My mom used to say of Mozart that one can like only a third of Mozart’s music and still like a lot of Mozart. Very true. In his short 30 years of composing he wrote a staggering number of pieces. The Köchel catalog of Mozart’s work, which has been revised many times to accommodate newly discovered pieces, goes all the way to K.626, the Requiem.
Duke Ellington’s recording career spanned nearly 50 years, from 1924 to 1973, and his output was ginormous. Recordings are constantly being rediscovered and reissued as “new” Ellington, to this day. So my mom’s statement about Mozart can easily apply to Ellington as well.
By far his most celebrated period is the so-called Blanton-Webster Band era, from about 1939 to 1942. Steeped in the height of the Swing Era, this is the period most folks think of when they think of Duke Ellington music. During this time, three major voices joined the orchestra. Bassist Jimmy Blanton freed the bass from its strictly timekeeping role and transformed it to a melodic instrument. Legendary saxophonist Ben Webster was already well established when he became Ellington’s first star on tenor sax. And then there was that young man from Ohio whom Ellington heard for the first time while touring through the state. Stunned by the young man’s ability to interpret his own compositions at the keyboard — sans sheet music — Ellington invited Billy Strayhorn to come to New York and work with him. The rest, as they say, was history.
This fertile period produced a rack of classics: “Ko-Ko,” “Never No Lament” (the instrumental version of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), “In A Mellotone,” “Warm Valley,” “C-Jame Blues,” etc. As typical of the Ellington way of composing, he wrote pieces to highlight the strengths of his musicians. So, Jimmy Blanton is featured on a number of works, including “Jack the Bear” and the band’s temporary theme song “Sepia Panorama” (a good piece of trivia, by the way, to impress your friends with — it was the band’s theme between “East St. Louis Toodle-O” and “Take the A Train”). Ben Webster is well featured on “Cottontail” and he also wrote the arrangement of the tune’s famous reed section chorus. Billy Strayhorn got his first big break to compose lots of music for the band during a recording industry strike at that time, which kept Ellington’s music off the radio. In addition to “A Train,” Strayhorn composed “Chelsea Bridge,” “Rain Check,” and “After All” during this period.
Though fertile, this era was short lived. Billy Strayhorn remained with the orchestra until his death at age 51 in 1967 of cancer. But the era’s namesakes departed much earlier, Ben Webster in 1943 and Jimmy Blanton tragically died of tuberculosis at the age of 24 in 1942.
But as rich and creative as this period was, it is not the end all, be all of Duke Ellington’s celebrated career. Not by a long shot. While many may well agree with that, they typically will hearken back to 20s and 30s Ellington, and dismiss his work from his final decade, from about 1960 – 1973. One person on Amazon called this era “fallow.” I take exception to that. So I thought, hey, why not give my own take on this final decade of Ellington, to sort of set the record straight.
So over the next while, I’ll be posting my reviews and impressions of recordings made in the 1960s and 70s. This period is fairly well represented in my collection, though there are some classics missing. This would include Ella at Duke’s Place (1965), Ella Fitzgerald’s second date with the orchestra, The Great Paris Concert (1963), and the first Sacred Concert from 1966. But I have a lot more. As I said, a “little” Ellington is still a lot of music.
This is not to say that everything Duke Ellington recorded, during any part of his career, is instant gold. During the 1950s, he recorded a lot of mambos because they were popular at the time and he wanted a hit record. I have the entire collection of Ellington recordings for Capitol Records from 1951-54, as compiled by Mosaic Records. I ripped exactly zero of the mambos to my iPhone. Similarly, in the era I’ll be covering, Ellington, like many other jazz artists at that time, recorded interpretations of popular music. This would include recordings of music from Mary Poppins. Curiously, this did not make it to my iPhone, either — not even Johnny Hodges’ take of “A Spoonful of Sugar.”
So clunkers do exist, but they do not an era define.
Next time around, I’ll start with a heavy hitter: 1967’s The Far East Suite. Fallow my ass.
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