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Back to Vol.1 No.8 1943

Jazz Music Vol.1 No.8 1943 0006

Jazz Music Vol.1 No.8 1943 0006

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10 JA72. MUSIC
"HE'S GOTTEN BAD AND THAT AIN'T GOOD" By CHARLES FOX
TJUS ARTlCLE should bring the wrath of ITijIny readers down upon my head, for it is my intention to endeavour to show that the record. ings made , by Duke Ellington'~ Orchestra during the last four or five years are inferior to those made earlier. Perhaps, therefore I shollld start by asking the re~der to mentally preface all contro· versial remarks by: "In the opinion of the writer," and thereby absolve me from any charge of dogmatism!
When I started collecting records and generally taking an interest in jazz music, 1 began with a passion for the music of Duke Ellington­an enthusiasm which has never left me. I bought a large quantity of his recordiogs, and my admiration for the Ducal music was so great that I had, for quite a time, what ' amounted to an almost implicit faith in his infallibility. The Duke meant for me the best in.orchestral jazz, and the Duke could do no wrong!
During the long period when lrving Mills witheld his discs from the English market I didn't hear so much of Ellington's band, apart from some imported discs' I happened to hear, and a few I happened to import myself. It was some of these, however, that first sowed the seeds of doubt in my soul! Then, in 1940, H.MV. started to issue current Ellington waxings, and after I had heard a number of these my doubts began to crystalise into a conviction that the Duke had deteriorated.
By now, I-think, we are in a position to ' make a comparison between the modern work and that of the earlier period, and if the
comparison is honestly made I think one is bound to admit that the Ellington music of to-day is in­ferior. I kno,¥ that among the recent issues there have been many pleasing performances-" Morning Glory," "Dusk," "Take the 'A ' Train," " Across the Track Blues," .. Blue Goose," and so on-as well as some very bad ones; but there have been no discs to compare with such classic efforts as the superb " Black and Tan Fantasy" or" Echoes of the Jungle "; nothing to match the vigour of "Hot and Bothered" or "It's a Glory," the depth of feeling revealed in " Sara­toga Swing " or " Sweet Chariot," or the nostalgia of " Mood Indigo" or "Lazy Rhapsody."
What is the reason for this? Indicating a decline is a very much easier thing than explaining it, and while I hardly feel competent to do the latter, I would nevertheless like to offer one or two observa­tions which may be pertinent.
The first concerns the band. As a unit, I suppose, it is probably as good as it has ever been. Let us, however, look at the soloists.
At the , beeinning of Duke's band· leading career he was lucky in possessing one of Jazz's greatest trumpet players­the late Bubber Miley. Bubber's mastery of muted playing was complete, and bis work on Ellington records was superb­very forceful and hot, with a fine sense of form. His team-mate, Louis Metcalf, was also an excellent soloist who has been rather under-rated. Arthur Whetsel' was a musician whose style was suited to the statement of many ElJington themes, and Cootie Williams, who replaced Bubber, although hardly of the same stature as Miley, yet played many fine aDd moving solos.

JAZZ
Who is there today? Cootie, during the last few years, lias become somewhat stereotyped, and one gets the impression that he is just turning out a " standard" -one might almost say a "utility "!­Cooti!: solo. This same criticism can possibly also be levelled at Tricky Sam Nanton, whose vigorous tromboning was so outstanding on the old discs. Rex Stewart is a competent, if somewhat erratic, soloist, although he sometimes tends to take a too ,technical approach. Ray Nance, Cootie's successor, is to me a more or less unknown quantity, but J see no reason to regard him as ou tstand­ing. Of the trombones, Tizol has never been a "hot" man, while Lawrence tJrown, although oiten playing solos which fit admirably into the general structure of an EIlington composition, is often prone to play in a sentimental fashion which is the antithesis of true jazz.
I am glad to say that both Barney Bigard and Harry Carney seem to have maintained a considerably high level throughout the years, Bigard's clarinet can still be as thrilling as ever and his departure from the band will most cer-­tainly have depleted its solo strength, while Carney too can give out a solo with some of his old heat. Ben ,Webster is a soloist who has never had a particu­larly individual style and who does not fit in particularly well with the Elling­ton band.
In Johnny Hodges we find a great change. Instead of the sprightly lyric alto of former days, who highlighted many discs by his sparkling playing, we find a rather complacent, almost smug soloist, who at times descends into vaporous and sentimental rhapsodizing, after the style of "Daydream," "I've Got It Bad ..." etc.
Now for the Duke himself, the man who really moulds the style of the band . As a solo pianist he has never been dis­tinguished, and it has been his work as composer and arranger that has been so outstanding.
Around the early '30's Duke was pro­ducing many highly original pieces like .. Blue Tune," "Black Beauty," "Drop Me Off at Harlem," .. Blue Ramble,"
11

MUSIC
" Rockin' jn Rhythm," .. Blue Feeling," .. Creole Rhapsody " (lOin. ~~rsion), to name but a few, which were distinguished not bnly for the fine solo work of the musicians, but the skilful ~se of tone colours fluid ensemble wntlng, and ,a rare s~nsitivity and delicacy in their orchestration. These performances pos­sessed a unity, the solos were related to the background and to each other, and the whole had a shape and form and an individual qualilY. Compare these With some modern performances, which onl,y toO often consist of a few trite riffs flung together, with a handful of mediocre solos superimposed, the whole thmg bemg given a flamboyant facade by some pre­tentious arranging. The result has a superficial and brittle quality which con­ceals for a while its basic aridity, One feels that Duke is writine self­consciously, rather because he is expected to produce something like this than be­cause he does so naturally,
It may be that tbe root of the trouble lies in the popularizatron of .. Swing." As we all know .. swing " has brought into existence an audience which is un· discriminating and unappreciative of good jazz, and in the wholesale c~tering for this audience many conventions have arisen, 'in the shape of the "standard " hot solo, wllli:h usually means nothing at all, and the .. swing arrangement " with its tiresome cliches and monotonous brassy blasting. In the old days Duke was playing music whieh was really only appreciated by a small minority ; now he is playing to a " swing-minded " public and he has adopted a policy pf com­promise, and made ·concessions to the current "popular trends," which have proved ruinous to his artistic develop­ment. The fact that he was voted into top place in •• Down Beat's" annual poll should prove a disquieting one for all Ellington's admirers.
No-one is more conscious of the Duke's great contributions to jazz than I am, or have a greater admiration for his work. I have derived much pleasure from his music, and while I criticise I pay tribute to all that he has done in the past. So it hurts even more to have to say .. He's gotten bad, and that ain't good I "