Duke Ellington in England - 1958

By G. E. Lambert. Originally from Jazz Monthly, November 1958

In jazz criticism the word genius is overworked and frequently misapplied, yet in its dictionary meaning of “consummate intellectual, creative, or other power, more exalted than talent” it quite definitely applies to that remarkable musician Duke Ellington. During the recent tour of this country by the Duke Ellington Orchestra his pre-eminent place in jazz was powerfully underlined. Since the inception of the Anglo-American band exchanges we have heard some outstanding jazzmen, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Earl Hines and Coleman Hawkins amongst them, and to a very large extent they have played with the excellence we have come to expect from their records. Yet even if we add to this impressive list the name of Johnny Hodges there can be little doubt that the achievements of Duke Ellington place him on a different, more exalted plane than any of these. The concerts I attended all produced music of a very high quality, both from the ensemble and from the amazing profusion of soloists—each concert was a most rewarding experience, and I derived more pleasure from the Ellington band’s performances than those of any other jazz group I have heard in concert. The criticisms which have been levelled at Duke because of the structure of his programme I find puzzling when they emanate from people like Vic Bellerby and Max Jones, critics whom one would have expected to have perceived more closely the many positional aspects of the music. But going on to discuss these dissident voices let us first take a look at the Ellington band and its repertoire as presented on this tour.

The trumpet section I would place amongst the very finest in jazz history, not only for the section playing but for the excellence of the solos and the contrasting styles of the four musicians. The section excelled in such vastly different roles as the all out powerhouse blowing at the end of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”, the stabbing attack in such numbers as “Such Sweet Thunder” and “Harlem Air Shaft”, the soft, precise, swinging riffs behind Jimmy Hamilton in “VIP’s Boogie” and the various examples of muted playing by all or a part of the section (e.g. the first chorus of “Harlem Air Shaft” or the playing of Nance and Baker, along with Quentin Jackson, in “Such Sweet Thunder”). Individually the contrast between the four musicians was a delight bringing to mind the well known partnerships of Lester Young and Herschel Evans, or Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart, but this time with four equally talented soloists as section mates. In Cat Anderson’s “El Gato” we had the experience of the whole section down front playing an exciting series of chase choruses, the full tone and broad phrasing of Harold Baker contrasted with the cloudy-toned, agile, yet highly percussive playing of Clark Terry, the agitated, swinging phrasing of Ray Nance set against the incredibly powerful and searing playing of Anderson in the highest register of the instrument. The trumpet solos scattered throughout the programme had an amazing diversity – Nance’s interpretations of the traditional Miley solos in the medley of numbers from the 1920’s, his singing, lyrical trumpet in “Such Sweet Thunder”, and the beautifully phrased solos he took on many of the band’s up tempo numbers; Baker’s richly melodic solo on “Mood Indigo” and his backing to Bailey’s vocal in “M C Blue”; Terry’s witty flugel horn solos and his contributions to “Newport Up”, and of course Cat Anderson. A veritable section in himself, this remarkable trumpet player, apart from demonstrating a rather empty virtuosity in “La Virgen de la Macarena” and a wonderfully musical virtuosity in “Madness in Great Ones”, brought most of the band’s up-tempo numbers on a rousing, exciting climax with his powerfully blown high notes – one cannot refer to these as screamers, for the term does not suggest the control Anderson has over his high register playing. On the Saturday of the Leeds Musical Festival Harold Baker was ill and we saw Anderson in a different role, playing “growl” responses to the three clarinets and the delicacy of his playing here was of great beauty, suggesting that it is not simply on the score of mere volume and power that one can refer to him as being a section in himself.

The trombones—who work beautifully together as a section through some very varied scoring—are not featured to anything like the same extent. Britt Woodman had only the “Hank Cinq” feature and brief solos on “Jam with Sam” and “Stompy Jones” on which to display his talents, and considering the very set nature of the trombone solo in “Hank Cinq” this gives him little opportunity to extend himself. Britt told me that he would be happy to have more solo space and stressed the unfairness of the “no jamming” edict to musicians in a band like this who have little enough space to work out their own ideas on music when constantly touring. He was most emphatic however in his view that he was learning a tremendous amount from his experiences with the Ellington band. His two solo spots outside “Hank Cinq” interested me very much as they showed a modern stylist who combined in his playing the flowing, relaxed phrasing of such middle period trombonists as Dicky Wells and Benny Morton. Quentin Jackson suffered from a similar restriction, in that his solo work was usually confined to one solo in “The Mooche” during the “roaring twenties” medley. At one of the Leeds concerts Ellington introduced his exquisite score of “My Funny Valentine” and Jackson’s solo here proved the adaptability of his muted playing. John Sanders had only the brief version of “Caravan” in which to solo, but this, and those parts of “Such Sweet Thunder” and “Half the Fun” during which his trombone was prominent in the section, left one in no doubt as to his fine musicianship. One would like to hear more of Sanders also, but it must be pointed out that Ellington has fifteen soloists in the band making it difficult to do justice to all. The trombones did seem to be on very short solo rations however, particularly in the case of so interesting a musician as Britt Woodman.

The voice of Johnny Hodges dominated the reeds—here is the finest alto saxophonist in the history of jazz and probably the most consistent soloist the music has known. A completely imperturbable, unruffled individual whose playing was happily without either showmanship or the slightest trace of vulgarity. Every phrase was a perfect gem of melody shaped into a strong rhythmic framework and delivered with a full, rich and glowing tone. His playing is powerful even when pianissimo, unruffled and perfectly formed even when shouting over a full band crescendo and rich in blues phrasing at every point. The work of Johnny Hodges is indeed one of the richest gems of American Negro art. “The Star Crossed Lovers” featured Johnny in his lyrical manner as did part of the new “MC Blue”, although the latter ran through a variety of moods. “All of Me” and “Sunny Side of the Street” were delivered in a medium tempo with a casual manner recalling the informal Hodges of such sessions as those with the Hampton or Wilson pick-up groups of the 1930’s. And of course we had the blues, for Hodges is one of the masters of this idiom. “Jeep’s Blues” had a totally different but equally perfected sequence of alto choruses from that on the Newport recording and at the Saturday concerts at Leeds we heard a new version of “Things Aint What They Used To Be”. This alone was a sufficient justification for a whole musical festival, being a wonderfully spontaneous creation. Building through successive choruses of solo alto, with the band rifling softly, this number led to a thrilling all out climax with Hodges shouting the blues over the full band. Hodges played with superb confidence and power, never for a moment losing the swing, relaxation and melodic invention which at all times characterise the work of this great musician. Like Duke, Johnny Hodges posses a creative power “more exalted than talent”.

To find in the same section as Hodges a musician of the calibre of Harry Carney is riches indeed, for here we have a man who is at once the foundation stone of the reed section, indeed of the whole band, and a soloist without rival on his instrument. “Sophisticated Lady” featured Carney in a sequence of melodic variations with passages played with the agility of an alto, and a full rich tone which has never been approached by any other baritone player. The immense power of Carney’s playing is most impressive (like Cat Anderson the man is a section in himself), this being amply demonstrated during the “Telecasters” movement from “Such Sweet Thunder”. The principle clarinet soloist is that superb craftsman Jimmy Hamilton—a man much maligned by certain jazz critics. He is not the creator of a strongly individual style as was his predecessor Barney Bigard, but he is a superb instrumentalist who interprets Ellington’s scores with considerable sensitivity and very great skill. It was interesting to have the opportunity to ask Jimmy about an aspect of his playing which has puzzled me for some time—the great contrast between his clarinet playing and his solo style on tenor. “I regard the tenor as a barrel-house instrument— you know, I just let go and play as I feel at the moment” he told me, “but the clarinet, well that’s a different thing, it takes a lifetime to know this instrument.” I thought Hamilton’s attitude to the tenor bordered on contempt, yet on the Saturday at Leeds when Paul Gonsalves, the featured tenor was ill, he took a tenor solo in “Jam with Sam” which could well have been the envy of all but the top rank of jazz tenor men. Gonsalves was a considerable disappointment to me, not so much for what he played as in the extremely low volume and lack of tone even when he was playing close to the mike. His “Diminuendo and Crescendo” solo swung all right (although the advisability of playing this at full length at every performance should be questioned), but unless one sat in the first few rows of the stalls it was mighty hard to hear. Russell Procope is the utility man of the section —lead alto and occasional soloist on this instrument, and the clarinettist who inherits such of Bigard’s solos as are left in the book. Personally I do not care for the rather jerky way Procope phrases the clarinet solo in “Creole Love Call” and it would be interesting to hear if Hamilton came nearer to the violin-like quality of Rudy Jackson’s original. The sub-tone solos and the “Mooche” duet with Hamilton were very acceptable, as indeed was his alto on the second theme of “Black and Tan Fantasy”. During “Jam with Sam” Russell took a delightful alto chorus, a great tribute to his musical ability, coming as it did only two numbers after a Johnny Hodges feature.

Jazz seems to be rich in bass players of high quality at present, but no position holds more responsibility than the bass spot with Duke Ellington. To say that Jimmy Woode fills this chair admirably is to say that he upholds the tradition established by such men as Blanton, Pettiford and Marshall. Sam Woodyard is a drummer who interests me greatly, an intelligent and thoughtful percussionist who blends his playing well with the band. He lacks the drive of Basie’s Sonny Payne and there are odd times when he fails to swing the band; in some numbers he seems to be the last to start swinging, giving the curious impression of the band swinging the drummer rather than the reverse. There were far more occasions when Woodyard was obviously inspiring the band – a particular moment I recall was during the Hodges solos at Leeds when the drumming was wonderfully light, crisp and swinging. The Ellington rhythm section is not so closely integrated a unit as Basie’s nor do they generate at once the same surging powerful beat, but the role they are called upon to fulfil is a far more complex and, I imagine, a more rewarding one.

Ozzie Bailey sang “What Else Can You Do with a Drum” and “Autumn Leaves,” along with a short version of “Solitude”, at each concert and I will not pretend that I have any liking for this type of singing. Bailey’s ability and musicianship are certainly not in question and on the one occasion he was given an opportunity to swing, on Duke’s “Hand Me Down Love” at one of the Leeds concerts, he did so most convincingly. This last number, incidentally, featured some delightful scoring for the brass section. Ray Nance I find very amusing as a singer and his antics during his vocal numbers are strictly for those with what Charles Fox has called a taste for the absurd. The Nance violin was only heard (in the concerts I attended) in the dreary “Autumn Leaves” and although this confirmed Ray’s excellent technique and tone, the context was hardly the ideal one for an exhibition of his talents in this direction.

Ellington’s piano playing had that quality of unerring rightness which is the hallmark of the great band pianists of jazz. It was unfortunate that we did not hear the solo piano in anything other than the rather perfunctory ballad medley and the delightful duet with Jimmy Woode in “Satin Doll”. Duke’s announcing was witty and sophisticated; the introductions to the Shakespeare items were a particular source of amusement, whilst these qualities were also carried over into “Jones”, the essay on finger snapping which closed each concert.

It was something of a disappointment to find that the programmes at the Leeds Musical Festival followed the same pattern as those elsewhere on the tour, and it was hardly fitting that every concert at Leeds should be graced with the long medley of song hits, which is of slight musical interest. Indeed Ellington’s programmes generally met with very sharp hostility from rather unexpected quarters – from critics who seem to forget that the Ellington orchestra has survived all these years largely because of the leader’s understanding that they are involved in popular entertainment as a means of survival. It is as well to remember that without the constant popularity which has meant a certain degree of compromise with popular “taste”, we would have been the poorer for a pretty high proportion of the best jazz on record, not excepting the extended works from “Creole Rhapsody” to “Such Sweet Thunder”. For without this compromise there would have been no Ellington band to make the records! Probably Duke underestimated his audience in one respect, this being that the people who enjoy listening to his creations of the 1920’s are hardly likely to enthuse over a “Black and Tan Fantasy” which suddenly changes into “Creole Love Call” which in its turn becomes “The Mooche”. A full arrangement of two of these numbers would surely have given greater satisfaction. If the band had been booked at the Leeds Musical Festival for a week, as was originally announced, we may well have heard more of Ellington the composer, but some critics apparently just failed to notice that the vast amount of material which was thrown around almost casually at these concerts could only have been created by a man of genius; not to mention the performance of much of “Such Sweet Thunder “and the whole of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” which are amongst Ellington’s finest creations. It was disappointing that Ellington did not feature either “Lady Mac” or “Up and Down, Up and Down” from the Shakespeare suite for in addition to being amongst his outstanding works of recent years they would have given us an opportunity to hear Clark Terry in other than the fast tempo features he was invariably given at the concerts I attended.

This brings us to the question of the band playing the same numbers at concerts given in the larger cities before audiences consisting to some degree of people who were hearing the band for the second, third or fourth time. London collector Tony Cowell told me that after three concerts by the band at which they played virtually the same programme, he had no intention of attending any further concerts unless there were radical changes. Apparently for the last two concerts in London Duke did introduce some material which had not been perform-

ed previously on the tour. This included full versions of “Caravan” and “Creole Love Call” along with “Frustration”, “Rock-in’ in Rhythm”, “Red Garter”, “Ko-Ko”, “Red Carpet” and “Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool”, along with other numbers. (I am indebted to Mr. Cowell, who happily changed his mind, for this information). It would have seemed a wiser policy to have used such material throughout the tour when more than one concert was to be played in one venue, thus avoiding the complaints regarding the sameness of the concerts, which was a very common one. The ideal solution to the problem of Ellington programmes would be to present the band for a week at one of our music festivals. This would allow time for rehearsals of any long works or new arrangements to be performed and five or six concerts, with perhaps a couple of concerts by contingents from the band as well.

Some critics objected that we heard too little from the band as a unit as opposed to solo “showcases”. In fact the majority of numbers featured a soloist working with either the full band or with a section. I venture to suggest that if some of these carping critics had heard ensemble work of half the quality of that we heard from Ellington (e.g. in “Satin Doll”, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”, “Harlem Air Shaft” or any of the “Such Sweet Thunder” items) from any other group they would have been quite beside themselves with admiration. We not only heard from the Ellington orchestra the finest ensemble music in jazz, but also the finest selection of jazz soloists playing regularly together today. Moreover the music the band played was by the two men – Ellington and Strayhorn – who are so far ahead of the field in jazz scoring that there is not one other musician in the same class. The Duke Ellington Orchestra of 1958 proved that, as for the past thirty two years, they are in every important respect superior to any other group in jazz. These were without question the finest jazz concerts I have ever attended.