These articles by Stan Slome were first printed in the two issues of DESUK's Blue Light Volumes 4 - 1 and 4 - 2 in March and June 1997, and are re-printed here at the request of Mr. Slome.
STANLEY SLOME, former secretary of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Duke Ellington Society, attempts to unravel the tangle of contradictions, factual errors and unanswered questions which mar the historical record of Ellington's classical connections. Many of them centre on one work: A Tone Parallel To Harlem, more familiarly known as The Harlem Suite or just Harlem.
(This is the first part of his essay, which will be continued in our next issue with his appraisals of various performances of Ellington's "symphonic" works now available on CD.)
Why all this concern about Harlem? I need to answer that before dealing with the so-called unresolved mystery about it. Harlem is one of what Duke Ellington called his 'larger forms'. In recent years, justifiably or not, it has come to show an increasing symphonic presence owing to recordings and/or the advocacy of a conductor with a strong American music agenda. There are at least six CDs that include it.
Historically in Duke's output, Harlem holds a strange position. It was his first major extended work originally intended for performance by a symphony orchestra, but somehow it didn't make it to the concert hall - at first. Around that revolves the mystery which begins with Music is My Mistress (1973) where Duke says that, returning from Europe on the Ile de France in summer 1950, he wrote Harlem. He said it had been commissioned by the NBC Symphony Orchestra 'during the time when Maestro Arturo Toscanini was its conductor'.
Impressive. Toscanini was arguably the greatest conductor of his time, and not particularly noted as a conductor of American music. So when did Toscanini conduct Harlem and how was it received? Duke is silent. As it turned out, Toscanini never did conduct the work. Later on in MIMM Duke says that in 1955 Don Gillis, 'the eminent composer and conductor', commissioned him to 'write a piece to be played by the Symphony Of The Air in concert with our band. Night Creature was the outcome. ' Duke goes on to say that the Symphony Of The Air performed it, as well as other symphony orchestras. The date was Wednesday, 16 March 1955; the place Carnegie Hall. Don Gillis, it so happens was Toscanini's assistant conductor until the Maestro's retirement in 1954 and the Symphony Of The Air was the old NBC Symphony trying to survive after it was officially abandoned by RCA's General David Sarnoff.
Interestingly, in that 1955 programme at Carnegie Hall - Excursions in Jazz - before what Variety Magazine described as a 'cool b.o.', Harlem made its first recorded orchestra appearance. Luther Henderson told me that he was responsible for the orchestration. Duke placed it at the end of the programme. The Variety reviewer said Harlem: 'has some interesting jazz moods and once again his band led the way for a solid score'.
Klaus Stratemann's Duke Ellington Day By Day And Film By Film (1992) lists the date of Harlem's symphonic debut as 20 June 1951 at the Lewisohn Stadium (p.327). More information has come from Professor Donald C. Meyer of Lake Forest College's Department of Music. (Prof. Meyer is writing a history of the NBC Symphony. I was given his name as a contact by Harvey Sachs, considered by many as the most authoritative biographer of Arturo Toscanini.)
Prof. Meyer has unearthed a New York Times review of 21 June 1951. It strongly indicates that Duke himself conducted members of the NBC Symphony. It also accounts for Duke's enigmatic introduction to the band version of Harlem on the CD of the 25 March 1952 Seattle concert where he tells the audience that he had previously performed the work with the NBC Symphony. Not only that: opened up is the faint possibility that Duke himself may have orchestrated Harlem although as we shall see later Luther Henderson, who did symphonic orchestrations for Duke in 1949 and for the 1955 Harlem and later orchestral versions, doubts it. Somehow Ellington biographers have missed that New York Times review. We are grateful to Prof. Meyer for supplying it. Written by 'C.H.' it carried the headline Ellington Group In Benefit Concert:
"Duke Ellington, one of the most famous men of jazz, joined his orchestra with seventy-odd members of the NBC Symphony last night for the benefit of the Damon Runyon Memorial Fund for Cancer Research. It was the first concert of the season to take place in City College's Lewisohn Stadium.
'Mayor Impellitteri, boxer Joe Louis, President Harry Wright of the college and Walter Winchell, treasurer of the fund, appeared as the event began.
'The first half was performed by the Ellington aggregation, and as soon as it started flash bulbs began to go off and photographers crept about the stage. The bandleader, suave and debonair as ever in a white suit, announced the program of familiar compositions: Fancy Dan , Frustration, Selfish Serenade, (recte Serious Serenade? - Ed)Take The 'A' Train, and the humorous , Monologue, , Duet, and Threesome.
"During the intermission the stage was reset and the symphony men assembled. Cameramen grew more numerous. Mr. Ellington announced his own composition New World A-Comin' and gave a forceful downbeat.
"If the bandleader had been a younger man it would have been like in the movies where the composer finally hits the big time and plays his own concerto with the symphony. It was that kind of music too - orchestral interludes paired with piano interludes.
"Harlem, the second Ellington composition, was commissioned by the NBC Symphony. It was a more serious work, and showed (as it did when played by the jazz ensemble last winter in the Metropolitan Opera House) the composer's talent for melodic creation of atmospheric effects and enormous volumes of sound. It had its rhythmic moments that made even some of the symphony men tap their feet.
"The only distraction came when a flash bulb exploded and fell on the balding head of a string-bass player. When this reporter left the cameramen were being cleared off the stage."
In his letter to me Prof. Meyer comments: 'From this we can infer that Ellington was meant to conduct Harlem and that it was played without the NBC Symphony earlier in the year'.
Conductor Maurice Peress, once an assistant to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic and one of Duke's orchestrators, had apparently been curious about Harlem's origins. In his liner notes for the 1989 Musicmasters CD Four Symphonic Works By Duke Ellington”, he cited the White House logbook of President Harry S Truman. The entry for Friday 29 September 1950 reads:
'12.30pm. Mr Duke Ellington (Mr Ellington personally gave to the President the original manuscript of his contribution towards the new musical suite commissioned by Toscanini, Portrait Of New York Suite. Arranged by Mr Niles at the request of Mr Ellington.'
The Mr Niles was David Niles, President Truman's specialist in minority affairs. Whether Duke in a bit of self-puffery told Niles that Toscanini had commissioned the work or Niles had misunderstood Duke, we do not know. But that log entry was taken at face value by Beyond Category Ellington biographer John Hasse.
I wrote to Hasse about his use of that entry, seeking corroboration of Toscanini's 'commissioning' of Harlem. Hasse has yet to reply. Writing to me from Italy Harvey Sachs, Toscanini's foremost biographer, said he had no information of any connection between Toscanini and Ellington. Ellington authority Stanley Dance, dismissing Hasse's book as 'largely rehashing previous work', charitably regards Hasse's Toscanini reference as just being 'carelessly worded'. But Hasse ignored MIMM. Continuing his liner notes Maurice Peress, referring to the Truman logbook entry, wrote somewhat sceptically 'If this description is accurate Harlem was to be part of a group commission by the celebrated conductor, who was not known as a champion of American music'. Noting that Ellington described the work as a concerto grosso for jazz band and symphony orchestra, Peress surmised that this was Duke's way to get his orchestra into the centre of Toscanini's NBC Symphony. This would assure that the music would be interpreted in a true jazz style, but it does not fulfill the traditional idea of a concerto grosso wherein the group - the Duke Ellington Orchestra - is pitted against the symphony orchestra. For whatever reason the work was not performed by the NBC Symphony - not exactly.
Peress regrettably proceeds to wander into two factual errors that make good reading but inadequate history. He writes that Duke recorded Harlem with the band alone in 1954(date-conscious record collectors know the year was 1951.) Peress states that a year later, after Toscanini had died, Don Gillis conducted the work in Carnegie Hall with the Symphony Of The Air, formed by members of the NBC Symphony. I hope that Peress did not intend to imply that Gillis waited until after Toscanini had died before taking up the cause of Harlem. As a matter of fact, as I said earlier, Toscanini retired in 1954. He died in 1957, not 1955, and so was still alive when Gillis conducted Harlem? Toscanini, whatever his opinion of Harlem in 1950 that caused him not to perform it, in 1955 of course had no control over what his former NBC men wanted to do. There is no record revealed as to how he felt about his men performing Harlem in June 1951. He probably could not have cared less. A hip injury had reduced his broadcast concert schedule to four, ending on 17 February. After all, he was 84 years old.
Now Peress says his Musicmasters recording is of a 'newly edited and reworked orchestration that follows the original exactly with the exception that the two, mostly redundant, brass sections are integrated into one.' But what 'original' is Peress writing about? Even if we disregard the Truman logbook entry about an 'original manuscript' presented to the president, there is Duke in MIMM (p.432) describing his meeting with Truman.
'I went to see President Truman, he dismissed his bodyguard, closed the door of his private study and invited me to sit down and talk as one piano player to another. He said he was honoured to be presented with the original (my italics) score of Harlem .'
In correspondence with Peress I was startled to learn that 'Duke did not do his own symphonic orchestrations. At different times and places Luther, Ron Collier, Joe Benjamin and myself were called upon'.
The 'original' he was referring to was the 1955 Gillis-Symphony Of The Air one, the only one, done by Luther Henderson with two brass sections. Thanks to Stratemann and Prof. Meyer's unearthing of the New York Times review of the 21 June 1951 concert, we now know that there was for certain an orchestration out there preceding what Peress thought was the 'original'. Unlike members of Duke's orchestra who could operate from the barest of sketches, the members of the NBC Symphony had to have had a score to work from. But who did the orchestration? Another unsolved mystery.
Yet there is the faint possibility that Duke may have orchestrated the first Harlem back in 1950, albeit perhaps unsuccessfully from the standpoint of the NBC Symphony establishment. I had a phone conversation with Luther Henderson. Yes, he had done the 1955 orchestration of Harlem. He had also done the orchestrations for the first two Ellington symphonic works in 1949 with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra under Russ Case. But he had nothing to do with the 1950 Harlem. He doubts whether the score presented to President Truman showed any symphonic orchestration; he rules out the possibility that Billy Strayhorn may have had a hand in Harlem.
Mercer Ellington's Duke Ellington In Person: An Intimate Memoir, written with Stanley Dance, would seem to support Henderson's belief in Strayhorn's non-involvement with Harlem. Mercer wrote:
'Billy was inspired by Ellington and wanted to do things for him. And then of course, like flexing your muscles just to show off, to show Billy what he was capable of doing, Ellington began to write more himself.
Later, whenever they got a commission for a gargantuan job, he and Billy would set about doing it together. But I think the greatest of the extended works like Black, Brown And Beige, which took in so many years, and Harlem were actually done without Billy. Pop was always rather proud of it as one of the most integrated of his longer works.'
Derek Jewell, a British Ellington enthusiast and friend who wrote perhaps more extensively than anyone else about Duke's interest in classical music, actually misread his sources, fully and uncritically believing that Harlem's band-only Met debut in January 1951, a NAACP benefit, was a symphonic one. In Duke- A Portrait Of Duke Ellington, Jewell wrote that the concert proved that he could compose very effectively for a large-scale orchestra, although he once proclaimed to a questioner who wanted him to do more such writing: 'Strings? Positively no! What could I do with strings that hasn't been done wonderfully for hundreds of years'. ' Jewell fails to cite a source for that quote.
Musicologist Andrew Homzy, writing to me from Concordia College in Montreal, offers a small spark of hope saying that 'the question of Ellington's ever orchestrating a piece for symphonic orchestra has not yet been resolved'. Only one loose page in Ellington's hand shows indications for strings in all the scores Homzy has studied. He traces the question of Ellington orchestrating works to Blue Belles of Harlem, which was commissioned by Paul Whiteman. In the Whiteman Collection at Williams College, Mass.:
'the score is in the hand of Roy Bargy (I believe). Ellington probably provided a condensed score similar to that which he made for his own orchestra. The Whiteman collection does not contain - to my knowledge - any score in Ellington's hand'.
I asked Peress if Ellington could have done his own orchestrating. He wrote:
'Ron Collier told a story at the DKE Conference in Canada about five or more years ago. He was up all night orchestrating a piece that Duke had written for Jacksonville, Florida. The next morning he complained to Duke, 'Why don't you do this yourself?' or some such. Well, believe it or not, Duke sat up and scored some of the work and handed it to Collier. I have seen this.
It is top drawer. Makes you mad. But Duke had no ego need to do everything himself, the best example being his relationship with Strayhorn. I too was encouraged to write a new ending for the BBB Suite which is on the CD. After hearing my first don't-call-attention-to-myself attempt, he urged me to let fly and use Come Sunday, that tune should have made more money than it did.
In a subsequent letter to Peress I asked if the manuscript presented to President Truman contained an orchestration and, if so, was any orchestrator given credit. Then a bombshell: 'Ms. lost! But I have a photo of Truman accepting the score' from Duke. It looks like a typical DKE score.'
I sent a letter to the Harry S. Truman Library (HSTL) in Independence, Missouri, to check out Peress's statement. Within a week back came this reply from librarian Elizabeth Safly:
'Thank you for your letter of 6 July 1995 requesting information about an original Duke Ellington manuscript entitled Harlem or Harlem Suite which Mr. Ellington presented to President Truman in September of 1950. We have searched everywhere in our holdings for this manuscript but have not been able to find it. Actually we have been searching continually since 1988 when we first became aware that the manuscript might be here. It is very possible that the manuscript never came to this library; we do not have any record that it ever did. I am enclosing copies of a photograph of Mr Truman and Mr Ellington and a copy of the 29 September appointment sheet documenting Mr Ellington's appointment with the President and the presentation of the manuscript. I am sorry we cannot be more helpful'.
Had Peress shown a great interest in that manuscript? Why not? The existence of the manuscript would provide invaluable information about Ellington's working methods, answer the question whether Duke orchestrated Harlem (or perhaps who did) and provide specific information about Duke's earliest symphonic thoughts about Harlem. Since I did not explicitly ask Peress whether he made an enquiry about the manuscript at the HSTL, I infer that he did because
(1) he had mentioned that it was 'lost',
(2) he said he had a photograph of Truman with Duke,
(3) the HSTL became aware of the manuscript in 1988, just one year before the Musicmasters CD was released containing references to the Truman log entry.
I can very well go along with the librarian's view that the manuscript possibly never got to the HSTL. David McCullough in his biography of Truman says that when Truman left the White House the 410 file cabinets containing his records, personal papers and memorabilia were shipped to the courthouse in Independence, Missouri, to await the construction of the HSTL. Could one of the most potentially valuable manuscripts in American musical history have been stolen? Or ...? I wrote to Margaret Truman, in care of her publisher explaining the manuscript's disappearance and asking for her assistance. There has been no answer.
In my phone conversation with Luther Henderson, he tended to minimise the importance of manuscripts outside the field of classical music. He said manuscripts are 'less revered' in non-classical music. What Duke often did, he said, was make sketches of compositions, often on the day of the performances, hand them out to his players and say something like 'if he plays this, you play this'. With symphony orchestra string players, it seems to me, their parts have to be written out unless they are called upon to improvise as in music by John Cage and other composers using aleatoty systems.
Someone observed that history is never completed. In the case of Harlem's symphonic origins that is certainly true. Researchers speculate with what information or clues they have. They ask questions. Sometimes the questions get answers; sometimes they don't. How did Ellington's commission from the NBC Symphony come about in the first place? If Duke received a commission, he had to have been paid for it. Is there a record somewhere of the payment to Duke? Is there any record of correspondence between Duke and the NBC organisation? Well, there is a path to follow. Maurice Peress wrote to me that 'I am sure that this idea of a New York Suite by different composers was an idea of Samuel B. Chotzinoff, manager of the NBC. Gillis was assistant conductor'. Meanwhile Prof. Meyer continues his NBC Symphony Orchestra research. And as Harvey Sachs has indicated, classical music critic Mortimer Frank (Fanfare, Stereophile) is also researching the NBC Symphony. Will they be able to unravel the Harlem mystery?
In this second part of his essay STANLEY SLOME evaluates some of the orchestral performances of Harlem that have appeared on compact discs.
Detroit Symphony Orchestra: Neemi Järvi conductor
(Chandos CHAN9226, American Series Vol.5).
Luther Henderson did the entire orchestration for this. It is his masterpiece. Järvi, Esthonian born, is the most eclectic of today's symphony orchestra conductors. Led by the superb trumpet soloists Waiter White and William Lucas within the orchestra, Järvi has his men swinging as no other symphony orchestra has that I've ever heard. Through an oversight Chandos does not identify the other fine soloists. Notice how Järvi builds climaxes. The Chandos engineers have produced a demonstration-quality recording that needs a high-end speaker system to be properly appreciated. Järvi also does a splendid job with William Grant Still's Symphony No.2 (Song Of A New Race) and William Levi Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony.
Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, John Mauceri conductor
(Philips 438 663-2, American Classics).
Mauceri, like Maurice Peress one of Leonard Bernstein's assistant conductors, is credited with a 'new version'. How this is different from a new orchestration 1 have no idea although a lot of it sounds like Henderson's work. Henderson, who wrote the liner notes, told me he regards this performance as coming closer to the improvisational essence of Harlem than any other. He admitted that he hadn't listened closely to the Jarvi interpretation and work of the DSO soloists. The Mauceri performance is a good one, but in the overblown style and sound of an old MCM musical. And who needs that 26-second drum solo at the end?
American Composers Orchestra. Maurice Peress conductor
(Musicmasters 7011-2-C, Four Symphonic Works By Duke Ellington).
Peress and Henderson collaborated on the orchestration. "For Harlem I beefed up the (French) horn parts and tripletised rhythms for the 'straight' players so they would swing easier, as well as lightened up the brass doubling as described" Peress wrote to me. On this CD he has first-drawer soloists in John Faddis, trumpet; Bill Easley, clarinet; Ron Carter, bass; Butch Miles, drums. This version is billed as 'for Jazz Band and Orchestra' so the intent is to stick closely to the 1955 concept of the score. Good balance is maintained between band and orchestra. The CD also includes Peress' two other orchestrations, Black, Brown And Beige and New World
A-Comin', and Henderson's Three Black Kings.
Paris Opera (?) Orchestra.
(Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.
Duke Ellington conductor and piano.
Discovery 71003: The Symphonic Ellington.)
This dates back to Duke's 1963 European tour. Before this CD reissue it was on the LP Ellington For Always: The Duke With Full Symphony Orchestra> (Stanyan 10105). Luther Henderson dislikes the Harlem recording and I can understand why. The strings (when you can hear them) sound as if they were merely playing decorously in the background. Whether Duke was at fault conducting or the sound engineers didn't know what they were doing, the Ellingtonians overpower the symphony boys. You don't need this rendition just to hear Duke and his men in full hue and cry: you can get that with Ellington Uptown or the 1952 Seattle Concert, both on CD. However, to get a full picture of Ellington in extended works originally intended for symphony orchestra, you cannot avoid The Symphonic Ellington. On the CD - and nowhere else as far as I know - are the orchestral versions of Night Creature, Non - Violent Integration and La Scala, She Too Pretty To Be Blue.
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Erich Kunzel conductor, Duke Ellington piano
(MCA Cold line MCAD 42319).
The symphony orchestra dominates. The improvisational jazz essence is minimal. The orchestration – and it can't be by Henderson or Peress – uses an oboe for the opening cry of 'HAAR/Lemm' when it should begin with a sensual muted trumpet. The orchestration sounds like one of those stiff concoctions Richard Hayman used to grind out for the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler. Fiedler never could get the Bostonians to swing in pops music, and Kunzel's conducting here is reminiscent of Fiedler's - until after a few minutes Duke enters on piano and the orchestra loosens up. The soloists in the orchestra seem straight-laced. You may want this CD for other reasons: Duke himself is heard in a 'poetic' commentary introducing Harlem and other items on the CD; and there is what is probably the only recording of The Golden Broom And The Green Apple.
Langue-Rowsilon Jazz Orchestra.
Rene Bosc conductor
(ACADEMIA CDAK 145. )
1. With works by Rolf Liebermann: Concerto For Jazz Band And Orchestra; lgor Stravinsky: Ebony Concerto.
I haven't heard this one. It's on 'Tower Records' computer but I have yet to see it in a store bin.
Before the Ellington buffs complain about inaccuracies I have to emphasise that I said Harlem was Duke's first major extended work originally intended for symphony orchestra. The first one (period!) dates back to 25 July 1949. That was an item Duke decided in 1964 to retitle Non-Violent Integration Stanley Dance's liner notes for The Symphonic Ellington (Discovery CD 71003) say that "in 1949, thrilled at the prospect of performing with Philadelphia Orchestra in Robin Hood Dell, Duke Ellington wrote what he called 'a little thing' which he hoped might interest the great musicians of that magnificent orchestra". A letter to me from Jo Ann E Barry, archivist of Philadelphia Orchestra, enclosed with a copy of the concert program, apparently identifies the original title of that 'little thing' as Grand Slam Jam. Dance calls it Duke's 'first experience' with the 'tonal hybrid' of symphony and Ellington orchestras.
Grand Slam Jam was performed by the Ellington band with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra under Russ Case. Ms Barry carefully notes that although the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra was made up principally of Philadelphia Orchestra members, it was not technically Philadelphia Orchestra and so it would be 'incorrect then to state that Ellington appeared with Philadelphia Orchestra at the Dell in 1949'. However, as is well known by classical record collectors, Philadelphia Orchestra was under contract to Columbia Masterworks but did make records for RCA Victor. And, for what it's worth, Russ Case was an RCA Victor recording artist. We often don't see the historical significance of events until a lot of time passes. So it was that night in July 1949. Played just ahead of Grand Slam Jam after intermission was New World A-Comin'' with Duke at the piano with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra conducted by Case. This was, as far as I have been able to discover, the first performance by a symphony orchestra of any Ellington extended work; it was originally written for the band in 1945.
Luther Henderson told me he did the orchestrations for both Grand Slam Jam and New World A-Comin.' To borrow baseball language, Henderson - Luther, not Ricky - hit two home runs in the same innings in Ellington 'firsts' on the night of 25 July 1949.
*(Stan informs us that he is referring here to the first (leadoff) batter and left fielder in the lineup of the Oakland A's of the American League, noted for home runs, not Ellington's alto sax player of 1953/4. This essay is also appearing in the newsletter of the South California chapter of the Duke Ellington Music Society in shorter instalments. It is published here by permission of its editor and author.)