Jazz Column 41


The Jazz Column

by Michael Ullman


  In his short poem Revelation, Robert Frost says of poets, and of men in general: "We make ourselves a place apart/ Behind light words that tease and flout." Then he adds: "But oh, the agitated heart/ Till someone really find us out." The poem always reminds me of that other master of disguise and self-revelation, and of the place apart: Duke Ellington. It's been a hundred years since Ellington was born on April 29, 1999. As I write he is being celebrated in concerts, on disc, in print, and, most importantly, with a series of reissues, including the extraordinary 24 disc set The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973) (RCA 09026-63386-2) and a more haphazard sequence by Columbia. Still I wonder if anyone has really found him out. He might not be happy if we did. "Duke definitely wasn't direct," his beloved sister Ruth said. "He wasn't direct with anybody about anything." All his friends agree on this, his purposeful indirection: "He can speak in an oblique way," pianist Jimmy Jones said, "It's never quite direct, you know."

  Ellington virtually gloried in his verbal evasiveness. He developed his own ornate, even inflated language and public mask with which he confronted and evaded his public. At moments he seemed to let down his guard, if only to show his own admiration for his way of handling the world at large. For good reason, he was wary of the media. When he first landed in England in 1933, he was immediately dragged to a press conference. The first question was "What is hot?" Seven years later, he still remembered how he responded: "I told him something about a tree, a long drawn out thing. It was too early in my trip to give him anything definite." Hot was, evidently, the blossom at the top of the tree. The Daily Express editor was so impressed that he suggested that Ellington should be sent to the House of Commons.

  Of course Ellington never got around to answering the question, or many others, even years later. He liked to stay above the fray. He practiced other kinds of evasiveness, and of self-protection. In one of his rare bits of general advice, he told us not to let things bug us. Being bugged was not an inevitable fact of life to him, but a psychological problem. Everyone who has read it will remember Ellington's description of his childhood in Washington. In this era of self-pitying memoirs, it is striking that Ellington describes himself as an African-American Little Lord Fauntleroy, a pampered child so adored and protect, he tells us in his exaggerated way, that his mother didn't let his feet touch the ground until he was four. He didn't like to pinned down by the press, nor, we learn in the newly published, wonderfully enlightening compendium of oral history, Stuart Nicholson's Reminiscin' in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (Northeastern University Press), from which these quotations are taken, by his family. He had a legal wife during most of his adult life, plus a woman he called his wife, and he was compulsively unfaithful to both of them. (One of the funnier segments of Reminscin' in Tempo is one in which he describes his method of seducing a woman: it's an elaborate act before a different kind of public. But it raises the question, if he didn't relax when alone with a woman, when did he?) There were (of course) complications: he never knew which "wife" he should visit at Christmas, a problem he solved in typical Ellingtonian fashion, by evasion: he arranged so that he was always performing in Chicago over the holidays. Both his women lived in New York.

  He hated to be needy, but he was often lonely. His son Mercer remembers the times when he was acting as his father's road manager: "Ellington wouldn't ever say I'm lonesome or let's talk. That would demonstrate a point of weakness. So sometimes, in the middle of the night, he'd call me up from his hotel room, start an argument and in the middle of it say, 'Well, bring your ledger down here.'" After an elaborate charade in which they pretended to be going over the books, the father would offer his son coffee and they'd talk.

  At the beginning of his career, Ellington was more down-to-earth, one of the boys. He drank hard, played cards, and hung out with his musicians. That began to change as early as the thirties when his manager Irving Mills began to sell Ellington as a cut above the rest, as an elegant sound poet, not merely the leader of another hot band. Either Mills was particularly skillful at unravelling Ellington's psychology, or Ellington became in large part the image that was being created for him and by him. Was it all a front? Cornetist Rex Stewart notes that Ellington had, since he first known him, grown "grander but more introspective." The dashing Ellington smile with which he confronted his public, became, to his son Mercer, a grimace. Stewart was more charitable, and I think more accurate, when he speculates "As he sardonically proclaims, 'I love you madly' to his admiring followers, I wonder if he has not subconsciously hypnotized himself into believing it." Perhaps Ellington himself couldn't tell the difference between the dancer and the dance.

  His famous phrase, that the best music is "beyond category," should be seen as, among other things, another example of Ellington's unwillingness to be contained, restrained, or even described. It's a sidestepping symbol of his habitual caginess. The Ellington style, his mask in the Yeatsian sense, is of course best found in his music, which is where he projected himself and where he could-safely-reveal himself, albeit in coded form. In one of his relatively rare self-satisfied statements, he said about his musical, My People, "It was well done because we included everything we wanted to say without saying it." Explaining why Ellington withheld until the last minute the complete music he had written for his first Sacred Concert from the musicians who would be performing it, Duke's son Mercer commented: "Throughout his life he was cryptic and he never let the right hand know what the left hand was doin' because he always liked the idea of showing surprise. In his words, 'The mystery of the business must always be preserved.'"

  The mystery had to be preserved and his emotions masked, and then, as Frost indicates, finally expressed. When his co-writer, friend, and protégé Billy Strayhorn died, Ellington recorded a tribute album, And His Mother Called Him Bill, which has been reissued on its own and as part of The Complete RCA Victor Recordings. It's a bittersweet triumph of an album, featuring ravishing solos by Johnny Hodges and others on suavely articulated Strayhorn pieces such as Blood Count. Ellington rarely features himself, but at the end of the session, as the band was packing up, he sat down at the piano and played a solo version of Lotus Blossom over the buoyant conversations of his employees. It's one of the most touching performances I know, as Ellington reveals his love and sorrow at a moment when he thought no one was paying attention. But he's also a professional. There was a second take, more accurate and without background noise, which the original producer wisely withheld and which the producers of the complete RCA set just as wisely have now included.

  Ellington himself would only rarely admit that there was a mystery involved in his creative life. If his long-time drummer Sonny Greer opined that "Duke always writes his dreams," Ellington himself tended to sound less lofty about the thing that mattered most to him. Ellington talks about composing for cornetist Rex Stewart, who was known for his half-valved effects. Ellington was typically precise about what he wanted to hear: Stewart's E natural. "The big problem was to employ that note. It was something to play with, to have fun with. It has nothing to do with conquering the world. You write it tonight and play it tomorrow night. That's it." But there is a lot to wonder at in the play of personality, Ellington's and those of his musicians, in the music.

  It is a cliché of Ellington criticism that he wrote for individual musicians. Much of the time he did. Later members of the band found themselves having, however, to fit into previously established roles, as Cootie Williams did when he learned to growl when he took over Bubber Miley's seat. I found it depressing in the last years to hear bop trumpeter Johnny Coles featured night after night only in a pedestrian arrangement of How High the Moon. Repetition was inevitable, given Ellington's schedule, but not always pleasing. Harry Carney went on record to say that he was happy when the band recorded Mary Poppins because it was a break from the old Ellington stuff.

  Still Ellington's bandmembers tended to adore him, as quote after quote in the Nicholson book establishes. He kept them interested by changing arrangements of even the most established tunes, such as Creole Love Call or Rockin in Rhythm. When he could afford it, Nicholson informs us, he used to rent studio time just to have his band play chords in different way. The sheer sound entranced him, and he was always looking for new combinations. Ellington was almost endlessly productive; he never let the dust settle. Perhaps that's why he was so unwilling to confront or talk about death, his own or that of others. Or perhaps it was his fear of death that made him look so restlessly forward. The most revealing comment in Stuart Nicholson's book is that of trumpeter Clark Terry: "That's the way Duke likes to live," he says. "He wants life and music to be in a state of becoming. He doesn't even like to write definitive endings to a piece."

  As its producers say, The Complete RCA Victor Recordings has many, perhaps most, of Ellington's most significant recordings from every decade from the twenties to the seventies. (Ellington died in 1974: the last recording issued here was a live recording made on December 1, 1973.) Ellington collectors will know already that when under the management of Irving Mills, Ellington avoided signing exclusive recording contracts. In the twenties and thirties, when he wasn't recording for Victor, he was usually with Brunswick or Vocalion. Often he remade the same numbers for more than one company. My favorite Mood Indigo is one now available on the three disc set, Early Ellington: The Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings of Duke Ellington, 1926-1931 (Decca GRD-3-640), which also has two takes of Black Beauty, and Ellington's extended composition, Creole Rhapsody. That collection can be supplemented by The Okeh Ellington (Columbia C2k 46177), with its 1927 East St. Louis Toodle-oo and its 1930 Mood Indigo. The biggest gap in the Victor set, chronologically and because of its musical importance, is the time between the fall of 1934 and February of 1940 when Ellington left Victor to record for Brunswick. This is a crucial period, with one delight after another, that was last rationally presented on a series of LPs by French Columbia.

  Bless the French! For years the only chronological series of these Victor recordings with alternate takes was the beautifully pressed, well-engineered lp series by French Victor. The domestic products have been catch-as-catch-can, including a botched set Duke Ellington: The Blanton- Webster Band (RCA 5659-2-RB) which contained, among other problems, a Take the A Train with the initial piano solo edited out. It was also highly filtered. Those of us who have heard the Ellington 78's on proper equipment know just how much body and presence the original recordings contained. This new generation of engineers, including Steven Lasker who was responsible for the early Ellington on The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, seems to have learned the lesson. The early Victor recordings have never sounded so good on disc. They have some surface noise, even crackling, and in some cases Lasker has yielded to temptation and boosted the bass a bit, resulting in a bloated low end sound. But the presence is back. The improvements on the later recordings are less obvious, but there is nothing unlistenable in these 24 discs.

   And the music! One can trace the Ellington band, if not from its absolute beginnings, from the period in 1927 when it was still finding itself. The first recording, If You Can't Hold the Man You Love (Don't Cry When He's Gone), despite its now unfashionable blaming of a victim, is a jaunty dixie number, a little like Junk Man. "You can't remake a man but he can be revamped," the lyrics go. If you don't keep him, it's because you don't have the right techniques. The lyrics are amusing, but the playing behind Evelyn Preer's vocal could be anybody---until we hear a short break by the growling master Bubber Miley. Next comes the two takes of Washington Wobble, a multi-strained pre-swing number that often sounds like Jelly Roll Morton and is primarily notable for Wellman Braud's plangent, swinging bass. That was recorded on October 6, 1927, and the Ellington sound, or effect, had not yet emerged. At the next session, on February 3, 1928, Ellington recorded the classics, Black and Tan Fantasy and Creole Love Call, with its sublime wordless vocal. These performances featured certain sounds, the growling brass, the subtone clarinet, airy vocals, that Ellington would keep in his palette until the end of his career. Black and Tan Fantasy demonstrates Ellington's nascent interest in sheer sounds and his exquisite anipulation of contrasts. It begins with the sinister growl of Bubber Miley and trombonist Joe (Tricky Sam) Nanton over the insistent thumping of the rhythm. After being stung by the bee, we hear a counter-theme floated by the butterfly-light alto of Otto Hardwick. It's the type of contrast that Sy Oliver would exploit, decades later, in his hit arrangement for Jimmie Lunceford, Organ Grinder's Swing.

  The Victor set contains the well-mastered early forties recordings that can simply be described as one masterpiece after another. For the first time on American discs, we finally have both takes of the stunning KoKo, an eerie, out-of-category piece that Ellington said was to have been part of an opera with an African theme. (The two KoKo's were available on the Smithsonian's now unavailable Ellington issues.) Its beginning, with its even eighth notes stated by Harry Carney's cavernous baritone, is one of the most startling in early jazz. It was as if he were announcing that Koko was no dance number. The two takes are different in minor but important ways. Towards the end of the piece, Ellington plays a wildly atonal run up and down the piano. He muddies it a bit on the first take. And the sublimely talented young bassist Jimmy Blanton is given a series of short breaks in both takes: the first time, he plays then in hat seems a random order. On the second he builds towards a climactic couple of bars.

  The joys of that period of Ellington are endless. Does music, any music, get better than the atmospheric Chelsea Bridge? Has a soloist ever been more brilliantly showcased than in Concerto for Cootie? I first heard clarinetist Barney Bigard with Louis Armstrong. He seemed a noodler, who played technically accomplished runs without much conviction. On numbers such as Charlie the Chulo, Ellington makes that very weightlessness work for him. Again and again he makes an individual's sound work in the best interests of the soloist while absorbing that sound as part of his own palette. Even as masterful a player as Johnny Hodges never sounded so good as when he was with Duke Ellington which, fortunately, was for most of his career. The only longtime Ellingtonian who managed to shine as brightly out of the fold was the sublime Ben Webster.

  The mid-forties recordings seem a short step down from these heights. They include the occasional unforgettable recording, such as I'm Beginning to See the Light, and some true curiosities, such as Tonight I Shall Sleep featuring guest Tommy Dorsey, and several four hands duets between Ellington and his famous collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. We also find the affected lyrics on the depressing Strayhorn composition Strange Feeling. To my ears, the strange feeling could be indigestion. I've never been a fan of high-note screeching: it first appears, to my knowledge, in the Ellington canon with the two takes of Coloratura. The fifties are represented solely by a concert recorded in Seattle. Then there are the three sacred concerts, and the last recordings, including the brilliant Far East Suite, And His Mother Called Him Bill, The Popular Duke Ellington, The Duke at Tanglewood, and Eastbourne Performance. There's a lot of music in these last works, whose highlights are the Far East Suite as well as And His Mother Called Him Bill.

  At least in some moods, Ellington thought his sacred concerts were the key compositions of his life. He wrote them for himself, he would say. From the thirties on, Ellington had the idea of writing in some way the history of his race. One result was the forties Black, Brown and Beige which was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1943. He may have had in mind the massive celebrations of race consciousness on stage that he saw or heard of in Washington as a youngster. Of course, Ellington was cagey about the meaning of this suite. In Nicholson's compendium, we find him explaining at one point that the colors were the result of the Negro's attitudes: when brought over as a slave, everything seemed black to him. Then with progress, his mood lightened. The inevitable direction is towards hiteness. And this from the man who wrote Black Beauty in the twenties!

  As an entertainer as well as a composer, Ellington was under tremendous pressures. He was presented as the aristocracy of his race and profession, he depended on the patronage of the white majority, and yet he suffered many, if not all, of the indignities of racism, or what he called "the skin disease." He surreptitiously supported many civil rights groups in the thirties, including those with supposed communist affiliations. As Nicholson's Reminscin' in Tempo teaches us, he was monitored by the FBI for most of his career. Of course, the FBI manages to sound downright stupid as they report that Ellington gave a concert that raised money to eliminate the poll tax, or travelled abroad and met random people. In an unintentionally comic description, the FBI calls an Ellington Carnegie Hall concert a "mass meeting."

  Ellington couldn't have been amused. The problem of presenting himself with the dignity that came natural to him, of supporting racial progress while remaining a successful entertainer, was excruciating. No wonder Ellington wanted at times to deflect attention from his racial identity and beliefs. He objected to the real mass meetings of the civil rights groups in the sixties as a waste of effort and money. And bad showmanship. After you march on Washington with a hundred thousand people, he asked, what are you going to do next? He has a point.

  His God told him, he said, to rise above hatreds, ressentiment; he had to avoid being bugged. He made his Sacred Concerts into a celebration of rising-above as well as a celebration of love in all its aspects. Don't Get Down on Your Knees to Pray Until You H ave Forgiven Everyone, he wrote. His sister notes that every night he put a pillow on the floor and got down on his knees. He may even have forgiven the guys who quit his band from time to time, although that wasn't obvious to anybody: I was at a reunion concert in Carnegie Hall in the seventies when he didn't even let Ray Nance on stage. There are things that don't work for me in these sacred concerts, including the chanted vocals with their bad rhymes, and their simplistic theology. But there's also the gorgeous Come Sunday, and Heaven, the solos by Hodges and Harry Carney at his most majestic. It's good to have all three included in this box, which also contains numerous takes and alternates that have been previously unavailable or difficult to find. I'd say that the complete Victor set is indispensable. It is also expensive. Listeners might want to wait until it is broken up, but don't miss the early forties set! Victor has celebrated the Ellington centennial nobly.

  I wish Columbia and Decca had followed suit. Columbia has several times started, and then stopped, issuing Ellington in chronological order. Most recently the company has been reissuing Ellington of the fifties and later, often with alternate takes and with new material. The producer has generally been Phil Schaap. I can't approve of all his decisions. In 1956, Ellington's band, it was generally agreed, was in trouble. Their receipts were falling, Ellington had slowed as a composer, and the critics were saying that he might be through. Then George Wein invited Ellington to the Newport Jazz Festival. To his credit, he insisted that Ellington write something new rather than present a tired medley of hits. To his credit, producer George Avakian decided to record the live session. The performance included a pleasing suite dedicated to the festival, some ballads and a long version of Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue, a two-part composition linked in this case by an astonishing, 27 chorus blues solo by tenor Paul Gonsalves that blew the place down. At least it almost did. Gonsalves played while Basie drummer Jo Jones slapped out a beat on the sidelines with an old newspaper, a high-society girl started dancing and there was a near riot. Afterwards a hyperventilating Wein tried to stop the set, but Ellington went on with some Hodges features. Distressingly, it turned out that Gonsalves was a little off mike, and the suite was badly balanced and contained mistakes.

  But something wonderful had happened. Avakian and Ellington decided to re-record the suite, which they did, passing it off as the live performance where the live performance was inadequate. Some splices were made. They issued the key item, Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue with Gonsalves a bit off mike. The resultant record became Ellington's all-time best seller. It revived Ellington's career even as it doomed Gonsalves to try to recreate its excitement for the rest of his career. The LP, which I have owned since soon after it came out, is a thriller. The suite is intriguing, Hodges sounds fine, and the closing blues lives up to its reputation despite the quite bearable problems with the sound. Now we have a two-cd set called Ellington at Newport 1956 (Complete) (Columbia C2K 64932). For years it was known that the Voice of America had also recorded the concert. The tapes were found at the Library of Congress, and, according to Avakian himself, George Avakian led Sony to them. His name is virtually dropped from the story by Schaap, who also implies that Avakian was replaced as E llington's producer because of the unpleasantness of this recording date. Avakian, who was recording Louis Armstrong at the time, and who, as Armstrong says live on one of his records, "hipped" Armstrong to the song Mack the Knife, insists he had already decided to stand aside. I have no reason to disbelieve this gentlemanly figure, who has had such a distinguished career.

  Schaap has used the two tapes, after much trouble, to create a two channel (mono-mono) sound that simulates stereo. There are disconcerting moments, which sound like dropouts, as somehow a soloist shifts from side to side. The concert has more presence than it did, but seems less solid sonically to my ears, which adapted easily to the original issue. The new discs also contain the whole concert, beginning with the national anthem and a dull speech from the estimable Father O'Connor. (As a young Bostonian, I heard many such speeches from this genuinely lovable man.) After the entire live performance we also hear the studio versions and various faked announcements that Ellington made to cover up the provenance of the studio recordings. I am usually exceedingly grateful for any new music, but I, a lifelong fan of the original recording, find much of what I hear on these new discs unpleasant. Much of the new material is there merely to "unmask" the master, and reveal the implied chicanery of the people responsible for the music, a process in which Schaap seems to take childish glee. I would rather give credit where credit is due: to the original producer, George Avakian, who created a masterful, career-saving LP, to Ellington for his wisdom in going along with the necessary remakes, and to Wein for asking for new music in the first place. On these discs we hear that music, but we are also treated to a minute of George Wein desperately trying to stop the concert in an awkward and unpleasant moment. Wein's dignity is sacrificed to some idea of ambiance. And Schaap has gone to some effort to discount the famous story of how Jo Jones helped spur the band along, eliciting sober comments from Ellingtonians that he was not the "hero" of the day. Of course he wasn't. Gonsalves was, but Jones's spirit helped, as Ellington himself said in print and in person. Of course, the original LP should have stated that some re-recording was done. Avakian may fail the truth in packaging test, as would Ellington, but his musical judgments were sound, as is his taste.

  He certainly wouldn't have included a true oddity in another Schaap-produced Columbia reissue, Black Brown and Beige (Columbia/Legacy CK 65566). This performance, restored with some wonderfully enlightening alternate tracks, such as an a cappella version of Come Sunday by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, includes as well as seven second track entitled, "Mahalia Swears." Yes, when Ellington unexpectedly asked her to sing a cappella on mike, she said, "Jesus." Why is this gem included? I can only guess that it is to undermine her credibility as a Christian. This series of reissues seems to be assembled by the kind of guy who draws moustaches on the Mona Lisa. I can imagine the sequels: Garner guffaws, Holiday hiccups, Basie burps.

  Black, Brown and Beige was originally performed in 1943 at Carnegie Hall. Ellington's composition was criticized then for its formlessness, and some of the criticisms stung. It is fashionable now to suggest that the critics didn't know what they were talking about. Perhaps, but I too find empty passages in the original production. There is nothing else in Ellington so stolidly pompous as the piece's beginning. We can see Ellington in this Columbia remake trying to soften those opening fanfares on the alternate take of Part I, and then, I assume, giving up. The suite is shortened and now centers around its most famous tune, Come Sunday, sung by Mahalia Jackson rather than played by Johnny Hodges as on the 1943 performance. (Shaap believes, incidentally, that Hodges's absence from the band was not noticed until he came along. I for one haven't heard of anyone confusing Mahalia Jackson for Johnny Hodges, but I've led a sheltered life.) Such Sweet hunder (Columbia/ Legacy CK 65568) contains twice as much music as the original issue, but somehow substitutes an inferior take of Up and Down, presumably by mistake. It's well worth getting, as is the playful The Count Meets the Duke (Columbia/Legacy CK 65561). His wonderful film track Anatomy of a Murder (Columbia/ Legacy CK 65569) is available with ten previously unissued, sometimes marvelous, tracks. Now we are waiting for the collected Ellington on Columbia, preferably in chronological order.

  In the meantime, there are dozens of Ellington tributes being issued. I'll only mention a couple of new Ellingtonian tracks listeners might other wise miss. Ellington was always taken seriously as a composer abroad, so it shouldn't be a surprise that Claude Bolling has Black, Brown and Beige and A Drum is a Woman, both of which are now available in a convenient two disc package on Milan 35877-2. Ellingtonia (Justin Time JR 6700-2) is played mostly by Canadians, including Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, and Oliver Jones. It's a fine tribute, with a range of instrumentation, solos, vocals, and the big band of Denny Christiansen. Longtime Ellington tenor saxophonist Harold Ashby has a beautifully recorded new disc, Just for You (Mapleshade 15), with versions of The Intimacy of the Blues and Sultry Serenade. I am intrigued by the concept and powerful performances of pianist/vocalist Valerie Capers on her Wagner Takes the A Train (Elysium GRK 715). She makes an attempt to combine Wagner and Strayhorn, but thankfully, only on the title cut. Elsewhere she plays Mood Indigo, and other classics with her usual vigor, inventiveness and charm. Two of my favorite musicians, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and pianist Dave McKenna unite in a trio with guitarist Joe Cohn on Do Nothing Till You Hear From Us! (Concord CCD-4851-2) DeFranco still plays ravishingly, and the trio gets together on three Ellington/Strayhorn tunes.

  Finally, I shall note the death, recent as I write, of one of Duke Ellington's greatest fans, singer Mel Tormé. In the Nicholson book, Tormé recounts with regret a tussle he had with Ellington over who should receive top billing at a joint engagement. Tormé gave in. Ellington forgave him. Towards the end of the LP period, Tormé put out an Ellington series taken from his private tapes. Tormé himself was of course one of our great popular and jazz singers. (Like Ellington, he liked to obscure the boundaries. I once heard him say that the only true jazz singer was someone who improvised all the time.) I remember listening to a typically suave George Shearing set at Carnegie Hall during a George Wein-produced festival. Shearing was singing pleasantly enough. Then Tormé snuck on stage, picked up a mike, and filled the hall effortlessly. His voice was paradoxically smooth and rough, his control masterful. I never heard him strain, but his sound was full-bodied and rich, and he had taste. One of his later recordings, The Great American Songbook (Telarc CD-83328), has six Ellington numbers, including I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. That's where his singing seem to come from; we shall miss his voice and his heart.

Michael Ullman

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