "Limehouse Blues" and "I Got Rhytm" and nineteen others songs should get Stephane Grappelly, 1935-40 (Classics 708), one of a series featuring the violinist. I can't wait to hear his 90th birthday concert.

  Responding to tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson's recent successes on Verve Records--his discs have been the number one jazz records of the last two years--Blue Note has compiled a four disc anthology, Joe Henderson: The Blue Note Years (CDP 89287 2). The years in question are mostly the sixties, when Joe Henderson was recording his own Blue Note albums and sitting in with an astonishing variety of other Blue Note artists. It was a great period for Blue Note, which was making hard bop, soul and avant-garde (and near avant-garde) albums by Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson and a host of others. Part of a cadre of young, adventurous players, Henderson seemed to play with them all. Rather than merely put together Henderson's own albums, Blue Note decided to sample Henderson's recordings with other leaders as well. The result is an anthology of great sixties jazz, soloists such as Eric Dolphy, Blue Mitchell and Lee Morgan powered by some of the most crackling, exciting rhythm sections in modern jazz. We hear the young drummer Tony Williams on Kenny Dorham's "Sao Paolo" and elsewhere, Elvin Jones on "El Barrio," and Roy Haynes and Billy Higgins with bassists such as Richard Davis and Ron Carter. I was impressed once more with the beautiful of lyricism of trumpeter Blue Mitchell playing "Sweet and Lovely," with the genial soulfulness of Horace Silver on "The Kicker" and with the adventurousness of organist Larry Young. Henderson shines throughout.

  I've been listening to two new, exciting Latin jazz discs. Alto saxophonist (and clarinetist) Paquito D'Rivera, once the most exciting soloist in the Cuban band Irakere, in February, 1993 assembled his favorite Latin musicians to make Forty Years of Cuban Jam Session (Messidor 15826-2). The idea was to have these musicians play the range of Cuban jazz. What a range there is! We have the plaintive folksy vocals of Carlos Gomez singing songs written around 1950 b Jose Mendez, the thumping big band music found on "Despojo," which opens with three drummers on bata drums, used in Yoruba religious music. "Tres Tristes Tigres" features three bassists, and "Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado" features tenor saxophonist Jose Silva in a lazy, Lester Young mode. The disc opens with an elaborate joke, a piece called "Descarga Para Banda y Combo (Jamming for Marching Band and Combo), which contains a parody of military music that moves into hot jazz. It was evidently written by a friend to mock D'Rivera when he was drafted. Fanfare readers who remember Figaro's "Non piu andrai" will get the picture.

  Irakere, the band D'Rivera left when he defected, has become the vehicle for its pianist, Chucho Valdes, and for his compositions, as we can hear in Irakere Live at Ronnie Scott's (World Pacific CDP 80598 2). It begins with a popping, nervous, jazzy introduction to a piece entitled "Neurosis." The neurosis fades as the piece turns out to swing gently. There's of course a ripping rhythm section here, but I was pleased to hear the tender saxophone solo on "Cuano Canta el Corazon." Irakere is always exciting: it's not always this charming.

  Finally, a group of new discs led by pianists. Encore at the Blue Note (Telarc Jazz CD-83356) is the last of a series of discs recorded live in 1990 by Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Bobby Durham. Two of its predecessors won Grammies. All have been beautifully recorded by Telarc. Encore has this famous group playing "Here's That Rainy Day," among others. It's an intriguing performance: Peterson begins softly, and we can virtually see him heat up. It's a joy to hear Ray Brown's bass this well recorded.

  Brown is also on Filipino pianist Bobby Enriquez's wonderful The Wildman Returns (Evidence ECD 22059-2), which begins with a soulful rendition of the "Pink Panther Theme." I wouldn't have thought such a thing possible. Enriquez is a hard-driving pianist with a sense of humor and impeccable rhythm. His repertoire is inviting: he updates Gerry Mulligan's "Walking Shoes," letting Ray Brown do the walking and turning Mulligan's cool jazz piece into something that steams. Then he goes back and plays "I'm Confessin'," which Louis Armstrong popularized.

  The repertoire of the veteran pianist Marian McPartland has always been a revelation. Few musicians have been as consistently curious and adventurous, to say nothing of creative, as McPartland, whose In My Life (Concord Jazz CCD-4561) finds her playing Coltrane's obscure "Red Planet," Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin'" John Lennon's "In My Life," and a piece that Frankie Trumbauer recorded with Bix Beiderbecke in 1927. I like the way she stretches out on "Gone With the Wind."

  Younger musicians tend to match the eclecticism of their repertoire with stylistic flexibility. That's what I hear in keyboardist John Medeski's second album with bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin (It's a Jungle in Here, Gramavision R2 79495). It begins with the eerie "Beeah," which finds the rhythm section throwing out a rocking beat while Medeski holds a pedal note on organ and plays vaguely threatening phrases with his right hand--fanfares, throbbing chords, dangling patterns. Everything lightens up in the bridge, with its Latin beat. Later, the trio plays an Afro-pop version of King Sunny Ade's "Moti Mo." Their music changes character from piece to piece, but it is always absorbing.

  Michele Rosewoman is a pianist with roots in the seventy's avant-garde. Her new disc is Harvest (Enja 7069-2) Her writing has grown since I first heard her: Harvest is a quintet date. She's a sometimes dazzling pianist, whose fleet, agile phrases make perfect sense. She plays her own material and Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count." Those of us who have read John Hasse's Ellington book carefully have just learned that this exquisite ballad was not precisely written by Strayhorn on his death bed, as was previously thought. While hospitalized, Strayhorn took up a piece that he had written much earlier and revised it, and sent it on to Ellington as "Blood Count." It was played at Carnegie Hall, and Strayhorn did, indeed, die soon afterwards. The title, however appropriate, was an afterthought.

Michael Ullman

(This article has been published in Fanfare Magazine
It is reproduced by permission of the author 2006-10-08.)