We have covered the great Duke Ellington in this space. There are few musical artists who could (and still can) suck all of the oxygen out of a discussion by virtue of his many gifts and talents. His bands were always first rate and, as we noted, there was an incredible constancy to his personnel. If a player liked playing for Duke and if Duke liked that player’s sound, it was a blue chip gig that could (and sometimes did) last for decades.
This is why almost any discussion of Duke Ellington’s sidemen is about their work in Duke Ellington’s bands. Which is why I found this record, made by some Ellington guys going their own way, so intriguing.
One of Ellington’s most popular and recognizable trumpet/cornet players was Rex Stewart. Stewart was a Philadelphia native whose playing matured to where he spent most of the 1920’s playing for such notable bands as Fletcher Henderson and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. In 1934 he joined the Duke Ellington band and remained there for eleven years, becoming featured in pieces such as Boy Meets Horn, a fabulous record.
In June of 1944 he was still with Ellington, but as most musicians did at the time he did some freelancing under his own name. This particular effort (Rex Stewart’s Big Eight) is a group that may have cut four songs on one particular day at Keynote Recordings but did very little else. It is Rex Stewart through and through, with Stewart having written the tune and chosen a fascinating mix of players.
The other horn players were, with one exception, Ellington bandmates. Lawrence Brown played trombone for the Duke for almost twenty years (1932-51) and baritone sax man Harry Carney probably set Ellington’s longevity record by playing with the band from 1927 until Ellington’s death in 1974.
That sole exception was alto sax player Tab Smith who was not an Ellington alum, but who provided a style not unlike that of longtime Ellington alto player Johnny Hodges. So with the entire group of horn players either being or resembling Ellingtonians, doesn’t this come off as a Duke Ellington knockoff? Not a chance.
The reason is the other four men in the rhythm section. First there was the drummer, (Randolph) Cozy Cole. Cole had played with top black groups led by Benny Carter, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. Cole was not a shrinking violet behind his drum kit and eventually topped the charts with Topsy (part II) in 1958, one of very few records featuring an extended drum solo to do so.
As a sign of changing times, the three other rhythm players came up on the other side of the big fence that divided so many musicians by race before the late 1940’s. Bassist Sid Weiss spent several years playing with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman – a hotter group of bands would be hard to string together. Then there was a fairly obscure guitarist named Jacob “Brick” Fleagle, who would eventually record with Miles Davis.
The Ellington band could absolutely swing, but did so in a solid, well-built kind of way – as opposed to Count Basie (sort of the anti-Ellington) who favored a light, unstructured, free-swinging approach. While none of these rhythm players spent time with Basie, they were undoubtedly influenced by him as he had been setting trends for a decade before this record was made.
The biggest departure from the Ellington sound was in the piano. Duke was the piano guy in his band and his playing never sounded like anyone else. Johnny Guarnieri was another alum of Goodman and Shaw, and had a style that was light and free and sounded like a cross between Basie and Nat Cole. He would field a group that backed June Christie (another alum of this blog) in the early 50’s.
This record is a fascinating for a few reasons. First, it give us an opportunity to listen to some of Ellington’s most recognizable “voices” but to do so outside of the “Ellington sound” which was always so distinctive. The rhythm section was entirely staffed by “outsiders” and had more of a light, free-flowing sensibility that changed the entire character of the music.
Also interesting was the choice to record on a 12 inch 78 rpm record instead of the normal 10 inch version, something that allowed more time for the musicians to bring things up to a boil and keep them there.
Rex Stewart wrote the piece and his trumpet figures prominently. Stewart’s sound is instantly recognizable – we have heard trumpet players with a sharp, crisp, clean tone – and then there is Stewart, who sounds like he is mashing that horn into his lips with all the force he can muster, just daring the sound to come out. And come out it does, with a color to it that I just can’t get enough of.
Stewart leads the ensemble through the first chorus, then backed off as Harry Carney’s big, deep baritone sax and Lawrence Brown’s smooth trombone traded solos – two instruments that were underrepresented in a genre too-often dominated by the trumpet and the tenor sax.
Tab Smith’s alto then taxes turns with Cozy Cole’s drums. Cole had a distinct personality on his drum kit with a fondness for “more” rather than “less”, if only a little. This shows in his unusual background work that drives these guys like a locomotive at speed.
We hear virtually nothing from the bass or guitar – it would not be hard to guess that this was Rex Stewart’s Big Six. I am sure, however, that those two “silent partners” would be notable in their absense.
Another thing interesting about this record is that it is pointing hard at the bebop revolution that was about a year away from taking over the jazz world. Coleman Hawkins‘ Disorder At The Border is often credited as the first bebop record. Hawkins was a longtime swing saxophonist who had an ear for new sounds and recorded that piece in February of ’44 with a group packed full of future bop stalwarts like trumpet Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Max Roach.
These players had surely heard Hawkins’ new sound and this record shows that this seasoned group of swing players was ready to buy into the unusual and unexpected chord changes that marked the new style. This certainly isn’t “real bebop” with its frenetic horn solos, but it easily sounds (especially in the final chorus) three to five years newer than 1944 – no small feat for a bunch of guys who had been playing for over twenty years by this time.
Few of Duke Ellington’s longtime players became “stars” in the way other musicians of the day did, and for the most part their legacies remains forever tied to that musical giant. Records like this are a great way to listen to some of those Ellington mainstays while considering them on their own merits, which were considerable. I remain constantly amazed at how easily I can fall into unexplored pools of music even when it is over seventy-five years old. And it is all the better when it combines players who are both familiar and obscure in a package that has no weaknesses.
Zaza by Rex Stewart’s Big Eight – from the youTube page of Tim Gracyk
Rex Stewart – from autographed photo previously offered for sale on eBay, other from Alchetron.com
Record label – Zaza by Rex Stewart’s Big Eight – Discogs.com
Tab Smith – 1946-48 photo by William Gottlieb, in the public domain
Harry Carney – photo from aaregistry.org
Cozy Cole – undated publicity photo previously offered for sale at historyforsale.com
Brick Fleagle – 1946-48 photo by William Gottlieb, in the public domain
Johnny Guarnieri – undated photo from a the Johnny Guarnieri facebook page
Lawrence Brown – undated photo from Pinterest
Sid Weiss – The photos found online were not used as I am not convinced that the ones supposed to be of him actually are.