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Duke Ellington: Still Swingin' in the 1950s

Duke Ellington might have been forgotten for a while in the early '50s, but this box set shows that some of his finest and boldest work happened during this period.

Duke Ellington

The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection: 1951-1958

Label: Sony/Legacy
US Release Date: 2012-11-06
UK Release Date: 2013-01-13

So it’s 1951 and you’re Edward Kennedy Ellington and they’re saying you’re old and square. Imagine — Duke Ellington square? The hippest guy in America for two decades — square? And yet there it was. Just a decade earlier, he was killing it everywhere with his famous Blanton-Webster lineup (Jimmy Blanton on bass, Ben Webster on tenor), one of the most lethal jazz orchestras ever unleashed on the public ear.

Now, moving into the 1950s, Duke’s records weren’t selling the way they used to (and remember “records” meant 78 rpm slabs back then), and the band was too big to make him a lot of money. People had started to get into smaller, newer, wilder things: be-bop, for instance, with all its Monks and Birds and Buds, or the Franks and Dinahs out there, individual crooners with anonymous big bands behind them.

It seemed that maybe people didn’t want suites, didn’t want tonal coloration or subtlety or composition, didn’t want anything but the BLAM and the POW and the OOL-ya-COOL. It was post-war, it was a new day in America, and Duke seemed maybe a little too... well... open-eared, open-ended, open-hearted for the national mood.

So what do you do? Well, you’re Duke Ellington, dammit, so you double down. Sign a contract with Columbia to put out records in a new format: the 33 rpm “album". This box set includes the first nine studio albums you made during this contract. It shows definitively that no one should have been sleeping on you -- your work during this period was just as beautiful and deadly as anything you (and by definition any American composer) had accomplished before, or since.

Great strategy to bust out of the gate with one of the most modern albums ever made. Masterpieces by Ellington, released in 1951, uses ALL the vinyl on the record, grouped around four long songs. Three of them had been in your repertoire for 20 years, and the fourth just hit Carnegie Hall in 1948. But now you could finally let ‘em stretch out the way you’ve always heard them do in your head before. After all, you’re a composer who just happens to work in jazz, and you have some of the most creative and fascinating musicians in the world still in your pit.

“Mood Indigo", your first big hit in 1930, is now a monster stretching past 15 minutes, with so many hills and valleys that it becomes a landscape. Billy Strayhorn is working overtime with you to help stitch this all together, join the floaty parts to the jazzy parts, delay the vocal by Yvonne Lanauze until the piece is seven minutes old, then ask “Tricky Sam” Nanton to play one of the most incredible trombone solos in recorded history, a festival of onomatopoeia and sexy triple-tonguing that still sounds shockingly new. Follow it up with a similar take on “Sophisticated Lady” incorporating extensive piano riffing in the middle section and some of the most complex charts yet recorded to push things along at the three-quarter mark.

The new kid, “The Tattooed Bride", is conventionally muscular for all of three minutes before you send the horns on a wild goose chase around each other, which other people might be trying to do but no one can pull it off except the classical dudes. There is no rhythm section for a while, and then there is again, and then it’s gone again, and no one is doing that. The solos last for longer than some entire songs, and no one is doing that. Oh, and then break our heart with “Solitude” again, because we deserve it for worshipping false gods instead of you.

So how do you follow that up? Well, first, you lose your drummer (Sonny Greer) and alto sax star (Johnny Hodges) and lead trombonist (Lawrence Brown). Then you double down into Ellington Uptown, five extended pieces that do what Masterpieces did but more succinctly. Definitely lead off with a slammer introducing your new drummer, Louis Bellson, whose rapid-fire Buddy Rich-like fills take up about as much space as the rest of the orchestra on “Skin Deep". (Bellson, whom Ellington loved dearly, only lasted this one album before splitting; Sam Woodyard is the very capable drummer on the rest of the dates this decade.)

Definitely pull up “The Mooche” but have everyone do wild growly solos all over it. Definitely put down “A Tone Parallel to Harlem", one of your most incisive and complex suites, in which you try to recapitulate every single sound and influence in that wonderful part of New York City. Oh, you think it might be a great idea to have Betty Roche scat her be-boppin’ way through a new arrangement of “Take the ‘A’ Train", with band members responding to her sweet nonsense? Yeah, go with that. (This reissue also contains six parts of “The Liberian Suite,” appended as bonus tracks like it’s not a formidable jam on its own terms.

Album #3 here, Blue Rose, is a curious pairing of Duke’s orchestral arrangements and the big-band belting of Rosemary Clooney. This was no gross pandering, however, but an honest attempt to collaborate with a singer who really knew her way around both ballads and uptempo numbers. There is true pathos in her “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” — it can’t really touch Ella Fitzgerald’s version with Duke from later on, but that’s not really a fair comparison, and Clooney’s voice is a supple instrument. But you realized that, didn’t you, Duke? Isn’t that why you closed this album with an extended “Mood Indigo” where she wordlessly duets with Harry Carney on bass clarinet, pounds out the word with minimal accompaniment, and then lets you and the boys bring it home to a strangely spiky ending. It’s nice, but it’s not really ambitious.

But then something happened: Duke, you blew up again, with that famous appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival where you pulled Paul Gonsalves out of your top hat. This excellent tenor saxophonist had a bop feel and a whispery but strong tone; you unleashed him on the audience for 27 legendary white-hot choruses of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue", and even the well-heeled blonde socialites got up to shake their skinny asses in the audience. By August of 1956, you were on the cover of Time Magazine, and the “live” album of the date was on its way to becoming your best-selling album of all time. (We now know that the album was mostly cut the next day because the microphones were crap that night and overdubbed with audience noise… but that’s just dust in the wind now.) Mr. Ellington, you had finally silenced everyone who said you were no longer relevant. Suddenly, relevant was ALL you were. (That album is NOT part of this set, which only collects studio Columbia recordings.) (Booo to that decision, by the way.)

So your next move was extra curious. A Drum Is a Woman is one of those jazz-with-spoken-narrative-poetry things that was kicking around in the 1950s... and the 1960s... and the 1970s... and the 1980s... and the 1990s... and last decade too. Here, it doesn’t really matter what the story is, except for lols (Caribee Joe is some kind of island drum prodigy, he meets up with the mysterious Madam Zajj, who is a woman but also a drum but also African music somehow, they drift apart, together they are jazz music, it’s all very allegorical.) Duke, you might have told Billy Strayhorn to rein it in a little for this one, in retrospect, mightn’t you have?

And yet, as jazz-with-spoken-narrative-poetry projects from the 1950s go, this one could be much worse. To listen, you’ll have to tune out the narrative, and the overheated slang from Ozzie Bailey (“Madam Zajj, you’re a reeeeeeal swingin’ chick”). You’ll also have to ignore the casual faux-calypso sexism and violence creeping in all over the place: “It isn’t civilized to beat women / No matter what they do or they say / But can somebody tell me what else can you do / With a drum?” Well, okay, just don’t listen to anything anyone sings or says here and you get some hot moments; “Hey, Buddy Bolden” features some trad-jazz solo moments that are hot as hell, and the “Dream of the Flying Saucers” contains one of Woodyard’s most intelligently constructed solos. Overall, this thing — which was apparently part of a TV semi-musical broadcast — is just an anomaly that should be heard, even enjoyed, but overall overlooked.

The next album, however, cannot be overlooked in any way. Such Sweet Thunder, inspired by the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, is acknowledged as one of the late high-water marks in your repertoire, Duke — and wisely so. I find it a little more head than heart, if you know what I mean, but its head is perfectly lovely, with tone poems called “sonnets” floating everywhere, dedicated to “Hank Cinq” and “Sister Kate” and Caesar, as well as more involved pieces. “The Star-Crossed Lovers” is a ballad as pretty as anyone could release in 1956, Johnny Hodges’ beautiful tone making us all weep for Romeo and Juliet all over again; “Madness in Great Ones” goes all big-band pointillism on us, with a swell interlocking chart; “Circle of Fourths” is a bop ‘Pataphysics exercise, with the orchestra proceeding through every key in two minutes flat. However, “Lady Mac” could just have easily been called anything else in the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Up and Down, Up and Down” was also just a composition that you had lying around and decided to just throw in there at the last second. Overall, this is one of the classy ones to love, but I’m not in that camp.

Duke, in the midst of all this, it was actually pretty radical to record two different albums that were just straightforward jazz dance albums. Indigos is the trad one, with the big fat huge sweeping charts and its almost ironically florid solos by Shorty Baker and Hodges and you yourself; also a class move to have Ozzie Bailey come back to nail that second “Autumn Leaves” chorus to the wall. At the Bal Masque is the one hipsters love, as it’s much more obscure and MUCH more lively. Big splashy drums and rolling saxes all over “Satan Takes a Holiday", spirited island feel all over “The Peanut Vendor", and wow at that Clark Terry trumpet solo on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” They’re both a little throwaway, but they were extremely viable back then, and allowed you to think in different ways.

One of those ways was the storied suite called Black, Brown, & Beige. Your version here is mostly an album-length orchestral explosion of one of your most famous extended works, but it also features vocals by no other than Mahalia Jackson. THIS is the true gold standard in terms of your extended works, even though it is pretty truncated. (Duke, why did you only ever perform BB&B three times in its entirety, all in just a few months, and then never try it again?)

For this album tries to recapitulate the whole of the African American experience. It never quite gets there, at least on record. But one can see the effort in every note, from the “Work Song” opener all the way through to Jackson’s feature on “Come Sunday". The hooks on BB&B (your term, not mine) are indelible and delectable, the statements are bold and beautiful, and everything is completely integrated… just the way you wanted everything to be in those benighted days. The band is a seamless instrument, and is so stunning that it does not even jar the listener when Mahalia comes in for the “Come Sunday” solo. (She later blows the 23rd Psalm off the map, but that’s to be expected.)

This box set also contains a fascinating anomaly. The Cosmic Scene, attributed to “Duke Ellington’s Spacemen", was much more than just trying to cash in on Sputnik fever — it also shows you working with a small band for the first time. Well, okay, “small band” is a misnomer, as we’re talking about a nine-piece featuring three trombones, but it was a big departure for you. Were you feeling the icy blast of Charles Mingus and Miles Davis here? Because damned if “Spacemen” doesn’t sound like some of the Miles nonet work, with a great Davis impression by Terry, and “Bass-ment” might as well be a Mingus homage. Having three trombones in the group lends such beautiful color to “Midnight Sun", and the group’s unusual size seems to free up quite a few of your musicians. (Check Jimmy Hamilton’s amazing clarinet work on “St. Louis Blues” for evidence… as well as your own solos!)

Overall, this box set proves that the overall narrative of you being creatively dead until after Newport is strikingly, demonstrably, false. Of course, you knew that — you never stopped trying, reaching, stretching your talents and your efforts to find something that would work. You found it, over and over; it just took America a while to catch up.

Poor old America. Duke, did we ever truly deserve you?


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