Late Era Ellington: . . .And His Mother Called Him Bill

{Ed. note: Much of the biographical information in this article is supported by Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu (North Point Press, 1996).}

By the time the Duke Ellington Orchestra went on their first State Department-sponsored tour, which yielded The Far East Suite, long-time Ellington co-composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was already a sick man.  He just didn’t know it yet. Strayhorn and Ellington shared the same doctor, Arthur Logan, who was also a close friend.  Strayhorn visited Dr. Logan and his wife Marian Logan frequently to cook and enjoy drinks.  The Logans were part of the Black Aristocracy of the day and counted Martin Luther King, Jr. as a friend.

One day in early 1964, a few months after the State Department tour abruptly ended, Dr. Logan noticed his friend and patient breathing heavily after walking up the steps to his place.  He examined Strayhorn a few days later and discovered the worse:  esophageal cancer.  This form of cancer is often diagnosed too late for an effective treatment, making it almost always fatal.

Though Strayhorn continued to maintain some musical duties with the Ellington Orchestra, he largely saved his strength for projects special to him. This included a concert where he led a quintet in a performance for a group of about 450 Ellington aficionados.  The concert was very well received. Though sadly this apparently was not recorded — if it had been, the recording has to see the light of day — Ellington ushered Strayhorn  into the studio with his group to record some of the tunes performed at the concert, as well as numbers improvised in the studio.  These recordings would not be released until 1992, 25 years after Strayhorn’s death.

When Strayhorn died on May 31, 1967, Duke Ellington was devastated. He entered a deep funk, some say similar to the one experienced after the death of his mother over thirty years earlier. Dr. Logan told Ellington that he was depressed and that he needed to do something to break its spell. That “something” turned into …And His Mother Called Him Bill, recorded during the height of the Summer of Love.

The recording, probably more than any other in the Orchestra’s long and storied history, was indeed an act of love.  Many band members have said how excited they were to receive a new chart from Strays, as they called him.  Appropriately, the album not only features pieces he composed, but also his original charts for them.  Some familiar tunes appear, including “Day-Dream,” “My Little Brown Book,” and “Rain Check.”  Those first two pieces feature much work from Johnny Hodges.  Indeed, “Day-dream” was one of the first showpieces Strayhorn wrote for the master alto-sax player.

Lesser known compositions also appear, like “Snibor” and “Charpoy.”  “Snibor” is a medium paced swinger, again featuring Johnny Hodges.  “Charpoy” is a sassy piece with muted trumpet work, likely from mute master Cootie Williams.

Then there’s “U.M.M.G” which stands for Upper Manhattan Medical Group, an organization cofounded by Dr. Logan.  I love this tune.  It starts out slowly, like a patient going in for something minor like an upset stomach.  The patient soon finds herself getting caught up in hospital’s psychedelia, as the music sends them swirling around.  Finally, the doctor arrives in Harry Carney’s baritone sax.  He’s jovial and seems to laugh a lot.  Then the whole piece turns into a floorshow, with orderlies dancing on the gurneys, and the patient is left wondering how the hell did she end up here, only for it all to end quickly, like an odd dream.

Strayhorn’s final compositions also appear.  One is “The Intimacy of the Blues,” another gently swinging piece.  It starts with cool, understated solos first by trombonist Lawrence Brown and then Johnny Hodges on alto.  Then things open up with Cootie Williams on trumpet.  After a brief interlude with Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, the piece fades away like a whisper.

And then there’s “Blood Count.”  Reportedly Billy Strayhorn’s final composition, written while he was in hospital, it has finality written into every beat, every measure, every chord, every note.   It is, in fact, a blues requiem, following a long line of blues requiems by jazz masters, including Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”  Only in this case, the composer wrote the requiem for himself.

Johnny Hodges provides the eulogy.  Through his horn, he speaks the piece’s many emotions.  It starts as a slow drag, a pulse in the background mimicking the machines one finds at a hospital bedside.  While the general mood of the piece is somber, it also contains a flash of rebellion in its center, a place where the orchestra comes to life and Hodges blows a hard blues.  It’s as if Strayhorn is defiantly acknowledging every dive bar he frequented and every adventure life brought his way.  I’m going out, he’s saying, but not quietly. Though in the end, the somberness returns as does the final resignation to the inevitable, as the slurring notes and faded beat in the piece’s finale make disturbing clear.

Johnny Hodges features prominently on the album, which is fitting because he and Strayhorn were very close. But the other prominent solo voice is Duke Ellington.  Nowhere is this more apparent then on “Lotus Blossom.”  Two versions of the tune were recorded.  One featured Ellington, Aaron Bell on bass, and Harry Carney on baritone.  This track only appeared on subsequent CD reissues of the album.  The version that was issued originally features only Ellington.  As the band packed up at the end of a recording session, Ellington sat at the piano and played the piece largely for himself. An otherwise very private man, despite his gregariousness, this intimate reading of “Lotus Blossom” exposed all the pain, hurt, and anguish he experienced at the loss of his friend. Some reports say that he was crying as he played. Happily, the recording studio microphones caught everything.  Even better, session producer Brad McCuen talked Ellington into including this take for the album.  In the original release of …And His Mother Called Him Bill, this intimate recording served as the album’s final track.  Ellington would continue to play “Lotus Blossom” during performances to the end of his days.

Duke Ellington, by his own admission, hated endings.  He hated saying goodbye.  He hated finality.  It is to his credit, then, that he organized this very public, very successful goodbye and dedication to his longtime writing partner, musical confidant, and friend.  Many continue to regard it as one of the finest recordings of his entire career.  Considering his career spanned six decades and countless recordings, that’s saying quite a lot.

 

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.


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