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"we tend to think of duke ellington
as someone who did many things well. for every activity he undertook he brought high goals of achievement, realized them with amazing consistency and, with the grace of a natural-born aristocrat, made it all seem so easy," wrote the ellington scholar mark tucker
in his introduction to the acclaimed collection of reissues, duke ellington
: the blanton-webster band
. he was a successful bandleader and a popular entertainer. he was a talented songwriter and arranger. he was an influential pianist. he was an important figurehead for afro-american culture and a global ambassador for the music of his country. and, as if this weren't enough, he also happened to be a great composer.
as this compilation shows, ellington accomplished all these things simultaneously in an era propelled by swing, when jazz and popular music overlapped. the pieces here were culled from the blanton-webster band and its companion volume, black
, brown and beige
, two digitally remastered 3-cd sets released on rca bluebird in the 1980s but originally recorded on '78s for the victor label in the 1940s. ellington's exclusive recording contract with victor took effect in february of 1940, a year that turned out to be exceptional for him musically. john edward hasse
wrote in beyond category
, his 1993 biography of ellington, that: "the contract contained an extraordinary provision: no other black band would be recorded for issue on the prestigious, full-priced (seventy-five cents per disc) victor
label (victor's subsidiary label, the thirty-five cent bluebird, would continue to release fats waller
, earl hines
and erskine hawkins
the original recordings were made in several sessions from 1940-1942 and late 1944-1946; the hiatus was due to a recording ban by the american federation of musicians
, compounded by disruptions to commercial manufacturing because of world war 2. the recordings as a whole are an encyclopedia of the orchestral ellington during those years. the early '40s recordings, in particular, are considered by many as a pinnacle of creative output by ellington and his musicians.
the 19 selections included here represent the popular ellington, the indelible ellington, the unforgettable ellington. some of them - it don't mean a thing
and billy strayhorn
's take the 'a' train
, which became the band's theme song- are as intertwined within our cultural fabric as the star-sprangled banner and baseball. most of them were conceived as instrumentals and in true ellingtonian fashion, were composed and arranged with specific soloists in mind; lyrics were added later, in some cases years later. so concerto for cootie
, a star turn for trumpet player cootie williams
, became do nothing 'til you hear from me
. never no lament
, which features altoist johnny hodges
, is the precursor of don't get around much anymore
. just a-settin'
notes, provides the great tenor player ben webster
"with an ideal setting. the relaxed gait allows him plenty of time to breathe, and the slow harmonic pacing is perfect for his leisurely phrases."
some of the songs, such as the ballads, mood indigo
, prelude to a kiss
, were written in the '30s. their chromaticism, wide melodic leaps, and impressionistic use of harmony bear ellington's unmistakeable signature. like so much of his work, these compositions have held their own for decades; they sound as "modern" in their reworked '60s versions as they did originally. by now, all the songs in this collection have been recorded countless times, plumbed for new depths not only by ellington himself, but also by a pantheon of vocalists and jazz musicians - like ella fitzgerald
, frank sinatra
, sarah vaughan
, thelonius monk
and john coltrane
- whose own interpretations have become classics.
the glorious dissonances, the profound sense of swing, the rich blur of what was written or improvised, instruments that sound like voices, voices that sound like instruments - all contribute to what billy strayhorn
called the "ellington effect". the ellington orchestra had no interchangeable parts. it stood apart, even in an era that boasted bands as unique as those of count basie
, benny goodman
and jimmie lunceford
"ellington was lucky," wrote andrew homzy
, in his notes for the black, brown and beige reissues. "he surrounded himself with musicians who could not only cooperate but would participate in the creative process of making music. he wrote specifically for these men, taking full advantage of their strengths, growing with them to musical maturity."
his orchestra was far more stable than the other big bands of the day. the reasons for this - the higher pay, comfortable travel arrangements, the personal touches - have been well documented. by the late '30s, over half of his musicians had been with him for ten years or more, including johnny hodges
, sonny greer
, barney bigard
, otto hardwick
, cootie williams
, harry carney
and juan tizol
in 1939, on the eve of the victor sessions, ellington added three creative new members to his already remarkable essemble: billy strayhorn
, arranger, composer and sometimes pianist; the innovative young bassist jimmy blanton
; and the incomparable ben webster
. for some, including carney, hodges and strayhorn, the associations would be life-long; strayhorn and ellington would remain together until strayhorn's death in '67, one of the most remarkable musical relationships of the century. for others, the associations were short-lived. jimmy blanton
died of tuberculosis in 1942; ben webster
left the band in 1943 to lead his own group, and returned for a brief period a few years later. by the mid-'40s, ellington's personnel was in an unfamiliar state of flux. so was jazz; so was the world at large.
the victor years were indeed special. the ellington sessions during this period documented a peak set of performances by an extraordinary group of musicians.
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