Monday, April 29, 2019

On Duke Ellington’s birthday

Duke Ellington was born 120 years ago today.

The cornetist Rex Stewart (1907–1967) was with the Ellington band from 1934 to 1945. Stewart played — and wrote — with great wit. Consider “Boy Meets Horn.” And consider this description of Ellington in the recording studio:

After saying hello to any guy who catches his eye, Duke seats himself at the piano and will either rhapsodize lazily, with his thoughts way up in the clouds, or he may break into a fast stomp reminiscent of a cutting session thirty-five years ago at True Reformers Hall in Washington, D.C. This is what he calls his warm-up, and we would know that the first number was to be something swinging, perhaps the still unintelligible tune that he hummed so loudly. Once that is over, the next thing we might hear is Duke saying, “All right, fellows, let’s see if the piano is in tune.” That means everybody tune up, which was the first thing we’d done on arrival, but he has to hear the sound from the various instruments.

Then, the fun begins as Duke reaches into his pocket, and with the air of a magician produces some scraggly pieces of manuscript paper — about one-eighth of a page on which he’d scribbled some notes. I recall one occasion when he’d jotted some notes for the saxophones (Toby Hardwick, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, and Barney Bigard) and each was given a part, but there was nothing for Johnny Hodges. Duke had the saxes run the sequence down twice, while Johnny sat nonchalantly smoking. Then, Duke called to Hodges, “Hey, Rabbit, give me a long slow glissando against that progression. Yeah! That's it!” Next he said to Cootie Williams, “Hey, Coots, you come in on the second bar, in a subtle manner growling softly like a little hungry lion cub that wants his dinner but can’t find his mother. Try that, okay?” Following that, he’d say, “Deacon,” (how Lawrence Brown hated that nickname) “you are cast in the role of the sun beating down on the scene. What kind of sound do you feel that could be? You don’t know? Well, try a high B-flat in a felt hat, play it legato and sustain it for eight bars. Come on, let’s all hit this together,” and that’s the way it went — sometimes.

Rex Stewart, “Duke Ellington: One of a Kind.” 1966. In Jazz Masters of the 1930s (1972).
Columbia University’s WKCR is playing Ellington all day. Right now: “The Feeling of Jazz,” from the album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (1963).

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)
Rex Stewart on Ellington’s composing habits

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