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Birth Of A Band
by Frank Dutton
(with apologies and thanks to Quincy Jones, who has unwittingly provided the perfect title)
This exploratory survey has developed, almost under its own momentum, from an investigation in the ‘Jazz Information’ column of Jazz Journal concerning the Duke Ellington saxophone section on records from November 1926 to June 1927. I believe this to be the first systematic attempt to establish the growth and chronology of the Washingtonians, a complex subject, as consignment to the bin of at least three earlier rough drafts will attest.
Most previous writings have glossed over this poorly documented period and the average collector is thereby led to believe that Ellington progressed from Soda Fountain Rag to the Cotton Club almost overnight, whereas it took him no less than thirteen years.
The historical importance of this, Duke’s earliest band, is out of all proportion to its musical value, which, on the slender recorded evidence available, is very sad indeed. In fact, had Ellington not been associated with their production, I doubt if any collector, myself included, would even trouble to listen to the few abysmal records made during the earliest days. Only the very occasional Bubber Miley or Prince Robinson solo is worth a light, viewed as jazz.
One has merely to observe the large, regular output of, say, Fletcher Henderson, during the 1924-27 period, to realize that Duke was a late starter in the big-band recording field. Between November 1924 and November 1926 he cut just five two-title sessions under his own name, all for minor ‘acoustic’ companies. Not until 29 November 1926 was any music properly representing the ‘Ellington effect’ satisfactorily recorded for a major company, as one of the first fruits of the newly signed contract with Irving Mills.
I very soon discovered that this handful of early sessions was of minimal assistance in establishing personnel changes, or dating events, and it was therefore necessary to collect as many snippets of non-discographical information as possible in order to make any sense at all of the period involved. The simplest way to present such
data as I have been able to assemble is to lay it out in ‘timetable’ fashion, rather than in prose form, since the number of parallel ‘threads’ would render the latter style virtually unworkable, especially for the primary problem of ‘who-replaced-who-when’. The ‘timetable’ ends at the well-established Cotton Club personnel of 4 December 1927.
This chronological jigsaw puzzle, despite its obvious incompleteness, has already produced surprising results.
One example: The date of entry into the band of the great Joe Nanton has always been in doubt, ‘1926’ being the best effort to date. However, an interview with Freddie Skerritt mentions a short New England tour, which I estimate was probably in July 1926, and Charlie Irvis is named as the trombonist. Tricky appears as Charlie’s replacement in a photo dated ‘August 1926’, back in New York, and he must therefore have been a new boy of a mere few weeks’ standing when it was taken.
Another sampling: The same Freddie Skerritt interview lists the trumpets on the tour as Bubber Miley and Leroy Rutledge. The latter’s presence would seem to give the lie to the long-held assumption that he played in the band during March/April 1926 for two recording sessions only, because he appears to have been present for at least four months, March to July, and possibly longer. He should therefore take precedence over Louis Metcalf as being the very first regular second-trumpet man.
However, the largest unresolved problem is undoubtedly the composition of the saxophone section from April 1926 to June
1927. Various sidemen are known to have been involved, but their arrivals and departures have not yet been pinpointed. It doesn’t need me to tell you that more generous recording exposure than actually befell the Washingtonians would have been invaluable during this period.
Collectors who hold the earliest records can provide immediate assistance with the following problems:
1. September 1925 and March 1926 sessions for Pathe: Is Sonny Greer present on
drums for both dates, or only on the latter as Brian Rust claims? The diabolically poor recording makes it almost impossible to determine this.
2. c.l April 1926 session for Gennett: How many trombones and saxes are audible?
3. 21 June 1926 session for Gennett: How many saxes are audible?
I would be most grateful for any additional bits and pieces, however small, to help improve the picture — even the location of the band on specific dates —but please quote your sources!
Grateful thanks are due to Eric Townley and Peter Carr for assistance in compilation. References to statements by Ellsworth Reynolds are taken from a private letter from Reynolds to Peter Carr, dated 17 December 1976.
The use of bold type for a musician’s name indicates a first known appearance on the Ellington scene or. where relevant, a personnel change.
Abbreviations for Reference Sources:
BBJ - Albert McCarthy Big Band Jazz, New York, Putnam, 1974.
DE - Barry Ulanov Duke Ellington, New York, Creative Age Press, 1946 & London, Musicians’ Press, 1947.
HEN - Walter C. Allen Hendersonia. Highland Park, N.J., the author, 1973.
JJ - Jazz Journal.
JNY - Samuel Charters & Len Kunstadt Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1962. JR - Brian A.L. Rust Jazz Records, 1897-1942, London, Storyville, 1970.
MMM - Duke Ellington Music Is My Mistress, London, W.H. Allen, 1974.
PHJ - Orrin Keepnews & Bill Grauer. Jr. A Pictorial History of Jazz, New York, Crown Publishers, 1966, & London, Spring Books, 1968.
RR - Record Research.
Sv - Storyville.
WWJ - John Chilton Who's Who of Jazz, London, Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1970, & Philadelphia, Chilton, 1972.