DUKE ELLINGTON / “Duke On The Road Mixtape”
It’s elementary: Duke led the greatest big band ever. There used to be arguments about Basie or Duke. The Basie advocates upheld that aggregation as the most swinging—they would concede that Duke’s arrangements might have been a smidgen stronger but, according to those advocates, the Basie outfit was looser, less regimented, and hence had a true jazz feel.
That might sound convincing on the surface but paradoxical truth was just the opposite. As briefly as possible let me run it down to you.
1. Duke had the superior material. There’s no argument about who was the better composer and which band had the stronger material with which to work its respective magic.
2. Duke had the stronger soloists. Other than Lester Young, none of Basie’s fine musicians was considered a true trendsetter on his instrument with the possible exception of drummer Papa Jo Jones. At every position Duke is a winner (again, I’ll accept a tie in the drum chair if you compare Papa Jo Jones to anybody except Sonny Greer, who was with Duke up til the late thirties or early forties).
Do I have to do a roll call of trumpeters, trombonists, bass? and we don’t even have to start on the reed section: Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves and that’s not even counting Ben Webster’s short tenure.
3. Piano players. I know what you’re thinking: plink, plink, plink (Basie’s trademark, three-note coda). Although Duke was always deferential to the point of self-depreciating in regards to the band’s pianist (Duke often talked about the piano player in the third person), but again, just listen to the recordings. Even though I think Basie was severely under-rated, it’s obvious that Duke was the stronger of the two.
4. Arranger. Now here’s where it starts to get interesting. Some of those Basie charts were fiendishly clever and in most cases would be enough to take the prize but the problem is simple: Duke had Billy Strayhorn in addition to a wider range of material that ran the full gamut of musical styles and genres. You gotta remember Duke started in the twenties and played night clubs to concert halls and everything in between. I don’t think there is any argument regarding Basie versus Duke; but beyond the leaders, I also don’t think any one of the many Basie arrangers was the match of Billy Strayhorn.
5. The intangibles, e.g. “swing,” “soul,” “consistency through the years.” This is the area where judgments become extremely subjective. While I am tempted to argue, for brevity’s sake let’s concede this one area as a tie.
6. Recordings. No contest. Duke.
What becomes clear when you listen to a lot of Duke covering recordings from the late twenties on through the early seventies, what you hear is a constant development of the music in terms of ideas and inspirations. Ellington wrote for an orchestra made up of distinctive individuals. Ellington also wrote on commission, wrote for movies and theatre, for vaudeville and religious liturgy.
Also, you hear the arrangement of material change as the band members changed and as the times changed. Just in terms of longevity of the band as a whole, as well as longevity of the repertoire (both in terms of producing time, classic material, as well as in terms of producing quality compositions over a period of decades), the Duke Ellington orchestra is unparalleled in all of American history. In fact, I don’t think there is even an American classical orchestra that matches the Ellington aggregation in terms of standing within its genre. And certainly there is no American classical music composer who has achieved in classical music what Duke achieved in jazz.
This week’s Duke Mixtape draws on three live recordings: Newport 1956, California 1960, and Paris 1963. If you remember from last week’s feature, I favor the 1941 band and though I have live recordings of that band, those recordings are relatively rare. They were not widely circulated and did not have a major impact of the field of jazz as a whole when you compare them to the three I’ve chosen. Indeed, the Newport concert is legendary for the quarter hour workout of “Diminuendo” featuring Paul Gonsalves.
I’ll leave it to your ears to sort out what you dig and what you don’t. Note that there are excerpts from major suites (Nutcracker and Suite Thursday) as well as the extended work, “Tone Parallel To Harlem.” Also included are blues, ballads and even “Bula,” which Duke describes as a “gut-bucket Bolero.” I’ve even included “Pretty And The Wolf,” which is a prime example of Duke’s suave urbanity, sophisticated wit, and sang-froid as a raconteur.
You don’t have to listen too closely to hear the crowning achievement of the orchestra: these guys were having fun. They were serious musicians and masters of their instruments but they were also warm-blooded human beings who enjoyed creating great music especially in the presence of an appreciative audience. Join literally thousands of others who reveled in and sometimes went hog-wild over this marvelous music.
Duke Ellington on the road bringing the great goodness of his music to the whole wide world, a world he loved madly.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Duke On The Road Mixtape Playlist
Live at Newport 1956
01 “Duke Introduces Johnny Hodges”
02 “I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)”
03 “Jeep's Blues”
04 “Duke Calms Crowd; Introduces Ray Nance”
05 “Tulip Or Turnip”
06 “Duke Introduces Tune(s) And Paul Gonsalves”
07 “Diminuendo In Blue And Crescendo In Blue”
08 “Announcements, Pandemonium”
09 “Riot Prevention”
Hot Summer Dance
10 “The Nutcracker Suite Overture”
11 “Such Sweet Thunder”
12 “All Of Me”
13 “Jeep's Blues”
14 “Pretty And The Wolf”
The Great Paris Concert
15 “Kinda Dukish”
16 “Rockin' In Rhythm”
17 “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”
18 “The Star-Crossed Lovers”
21 “Jam With Sam”
22 “Tone Parallel to Harlem”
23 “Don't Get Around Much Anymore”
24 “Things Ain't What They Used To Be”
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