How have we made it this long without looking at the great Duke Ellington? Ellington was one of America’s most prolific musical talents in his time, and was, as a composer, responsible for a significant contribution to the batch of music that has come to be known as the Great American Songbook. He also had a singular band.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. Young Duke’s upbringing was so different from most of his musical contemporaries. His father was a civil servant who drew blueprints for the U.S. Navy and the family lived a decidedly middle-class life.
His mother doted on her only child and ingrained in him the habits of elegance and manners that would mark him – and his music – for his entire life. These traits, along with his natty appearance, earned him the nickname “Duke” among his young friends.
The highly segregated world of jazz in the 1920s saw many top-quality black jazz bands, including the Fletcher Henderson group and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. But only one leader had the stuff to continue as an innovator and style leader over the next forty years.
Ellington’s work was always exceedingly well crafted. His was not a slapped-out series of riffs or loose collection of unconnected solos. Ellington was both architect and craftsman when it came to music. He spent his life looking for and building unique tones and musical colors which always made his bands sound unlike any others in whichever era we might care to examine.
It was not surprising that Ellington crossed the great divide into the swing era, a divide that so many leaders failed to navigate. As the 1930s progressed Ellington developed a dual persona – a peerless writer of music (that was too deeply thought-out to be thought of as a mere song) and as the leader of one of the best bands in the business.
Ellington was proud that his was the only black band recorded on Victor Records’ full-price “black label” series. Even the hugely popular Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw were released on the discounted Bluebird label. Duke Ellington’s band of the early and mid 1940’s could well be “Peak Duke”.
We have written here a few times of the Count Basie band, the other of the two longest-lived big jazz bands. Duke Ellington of the 1930’s and 1940’s was the anti-Basie. Or perhaps Basie was the anti-Ellington. Where Basie was all about loose free-swinging riffs that served little purpose beyond connecting star soloists, Ellington’s band was more about the intricate blending of musicians (whether individually or in groups) to create the perfect sound for a particular mood.
If you read much about old jazz you will learn that most bands were like unstable elements whose members bounced from this one to that. Duke Ellington’s band was different. There was a stability among his players that spoke to a mutual artistic respect among them. Those players associated with Ellington were seldom heard elsewhere. Harry Carney, Ellington’s baritone sax man, began playing for the Duke in 1927 and remained with the band until the leader’s 1974 death. Carney himself died just a few months later, having said that he felt as though he had nothing left to live for.
How is it possible to introduce Duke Ellington through a single piece of recorded music? Well, the answer is that it is simply not. But this being a simple little enterprise, we must start somewhere, so here we are.
Main Stem is a great mixture of so many of the things that made Ellington stand out. What begins as a simple 12 bar blues structure pulls together so many unique things. The title, by the way, has a railroad connotation as in a primary track route, but could be also in reference to a main street, a main branch of a river, or in music the idea that a blues like this is the primary thread of jazz.
First notice the intricately crafted main theme. Saxophones and trumpets play pat-a-cake with trombones for a main theme which soon moves to the background as Duke pulls other colors from the palette. By the way, if it was not immediately apparent which combination of instruments was playing what, this is vintage Ellington who assembled these combinations with an incredible level of finesse.
You may first notice when the full range of saxophones starts alternating with Rex Stewart’s muted cornet that the band’s sound was luxurious, lush, and full. It reminds me of an audio version of the visual heft seen in a wide-brim fedora or a Buick from the early 1940s. It is not heavy in a bulky, ponderous way but in a rich, dense high-calorie way that makes you think of high-quality things.
Johnny Hodges’ alto saxophone is featured next, all alone but for the rhythm section – which tends to be a bit heavier than most, particularly the featherlight rhythm section of the Basie band. Hodges is followed by Stewart again, this time without the mute in his horn to show off that unique tone of his.
Solos follow by Ray Nance (with another muted trumpet), Barney Bigard (clarinet) and Joe Nanton (tombone with a plunger mute). Then, just when you wonder what else someone could possibly do with this theme, Duke sends us to a place nobody else would think to go – a series of key changes behind the two strongest solos on the record – Ben Webster (tenor sax) and Lawrence Brown (trombone).
All of these players are names that immediately conjure Ellington and any thought of Ellington brings many of these individual players to mind, such was their musical bond. Webster is a favorite of mine, a player who was Duke’s answer to Coleman Hawkins, with a similar sound that was big, full and a little rough where it had to be.
This record was the product of a June 26, 1942 session, which was Duke’s next-to-last before the AFM recording strike was called. It was not released until March 4, 1944, when it became the last of 4 Number One songs (over 4 weeks, thank you very much) Ellington had on the Harlem Hit Parade list of Billboard Magazine. A list known today as the Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart (via detour names like Race Records, Hot R&B Singles, Hot Soul Singles).
As Ellington records go, this one is not special at all, really – one in a long stream of hits meant for popular culture of the day. Ellington’s name is also affixed to many jazz and vocal standards, jazz suites, film scores and about any other musical form he cared to dabble in. If America had a poet laureate of jazz, it would be Ellington, who spent his life making sure that jazz would never be simply reduced to gutter music in the American mind.
In researching this piece I came across the perfect quotation with which to close. Ralph Ellison, the writer and contemporary of Ellington in a time and place known as the Harlem Renaissance, said of Duke Ellington “It is time we paid our respects to a man who spent his life reducing the violence and chaos of American life to artistic order.”
Who can add anything to that?
Main Stem, recorded June 26, 1942 by Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra at the RCA-Victor recording studios in Hollywood, California.
Personnel: Ray Nance, Wallace Jones, trumpets; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, and Juan Tizol, trombones; Barney Bigard, clarinet/tenor sax; Johnny Hodges, alto sax; Otto Hardwick, alto sax; Ben Webster, tenor sax; Harry Carney, baritone sax; Duke Ellington, piano; Billy Strayhorn, piano; Fred Guy, guitar; Junior Raglin, bass; Sonny Greer, drums; Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, arrangers (From Ellington Sessions 1942 – a Duke Ellington Panorama)
Music Source: YouTube page of OnlyJazzHQ
Ellington publicity photo, 1940s, in the public domain (published without copyright, via Wikimedia Commons)
1925 photo of Duke Ellington with his Washingtonians (source soulwalking.co.uk)
1943 photo of Ellington at the piano at the Hurricane Cabaret, in the public domain as taken by the United States Government Office of War Information and in the Library of Congress.
Original 78 rpm VictorRecord label – Discogs.com
Kudos to jazz writer Martin Williams who confirmed the identities of the soloists on this record, something not always easy to do on Ellington recordings.
The quotation from Ralph Ellison is from Going To The Territory (via Sullivan, Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, v3).