Duke Ellington Orchestra British Tour – February 1967 004
Page 4 and 5 of a souvenir brochure for Duke Ellington's tour of Britain in 1967, presented by Harold Davison and Norman Granz. Benny Green profiles the worldwide success and career of Duke Ellington.
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I remember very distinctly that when I first reviewed the Duke Ellington Orchestra for an English newspaper I was filled with a sense of the sheer absurdity of the whole business. For many years his music had enchanted me. Now, suddenly, I was supposed to go and pass judgment on it. In the event, I did nothing of the kind, and in my review simply tried to explain to myself as well as to my readers how it was that Ellington achieved his extraordinary musical effects. The next thing I remember is that one of the older school of jazz critics in Britain rapped me in print for not writing anything original about Ellington.
I forget the actual words, but the sentiments were more or less that for twenty years people had been saying Ellington's instrument was his orchestra, and the best that I could do in the way of original criticism was to say that his orchestra was his instrument. The truth is that there is nothing original to say about Ellington's methods, his orchestra, his music, or anything else about him, and that those who expect originality from critics might look for it a little more among musicians.
But if my views about Ellington are conventional enough, the way I became an Ellington fan is very unusual indeed. In my adolescence I was one of those terrible people who insisted that if the music wasn't improvised, it couldn't be jazz. My idea of a great large orchestra was the Herman Second Herd or the Basie band, although why these two groups should have been forgiven by me for using written parts I cannot say. One afternoon I met a very good friend of mine in the Strand. He was one of this country's most promising younger jazz musicians, and I, a struggling palais musician, was highly flattered by his friendship. He had just returned from a final parting with the great love of his life, arriving back at Charing Cross Station laden with all the gifts which she had returned to him. â I never want to see any of that stuff again,' he told me, ' so I left it in the Left Luggage. There's some old 78s there if you want them. Here's the ticket.â It was in this way that I became the possessor of one authentic Cuban straw hat, a pair of. Barbadian marracas, a signed photo of Charlie Parker, and three old recordings by Ellington and his Orchestra.
Not long afterwards. I played one of these recordings over. It was called â I Got It Bad And That Aint Goodâ, featuring Johnny Hodges on the soprano saxophone and Ivy Anderson singing. 1 was appalled, not because the music was bad but because it was so good. 1 realised I had made a major error of judgment, that the range and depth of this kind of orchestrating reduced everything else in the field to insignificance. I can still recall the stupefaction with which 1 received Ellingt.on's device on that record of dropping the third and fourth notes of the melody of â I Got It Bad â by an octave and. by so doing, arriving at a neat paraphrase of the original melody with which to buttress Ivy Anderson's vocal. At the time this sounded to me like pure genius, because the one outstanding thing about the shape of ' / Got It Bad' is the leap of a ninth, a huge leap, taken by the third and fourth notes. The sheer wit and inventiveness displayed in creating this jump and then reducing it to make a variation was one of those moments in one's artistic education that never fade.
From that day I numbered myself as an Ellingtonian, although to be one was not always an easy thing to do. In the early days of modern jazz in Britain (and perhaps in America, too), if you wanted to be regarded as an authentic be-bopper you had by definition to knock everything else. If you liked Charlie Parker, then it was very necessary to call Johnny Hodges old-fashioned. My reaction to this kind of imbecility was one of the great ethical failures of my life. I should have said what 1 thought and insisted that Hodges was great even if Charlie Parker was also great. But at the age of twenty it is not always easy to say what you think. So I kept my views to myself, never failing to be astonished by the diversity of attitude in the music business towards the one man who. it seemed to me, had gifts beyond dispute.
One day at the rehearsal of a small group which had been misguided enough to employ me as a saxophonist, somebody handed us an orchestration of a piece called â Daydream '. Now although I had heard almost no Ellington in my teens. 1 had been a great enthusiast for the small-group recordings, and especially the Hodges series, ' Things Aint What They Used To Be', âQueen Bessâ, the scintillating â Squaty Rooâ, the exhilarating Soprano vehicle â Junior Hopand of course â Daydream â. This ballad was so exquisite that it never occurred to me that any reasonably proficient saxophonist could not know about it. But
then the alto player sitting next to me, a man who was already winning high places in our local polls, said to me,
' What's this? â When I said it was a Hodges solo, he replied, ' Who's he? How does he play? â
Of course all ignorance is relative, and I was not exactly an Ellington connoisseur myself, although doing my best to make up for lost time. One day about fourteen years ago I joined a co-operative band. This meant that instead of having a thief or an imposter standing in front of us, we had a fellow-musician whose ability we admired. One of the rules in the constitution of this co-operative band was that each week a small percentage of our profits be invested in the purchase of an LP. One day our drummer, who had just been described by an Evening Standard columnist as an elongated George Raft, and whom I had always regarded as a fanatical bebopper, went out with our weekly record ration and came back with an Ellington 10-inch LP whose title I forget but whose tracks included a version of Gershwin's â Liza', itself a very unfashionable piece for a jazz group at that time. There was one chorus on â Liza â where the clarinet and tenor, played. I think, by Jimmy Hamilton and Paul Gonsalves, ran through a neatly scored written chorus owing something to the bebop conventions of the time but still sounding indefinably Ellingtonian in effect. It was only a tiny point, but another indication of the highly original way in which Ellington's mind worked. The next phase in my education as an Ellingtonian came wnen a record shop in the King's Road went bankrupt. A friend of mine bought up the remaindered stock, which included an LP called ' Ellington Masterpieces', and sold a copy to me for one pound. This album was unusual for the times in that it was not just a few 78-length tracks strung together, but was an early example of the way a musician might use the LP form as a means of developing his own musical themes. There were only four of these on this record, including â The Tattooed Bride', a version of âSolitudeâ which incorporated what sounded to me a truly great tenor solo from Paul Gonsalves, and a version of â Mood Indigo â which I remember particularly well because when 1 played it to Victor Feldman and he heard the scoring of the last chorus, it was the last time in recorded history that Victor's hair stood on end. Very soon after this incident he went bald.
It must be kept in mind that at this time we could not have hoped to see the
Ellington band in Britain. To me Ellington was a remote entity rather than a man. 1 had seen him in two dimensions in a film called ' Reveille With Beverley ' but doubted whether I would ever see him in three. I was therefore utterly astounded when the same drummer who had bought the LP with â Liza1 on it happened to say. quite casually, ' When I played with Ellington in 1948 . . .' He got no further than that because by this time I was shouting questions at him. It seems that Ellington had come to Europe disguised as a vaudevillian. It turned out that my drummer friend had little to say about Ellington which helped me. He kept saying how great he was. and that the only thing to do was listen to his music, not talk about it. which I suppose was very sensible.
It was about this time that I started to collect Ellingtonia in earnest, developing along the-way a few irrational prejudices about people who wrote about Ellington. I remember on New Year's Eve, 1958. making a resolution, sadly never kept, to buy a gun and shoot off the head of any man who referred to an Ellington recording as a ' ducal performance'. There was one memorable party at which I actually won some money through my knowledge, still sketchy, of Ellington's world. For ten shillings, I challenged somebody in the room to tell me what âTake The "A" Train' and 'Things Aint What They Used To Beâ had in common. Back came the answer, â Both Ellington compositions ', and back came mine. ' No. Neither are Ellington compositions '. I spent the ten shillings on a second-hand copy of an album called something or other which included a fantastic 1932 recording called âCreole Rhapsody ', whose melody seems to me to have been at least twenty-five years in advance of its day.
In the last ten years the situation regarding Ellington's work has vastly improved in this country. Slowly but surely our recording companies have made available Ellington's work from all periods, so that it is possible for today's student to possess a comprehensive collection of his albums, spanning a forty year period. Between the Ellington of the late 1920s and the Duke who appears in this evening's programme there lies a lifetime of evolution, of developing strong personal gifts, of mastering the elusive art of orchestration, of learning how to produce jazz which is written yet authentic. This is the point at which the temptation comes upon the writer to start explaining what Ellington's aesthetic method is, how he writes for individuals instead of in-
struments and how a C Major chord voiced by him sounds different from a C Major chord voiced by anyone else. But I can see no point in saying again what I have said often before, and will content myself instead in nominating moments in my pursuit of Ellington which have given me unadulterated pleasure.
There was that business of â Creole Rhapsody', for instance, where the melody, pitched in C. suddenly turns through the major triads of E. E flat, D and C sharp. To find that in the context of Eddie Lang, Red Nichols and company is one of the profoundest surprises that recorded jazz can offer. Perhaps it is no more profound than the discovery that as Ellington's technique matured, so did the size of his orchestra increase, almost as though further instrumental voices were introduced as the leader felt his ability to integrate them into the main orchestral framework. One recording I possess called 'Harlem Twistâ, made in 1928, sees an Ellington band comprising two trumpets, one trombone, three saxophones, banjo, bass and drums. One has only to glance at the stage during this evening's concert to see how that original ten-piece band has grown.
It is probably a mistake to look at music, any kind of music, with the eye of a literary fancier, but it is sometimes unavoidable. In the case of Ellington it is impossible to look at him any other way simply because he demands of us that we are conscious of the origins of many of his works. The early pen portraits were difficult for an Englishman to assess. After all. I had heard ' A Portrait of Bert Williamsâ but had never heard Bert Williams. If the Ellington pen portrait is anywhere near the truth, then Williams was a slow-moving rhythmic droll. ' Bojangles ' was easier, because as a child I had seen the hero of that piece. Bill Robinson, running up and down long staircases either pursuing or being pursued by a famous American invention of the day called Shirley Temple. It was Ellington's 'Portrait Of The Lion ' which probably appealed most to jazz lovers, because here not only the composer but the subject of his composition was a jazz figure. According to the way Ellington tells it, and tells it very whimsically, Willie The Lion Smith was one of his two musical fathers, the other being Willie's friendly rival, James P. Johnson. In the early 1920s Ellington says he attended this strange university whose classes were held in the gin mills of New York, whose professors numbered two, Willie The Lion and James P., whose
total alumni was two, Duke and Thomas âFats â Waller, and whose fees per session were as much liquor as Duke and Fats could afford to buy for the two professors. As an example of how originality will always out, it is worth looking at Ellington and Waller as piano stylists. Both became great pianists, and both became instantly recognisable, despite being so heavily influenced by two of the strongest musical personalities of their era. Some indication of how affectionately Duke views his own past can be found in the closing sentences of his Foreword to Willieâs autobiographyâ
I love himâhe is wonderful. I can't think of anything good enough to say about the Lion, Willie The Lion, Willie The Lion Smith.
Warmth of this kind suggests that perhaps Ellington is not only in love with Willie The Lion but also with his own past, which is almost certainly the case. One of his most memorable remarks is â The memory of things past is important to a jazz musician'. He has never bothered to explain this in words, but no doubt he has done so a thousand times in his music. Whether the scenarios he concocts for some of his compositions are real or imagined, they all have the consistent flavour of whimsy drawn out of a vast and cherished past. Whether or not his first music teacher really was called Miss Klinkscale or not. nobody knows. What one does know is that when Ellington is telling the story, you feel her name SHOULD have been Klinkscale and that Ellington is merely rectifying the oversight of unromantic reality.
To this extent I believe much of Ellington's output is personal in the sense that it relates to what has happened to him and what he remembers about things. The great departure in his work seems to have come gradually over the last twenty years, when he has tried to reflect through the colours of jazz facets of the outside world which are not personally related to him. His series of Shakespearean vignettes, 'Such Sweet Thunder. were the boldest and most brilliant strokes ever attemped in the field of jazz programme music, and gave Ellington the chance to demonstrate two facets of his greatness, his ability to write melodious themes and his instinct for using the very specialised talents of the men in his orchestra. His themes for Romeo and Juliet .for lago, for Henry the Fifth and for Puck place his stature as a melodist beyond doubt. When we come to the cast list of this remarkable production, we see all Ellington's musical experience
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