Shfl Guide: Duke Ellington

The recorded Duke Ellington catalog is an intimidating place to contemplate from outside — though once in, nothing could be more inviting. As a musician whose five-decade career was bisected almost exactly by the shift from 78s to LPs (and 45s), Ellington cannot be summed up by albums alone. There are many Ellington overviews and box sets, and the best of them are to be explored for an extended time, at the listener’s leisure — each is, in itself, simply too rich not to roam around in for a while. No one collection does him full justice, and none ever will. That includes my own Spotify Ellington playlists: one of originals, another of core repertoire, often in multiple versions, and a third of live recordings. None are definitive — I’m a fan, not a scholar — and all teem with delectable music.

It’s not just a lot of music in number — Spotify has more than 2,200 songs bearing his touch. It’s that this is hardly all there is — much is missing from that site. The Duke produced liturgical music and pseudo-jungle exotica, spiky modern trio dates and the most gossamer of mainstream ballads. He kept the best players around by letting them do their thing on- and off-stage, just as long as they kept the latter’s habits off the former’s hallowed ground; the Ellington Orchestra was don’t-ask-don’t-tell in the same way as the Grateful Dead. The Duke’s arrangements never stopped shifting and never stopped surprising, so when these road dogs had a night recorded or broadcast for later release, they often differed widely. Ellington and his second composer-arranger, Billy Strayhorn, exuded jaunty cosmopolitanism, even when praising the Lord in robes.

Born in 1899, Ellington grew up in Washington, D.C., and moved to New York by the early twenties, making a name for himself quickly as both a roguish charmer and a peerless pianist. The New York City historian Donald L. Miller wrote of Irving Mills, a Tin Pan Alley promoter, that Mills had “discovered Ellington playing at a basement dive called the Club Kentucky, a rowdy interracial club in the Broadway Theater District” in 1926. In December 1927, Ellington’s band moved uptown to the Cotton Club, where Black performers played for exclusively white audiences in Harlem, the capital of Black America. That era was defined by the innovative trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley, a pioneer of the “growling” plunger mute. He and the similarly growly trombonist Charlie Irvis were key to the “jungle music” motifs that, by necessity — it was in the club’s décor stage shows, infamously — became central to Ellington’s late-twenties compositions. He left the Cotton Club in 1931.

Throughout the thirties, Ellington’s work grew by lengths in sophistication. In 1939, three big hires shored things up even more — bassist Jimmy Blanton, barely out of his teens and ready to stalk big game with his mountainous low end; the tenor sax hero Ben Webster; and most importantly the composer-pianist Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s coequal until his death until 1967. The same year he came aboard, Strayhorn contributed “Lush Life” to the band’s book and ensured himself immortality. (Though, weirdly, no Ellington version of “Lush Life” is available on Spotify as of November 2021.)

Ellington was as integral as Frank Sinatra in establishing the long-playing album as a creative and cultural force. Beginning in the early fifties, he began a series of ambitious long-players intended to reconfigure his earlier catalog — the idea then being that people wanted the song rather than a specific version of it — which led to a lot of re-recordings. Yet Ellington, and certainly his arrangements, never stood still — those re-recordings often have a pull of their own.

Take “Caravan,” from 1936, one of the Ellington band’s hardiest numbers. The main melody originated with Juan Tizol, who’d received twenty-five dollars for his input; Ellington wrote the bridge and arranged it, his usual working arrangement with his star trombonist, who also co-wrote “Perdido” and “Pyramid,” among others, for the band. (Irving Mills attached his name to the songwriting purely as business.) The original version (on The Duke: The Columbia Years compilation) swings as loose and sharp as anything of its era, and trumpeter Cootie Williams’ controlled explosive blat presages not just a lot of other musical effects to come in jazz but elsewhere — it reminds me of nothing so much as a 303 snarl on an acid house track.

By 1946, though, they’re playing the song to a steadier, train-track rhythm, reflecting the rhythmic changes post-war, from big band swing to small-band propulsion, and phrasing the melody more mournfully. A 1955 version takes it even slower and more scenically, the tune taken up by deftly modulated brass. And twice in 1962, he laid the tune down in highly contrasting versions—first with a slower near-Mambo rather than the frisky original Latin tinge. It would come out a decade after Duke’s death, with Paul Gonsalves receiving a feature credit. Later in ’62, of course, Ellington would smash the keys down, disconcertingly hard, on one of his most beloved tunes as part of the Money Jungle session with bassist Charles Mingus and Max Roach, modernizing it with near-malicious glee. Then, in March of 1964, he played the song onstage in Stockholm — ten songs were issued in 1985 as Harlem — reconceived as a concert piece, its arrangement constantly shifting rather than concentrating on the melody. The ending even Dixielands it up a bit. Each version is highly distinctive and well worth your ear time. And that’s just one song.

It was as if the ideas wouldn’t stop coming. Because Ellington so often re-recorded his material, he siphoned off new compositions to private recording sessions, paid for by himself, just to stockpile material. (There are ten volumes of The Private Collection, and this likely includes many other posthumous studio releases.) Often albums would be finished years before their release, and not just for posthumous releases. All the way back in 1945, Ellington and Strayhorn had labored over the recording of the four-part, eleven minute “Perfume Suite,” only for his label, Victor, to delay its issue until 1952.

You’d expect this guy to run out of gas at some point, and for many critics it was in the late forties, when the Orchestra had to adjust to the change in taste among black audiences for smaller groups. Yet not only did the Ellington Orchestra persevere — often to the detriment of its own finances — it thrived, winning a major comeback at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, its five-song condensing on LP a major bestseller. But Ellington challenged himself to the end. Strayhorn died in 1967, seven years before Duke, and their last album together, Far East Suite, is a complete triumph. And he had a serious late-life bumper crop, with the triad of Latin American Suite (1968-70), New Orleans Suite (1970), and best of all, The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971). It’s a lot, but there is no such thing here as too much.

Masterpieces 1926-1949 cover

Long out of print, this four CD box with just-OK sound is nevertheless the best place to learn the Ellington pre-LP-era basics. (As I type, you can score one for five bucks on Discogs.) It’s a judiciously chosen intro to the greatest songbook in jazz, a masterful display; a lot of Blanton-Webster, as there should be, but each era of the Ellington Orchestra during its first half is accounted for. If there’s stuff missing — a lot is — it only demonstrates that songbook’s abundance.

The Duke: The Columbia Years (1927-1962) cover

This accessible overview has noticeable gaps between each of its discs — the mid-fifties are missing, and so, noticeably, are the early forties, spent mainly on RCA. Things go missing — the instantly famous long Paul Gonsalves solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” from the 1956 Newport concert, easily the post-war Duke’s best-known number, at fifteen minutes would have upended the package. But it’s the most accessible version with the longest span.

Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band cover

It took until the mid-twenties, with the advent of electrical recording, to accurately get the measure of a full band, low end included. But few bassists (or tuba players) had led or jumped a band’s rhythm with the alertness of Jimmy Blanton, who played with Ellington between 1939 and 1941 (he left due to terminal illness and died in July 1942, only twenty-three). The pre-War edition of the Ellington Orchestra featured Blanton and tenor saxophone star Ben Webster, whose first tour with Ellington covered 1939-43, also the span of this set. The material was first anthologized in 1986, on the 66-song, three-disc Blanton-Webster Band box; this 2003 update, containing nine more songs, features a remastering job that, even through a stream, is startlingly bright and clear. So much to bask in here: Webster going ham on “Cotton Tail” and sighing over “Across the Track Blues”; Blanton asserting himself on “Jack the Bear”; the whole of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” maybe the greatest recording of the Twentieth Century’s first half. Decades on from my first encounter, new favorites keep emerging.

Masterpieces by Ellington cover

How, and whom, better to not only expand the remit of his catalog — with four selections each going toward or past the ten-minute mark — but also that of the new long-playing album? “One of the first genuinely innovative twelve-inch LPs,” avers critic Gary Giddins, who fell for it hard as a teenager: his first Duke LP. Good start: The three thirties hits, here in their concert arrangements, and a newer gem, “The Tattooed Bride,” are definitive.

Blue Rose cover

One year after this album, in 1957, Ella Fitzgerald would record the Duke Ellington Songbook with the man and his orchestra — but Rosemary Clooney got there first, and her version of his catalog is equally masterful. Clooney had been a pop hitmaker, but she left her hacky earlier work in the dust with felt, deeply evocative interpretations of “Mood Indigo” and “Passion Flower,” as well as a romp through the delightful lesser-known thirties number “I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom-Bye.”

Money Jungle cover

Like few jazzmen of his age and eminence, Ellington not only regularly collaborated with hot young players during the post-bop era, he consistently met them — challenged them — on their own turf. The premiere example is this date, where three kings — Charles Mingus on bass, Max Roach on drums, each at the height of his preeminence — became, in promoter George Wein’s words, “a triumvirate, not a trio.” As critic Ben Ratliff put it, “The music has its feelings on the surface.” The title track comes on so rambunctious it can be easy to recall the whole session as being equally spiky, but not all of it was: this version of “Warm Valley” is strikingly pacific.

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane cover

No surprise that this was recorded within months of Money Jungle — and that it was in many ways that album’s temperamental opposite. Coltrane, after all, was an able supporting player (cf. his Johnny Hartman album) and an exquisite ballad player of the Ben Webster school. Not that the two don’t knock about some: “Angelica” begins like gossamer only to swing into small-band post-bop, and “Take the Coltrane,” Duke’s theme song retitled for this co-star, gives it a modest but sharp makeover.

Afro-Bossa cover

This album was a major shift; it presaged the key later Ellington works, the best of which deal in globalist musical motifs in much the way he had previously done with “jungle” ones. Ellington spent much of the fifties and sixties locked into recording deals that called for rehashes of his older music in equal measure with recordings of new work: the Afro-Bossa sessions wrapped around those of Memories of the Big Band Era. (The re-recordings sold two or three times as much as the new stuff.) The latter has its moments, but you can hear the Orchestra breathing free and breaking away here. “Caline (Silk Lace)” is all friskiness and rakish charm; the title track proved Ellington and Strayhorn could arrange percussion with the same suave density as they could horns.

Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite cover

Written in 1963, recorded near the end of 1966, and issued the following June, this is Ellington and Strayhorn’s last great statement together: Strayhorn died a month before the album’s release. Their tandem went out on top. Inspired (of course) by the band’s international travel, it was also, as always, tailored to the talents of their players, and do they deliver — not for nothing did Ellington call his sixties Orchestra the best he ever had. Far East Suite is a delightful Technicolor paradox: some of their most brocaded music is also some of their bluesiest, in feel if not form. Credit bassist John Lamb, who sounds like he’s playing a Redwood.

The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse cover

Possibly the greatest album ever made by a septuagenarian: Recorded in 1971 and released a year after his 1974 death, The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse has the kind of zest you’d associate with a much younger man. Not Duke’s own youth, but something like this version, a youthful contemporary with wide-open ears — it even incorporates rock rhythms in ways that sound utterly Dukish — with an offhanded casualness underlining even the most florid touches. Certainly, nobody in music made more of Marshall McLuhan’s theories, explicitly acknowledged in the album’s long spoken introduction.