Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

Blue Monday (African flower edition)

In the early 1960s, Duke Ellington found himself between recording contracts, and decided to capitalize on it by working with some of the young turks who were redefining jazz. His album with John Coltrane produced one sublime track (their beautiful version of “In a Sentimental Mood”) but was undercut by the fact that Coltrane was playing with Ellington’s regular sidemen. There was no such problem when Ellington went into the studio with Charles Mingus and Max Roach,  two iconoclasts who loved Duke’s music but were equally determined to keep him on his toes every minute. (That Mingus had been fired from Ellington’s orchestra, years earlier, after he got into a brawl with Juan Tizol no doubt added a whole layer of subtext.) Not all of the tension was directed at Ellington: at one point, the legendarily combative Mingus grew so angry with Roach that he packed up his bass and headed for the elevator, and only came back after Duke spent some time smoothing his feathers.

The album that resulted, Money Jungle (1962), is a tense, often combative sounding record loaded with remarkable music, but not exactly easy listening. Except, that is, for “Fleurette Africaine,” an Ellington tune that qualifies as virtually spontaneous composition. According to Duke, he prepped Mingus and Roach by describing an image of a flower standing alone in a forest. Mingus closed his eyes and came up with the fluttering bass line that opens the song, and Roach improvised subtle but emphatic accompaniment. The tune’s a wonder, and the performance is a career standout for all three musicians. It’s certainly one of my all-time favorite Ellington compositions.

The simplicity and beauty of the tune seems to attract at least as many musicians as Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” with equally mixed results. I rather like this guitar duo treatment on YouTube:

On the opposite end of the scale is this treatment by Gary Burton and Pat Metheny. Both men have their fans, but this version is way too ornate for my tastes:

This version by the amusingly named Trio De Janeiro hath charms to soothe the savage beast:

But in the end, I prefer the simpler approach, whether from Duke or any other interpreter:

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Blue (Independence Day) Monday

This version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” isn’t as widely known as the one from the Woodstock festival, but it’s every bit as awesome in its own right. Better still, the cameraman (and the director) had the sense to focus as often as possible on what Jimi Hendrix is doing to the guitar. One of my biggest beefs with the Woodstock film is that Michael Wadleigh kept the camera on the man’s face instead of his hands.

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Blue Monday

I’ve written about this performance before, but this clip is just about the best merger of instructional words and inspirational music I’ve ever seen. It’s the celebrated Paul Gonsalves saxophone solo from the Duke Ellington orchestra’s 1956 stand at the Newport Jazz Festival. Read, listen, and have fun.

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Calling Oliver Sacks

Here’s a question for all you musicians out there: is there something about playing the piano that encourages vocalizing by the pianist? I’ve gone through several of my favorite piano records — Errol Garner’s Concert By the Sea, Ellington at Newport, Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert and Dark Intervals — and noticed weird mumbling sounds that I presume are the pianists themselves muttering along with the music.

Jarrett has long been infamous for grunting and moaning in cosmic ecstasy at his own playing, but this mumbling sound is different. It’s almost as though Duke and Errol are keeping themselves sorted out with this kind of low-level semi-singing, like the subject of Oliver Sacks’ essay “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Either that, or they’re praying to Cthulhu and muttering passages from The Necronomicon. It isn’t just jazz, either: Glenn Gould drove his producers crazy by tweetling along with himself as he played. So what gives?

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Friday finds

Flowing Data digs up a 1927 map, prepared by Paramount Studios for potential investors, showing all the places in the world that could be faked by using easily accessible California locations. Which is how Holland winds up on the shore of Long Island Sound, and South Africa is a short drive from both Sherwood Forest and the Red Sea.

Do you write like Vladimir Nabokov? John Updike? Stephen King? H.P. Lovecraft? Find out here.

Eulogizing the one-of-a-kind Harvey Pekar. Jeet Heer identifies his roots in the same working-class Jewish radicalism that nourished Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Scott McLemee salutes his influence on other curmudgeons.

iPod therefore I am: Christopher Lydon interviews Harvey Cohen, author of the great new biography of Duke Ellington.

Why 2004 is the year four of America’s largest newspapers lost their moral bearings.

The Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow is coming to my area next month. Two of the screening locations are a little too obvious — the first three Rocky flicks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, On the Waterfront on the Hoboken waterfront — but seeing The Godfather Part II in what remains of Little Italy sounds cool. What I’d really like to see is There Will Be Blood in the Kern County Museum, right under the oil derrick that inspired some key scenes in the movie.

Caffeine doesn’t do what you think it does.

“When I look back at the science-fiction magazines of the twenties and the early thirties, the ones that hooked me on sf, I sometimes wonder just what it was we all found in them to shape our lives around. I think there were two things. One is that science fiction was a way out of a bad place; the other, that it was a window on a better one.”

A solar eclipse over Easter Island. All that’s missing is a Pink Floyd soundtrack. An underwater forest in a frozen Kazakhstan lake. Soundtrack by Popol Vuh, perhaps?

Robert Silverberg on the financial realities of the full-time novelist.

During its three decades as a prison, Alcatraz Island saw 14 attempts to escape involving a total of 36 prisoners. One attempt in June 1962 (the basis for a pretty good Clint Eastwood movie) may have succeeded, but the few inmates who reached the water probably drowned in the icy waters of San Francisco Bay.  Try your luck on the Alcatraz Swim-O-Meter.

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Dream projects: Spike Lee

The idea here is to pick a work of literature just waiting to be filmed, and pick the filmmaker who should do it. The first pick was David Cronenberg for a Junichiro Tanizaki novella. Today’s pick is . . .

SPIKE LEE: Beneath the Underdog: His World As Composed By Mingus, by Charles Mingus.

“Stormy” is a word frequently used to describe jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979); it also applies to his 1971 stream-of-consciousness memoir, which is literary equivalent to one of his more ambitious compositions. Just as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” alternates swinging passages of hard bop with chaotic free jazz interludes, Beneath the Underdog staggers through long rants and digressions, sometimes alternating passages of brilliant clarity with tedious accounts of sexual exploits and random digressions. As a factual account of a man’s life, Beneath the Underdog is at best dubious, but as a record of the thoughts and preoccupations of one of America’s greatest composers, it’s fascinating.

I don’t think a direct film adaptation of Beneath the Underdog is possible or even advisable, but the book would be a fine springboard for a biographical Beneath the Underdogfilm about the man. After training up in the Forties with touring groups under Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Kid Ory in the Forties, Mingus emerged as a bandleader in the Fifties, forming a very loose, ever-shifting collection of musicians he called the Jazz Workshop. His career bridged the commercial decline of the big jazz bands and the rise of the boppers, just as his life spanned the overwhelming transformations of the civil rights era.  As Brian Priestley notes in his 1982 critical biography (still the best and most reliable work on the composer), Mingus was part of “the generation which came to maturity during and immediately after World War II, and which was no longer content to adopt either the seeming subservience of a Louis Armstrong or the sophisticated scorn of a Duke Ellington.” His rage over the slights dealt to him as a black man, combined with his readiness to joust with record companies and the music industry at large, often made Mingus a menace to his own career, as when he blew his chance to play in the orchestra of his composing idol, Duke Ellington. The account Mingus gives in Beneath the Underdog is self-serving, but the pain and humiliation of the setback is all there on the page:

This is the hero and this is the band you don’t quit, but this time you’re asked to leave because of an incident with a trombone player and arranger named Juan Tizol. Tizol wants you to play a solo he’s written where bowing is required. You raise the solo an octave, where the bass isn’t too muddy. He doesn’t like that and he comes to the room under the stage where you’re practicing at intermission and comments that you’re like the rest of the niggers in the band, you can’t read. You ask Juan how he’s different from the other niggers and he states that one of the ways that he is different is that HE IS WHITE. So you run his ass upstairs. You leave the rehearsal room and proceed toward the stage with your bass and take your place and at the moment Duke brings down the baton for “A-Train” and the curtain of the Apollo Theatre goes up, a yelling, whooping Tizol rushes out and lunges at you with a bolo knife. The rest you remember mostly from Duke’s own words in his dressing room as he changes after the show.

“Now, Charles,” he says, looking amused, putting Cartier links into the cuffs of his beautiful handmade shirt, “you could have forewarned me — you left me out of the act entirely! At least you could have let me cue in a few chords as you ran through that Nijinsky routine. I congratulate you on your performance, but why didn’t you and Juan inform me about the adagio you planned so that we could score it? I must say I never saw a large man so agile — I never saw anybody make such tremendous leaps! The gambado over the piano carrying your bass was colossal. When you exited after that I thought, ‘That man’s really afraid of Juan’s knife and at the speed he’s going he’s probably home in bed by now.’ But no, back you came through the same door with your bass still intact. For a moment I was hopeful you’d decided to sit down and play bu instead you slashed Juan’s chair in two with a fire axe! Really, Charles, that’s destructive. Everybody knows Juan has a knife but nobody ever took it seriously — he likes to pull it out and show it to people, you understand. So I’m afraid, Charles — I’ve never fired anybody — you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem, I can cope with that, but you seem to have a whole bag of new tricks. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice, Mingus.”

The charming way he says it, it’s like he’s paying you a compliment. Feeling honored, you shake hands and resign.

There are at least three reasons why Spike Lee should tackle a film about Charles Mingus. Lee’s filmic biography of Malcolm X is one of his best works, Spike Leeand I’d like to see him return to the jazz milieu he explored in Mo Better Blues.  Most of all, Lee would be unflinching about the ways racism distorted Mingus’ life and career. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s biography of Charlie Parker, Bird, which offered viewers some comic relief by devoting lots of screen time to Parker’s 1949 tour with Red Rodney — during which Parker presented Rodney, a white man, as “Albino Red” — Lee’s film would be gutsy enough to keep the racial theme as uncomfortable as possible. And there’s no question that the splendor of the composer’s music guarantees a monster of a soundtrack .

Laugh if you will, but I can picture Ice Cube playing Mingus. The rapper is a better actor than he gets credit for — his multilayered performance as Doughboy is the main reason anyone remembers Boyz N The Hood — and his glowering presence is a close match for Mingus at his most forbidding.

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Blue Monday

As the self-applied label “gypsy jazz guitar” makes clear, Joscho Stephan wants to be seen as the next Django Rheinhardt, and there’s no denying he has the technique to make the comparison stick. The tune up top is “Django’s Tiger,” and like the one below, “Limehouse Blues,” it shows that Stephan has earned his reputation as the Lightnin’ Licks Kid.

I don’t listen much to Stephan right now, because the crowd-pleasing Speedy Gonzales stuff gets tedious after a while. The soul part of the jazz equation isn’t quite there yet. But the clip below, which shows Stephan stretching out on the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan,” have enough wit, energy and creative spark to keep me from writing Stephan off as an empty flashmeister. The guy’s got some surprises in him.

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Blue Monday

Seventy years ago this month, a meeting took place that would prove to be a milestone in the history of jazz in particular and American popular music in general. It was a cross-country meeting that started in Pittsburgh and concluded in Newark, N.J., and cemented one of the great songwriting teams of 20th century music.

Duke Ellington and his powerhouse jazz orchestra had just started a weeklong engagement in Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre (now the Benedum Center) in December 1938 when an acquaintance asked him to meet with a young man who had impressed his teachers with some remarkable musical gifts but couldn’t seem to catch a break. Duke agreed to a meeting, and on Dec. 2 a 23-year-old drugstore delivery boy named Billy Strayhorn was ushered up to Ellington’s dressing room.

According to the oft-repeated story, Ellington was reclining in a chair, getting his hair conked, when Strayhorn arrived. Not even opening his eyes, he invited the young supplicant to play something on the piano. Strayhorn then proceed to play two renditions of Ellington’s ballad  “Sophisticated Lady,” first in a note-perfect duplication of Duke’s style, then in his own, slightly more up-tempo version that opened Duke’s eyes and brought him to his feet. Strayhorn duplicated the feat with “Solitude,” this time with Ellington standing behind him. Deeply impressed with Strayhorn but unsure of how to use him — the band did, after all, already have a pianist — Ellington gave Strayhorn a songwriting assignment and, after another meeting, left Pittsburgh with a promise to send for him once he ws back in New York. He also left Strayhorn with subway directions to his Harlem apartment.

The second installment of the meeting took place Jan. 23 at the Adams Paramount Theatre in Newark, N.J. Strayhorn, who had not received any followup communication from Ellington, boldly took a train to Philadelphia, where he had been told Duke would be playing a mid-January engagement, then continued to Newark when he learned he’d missed Ellington. He brought with him a new song written from the subway directions. That song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” became the Ellington orchestra’s concert theme, and Billy Strayhorn became Duke Ellington’s right-hand man.

Bear in mind that by 1938, Ellington had already written many of his best-known songs, several of them classics that would have secured his place in history. Strayhorn, who was deeply knowledgeable in classical music, brought that expertise to his work with Duke’s work, and his arrangements consistently brought out the strengths of the oprchestra’s musicians.

One of the best pieces of music writing you’ll ever read is “The Hot Bach,” a 1944 New Yorker profile of Ellington that offers an amusing look at their working method:

The train rounded a long curve and Duke stopped writing. He began again and then evidently decided he wanted to try the music out on someone. “Sweepea? Sweepea!” he called. Sweepea is William Strayhorn, the staff arranger and a talented composer in his own right. Strayhorn, who, incidentally, does not play in the band, is a small, scholarly, tweedy young man with gold-rimmed spectacles. He got his nickname from a character in a comic strip. Strayhorn, who had been trying to sleep, staggered uncertainly down the aisle in answer to his boss’s summons.

“I got a wonderful part here,” Duke said to him. “Listen to this.” In a functional, squeaky voice that tried for exposition and not for beauty, Duke chanted, “Dah dee dah dah dah, deedle dee deedle dee boom, bah bah bah, boom, boom!” He laughed, frankly pleased by what he had produced, and said, “Boy, that son of a bitch has got a million twists.”

Strayhorn, still swaying sleepily in the aisle, pulled himself together in an attempt to offer an intelligent observation. Finally he said drowsily, “It’s so simple, that’s why.”

Duke laughed again and said, “I really sent myself on that. Would you like to see the first eight bars?”

“Ah yes! Ah yes!” Strayhorn said resignedly, and took the manuscript. He looked at it blankly. Duke misinterpreted Sweepea’s expression as one of severity.

“Don’t look at it that way, Sweepea,” he said. “It’s not like that.”

“Why don’t you reverse this figure?” asked Strayhorn sleepily. “Like this.” He sang shakily, “Dah dee dah dah dah, dah dee dah dah dah, boomty boomty boomty, boom!”

“Why not dah dee dah dah dah, deedle dee deedle dee dee, boom bah bah bah, boom?” Duke said.

“Dah dee dah dah dah!” sang Strayhorn stubbornly.

“Deedle dee deedle dee dee!” Duke answered.

“Dah dee dah dah dah!” Strayhorn insisted.

Duke did not reply; he just leaned eagerly forward and, pointing to a spot on the manuscript with his pencil, said, “Here’s where the long piano part comes in. Here’s where I pick up the first theme and restate it and then begin the major theme. Dah dee dah, deedle dee deedle dee, boom!”

The train lurched suddenly. Sweepea collapsed into a seat and closed his eyes. “Ah yes!” he said weakly. “Ah yes!”

(“Sweepea,” incidentally, referred to Sweet Pea, Olive Oyl’s baby boy. That band-bestowed nickname reflected an interesting mixture of respect, affection and possibly faint contempt for Strayh0rn’s homosexuality and his curious business relationship with Ellington, who never gave him a salary or an official job role but paid Strayhorn’s bills and funded his lavish lifestyle.)

Strayhorn also made a try at a solo career, though his name would forever be entwined with Ellington’s legend. Strayhorn’s song was “Lush Life,” performed here by Johnny Hartman:

Strayhorn’s last song for Ellington, composed merely days before he succumbed to esophogeal cancer in May 1967, was “Blood Count,” written while he was in the hospital. It is one of the key songs on …And His Mother Called Him Bill, the tribute album Ellington recorded later that year:

…And His Mother Call Him Bill is Ellington’s masterpiece: a great starting point for anyone looking to explore Duke’s vast body of work, but also a returning place during the exploration. The tunes are uniformly strong, and the playing is alive with the conflicting emotions of great musicians (some of whom were not far from the end themselves) expressing not only sorrow but defiant joy in the life-affirming power of their music.

The recording includes a beautiful solo rendition of “Lotus Blssom,” which Ellington played while the other musicians were packing up, and the combination accidentally made for a poignant farewell note. But there is also an ensemble performance that should not be missed:

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Blue Monday

There are albums that started out as great concepts that never quite gelled, though they still boast one or two transcendent moments that linger as an example of what might have happened with more time, additional planning or simply better luck. Duke Ellington’s 1962 collaboration with John Coltrane is a good example: it’s a very pleasant, listenable record, but nothing else on it matches the brilliance of “In a Sentimental Mood,” which opens the disc on a high note.

Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective is a case in point. Byrd started out as a trumpeter on some fine hard bop recordings before his career coasted to a close with the lackluster R&B of the Blackbyrds. The idea of placing a septet alongside a choir of wordless voices (in this case, the Coleridge Perkinson Choir) was inspired, but the music only becomes truly inspirational on one track: “Cristo Redentor,” written by pianist and arranger Duke Pearson and inspired by the sight of the huge statue of Jesus Christ overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

I first heard the song via blues harp master Charlie Musselwhite, whose capacious catalogue includes two separate runs at the tune. This version of “Cristo Redentor” is from his 1967 debut album, and while Musselwhite’s playing is superb, I think he knocked it out of the ballpark when he revisited the song on Tennessee Woman. This version has borderline cheesy organ accompaniment instead of the later version’s gospel-derived piano, but concentrate on Musselwhite’s harp and you’ll get religion:

Harvey Mandel, the guitarist in Musselwhite’s Stand Back era band, took up the idea his own arrangement of “Cristo Redentor.” I’m not a fan of Mandel’s version, which pushes Pearson’s arrangement all the way into Muzak, but this animation is fun:

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Lose your illusion II

First I had to find out that the highlight of one of my favorite Duke Ellington records was at least partly a studio confection. But I could deal with that — after all, the epic Paul Gonsalves solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” was the real thing, even though the rest of the concert had to be re-recorded in the studio to bring the sound up to par. But now it turns out that one of the spookiest moments in pop music was actually the result of the tape-slicer’s art. The record in question is still a great one, but jeez . . . what other surprises do these archival recordings have in store? Are we going to learn that nobody yelled “Judas!” at Bob Dyan during that famous concert?

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