Sometime in 1931 Duke Ellington hit the road in earnest for the first time. Commentators noted that he was able to make a “graceful” exit from the mob-owned Cotton Club in Harlem by arranging Cab Calloway and His Orchestra to take his place. The Cotton Club gig had been good to him, though. It gave him space to create. Even within the confines of the revues had to compose music for, classics such as “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Mood Indigo” date back to this period. But the Cotton Club shows were also broadcast nationally on radio, giving Duke unprecedented exposure, especially for a black artist at that time. So when he left Harlem and began touring, he already had listeners and admirers across the country.
The surprise came in the summer of 1933. In June of that year, Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra set sail for Europe, their first overseas engagement. The first country they hit was the United Kingdom. To their surprise, folks knew their music well and wildly attended their concerts. Unbeknownst to Duke, folks had been buying his records as faithfully and enthusiastically overseas as they had been in America.
The UK treated Duke Ellington well over the stretch of his long career; he would visit again and again, including into his late period. And also by the late 60s and early 70s, jazz in general had a larger audience overseas than in the land of its birth. Many jazz masters had moved to across the pond fulltime. Duke’s son Mercer Ellington would eventually do the same. So it is fitting that three of Duke’s last major albums are live recordings of concerts given in the UK.
The 70th Birthday Concert (1969)
Duke Ellington turned 70 on April 29, 1969. President Richard Nixon hosted the Maestro at a formal reception at the White House and presented him with the Medal of Freedom. “In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke,” President Nixon said in his remarks. He then led the crowd in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” from the piano. Duke Ellington’s father had worked in the White House as a butler, a source of pride for the family. So this recognition from a sitting president no doubt had specially meaning for him.
The 70th Birthday Concert album was recorded in late November 1969. It had nothing really to do with Duke’s 70th other than it being recorded in the year of that landmark date. The concerts in Manchester and Bristol came at the end of a long tour that took them through much of Continental Europe. You can find performances of some numbers on YouTube. Some, like this version of “Black Butterfly” sound like a warm up session. By the end of the tour, the cats in the band were clearly very comfortable with the arrangements. They swung hard and had a good time playing. For me, this is one of Duke’s finest recordings and one of my favorites.
It is also a farewell concert of sorts. The album features some definitive recordings of old standards. And it is the last to feature nearly all of the major stars who were still with the Orchestra at this point. Familiar names include Cat Anderson and Cootie Williams on trumpet, Lawrence Brown on trombone, and the reed section still had stalwarts Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, and Paul Gonsalves. Clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, the fifth member of the peerless reed section of the 50s and 60s, had retired the year before. Talented new comers include Harold Ashby, on tenor sax, and Norris Turney, on tenor sax and flute.
And of course, there was always The Piano Player, who not only proved his prowess on the piano – oft underrated – but also the album captures his announcements, shouts, and grunts from the piano as he led his band through the numbers. Indeed, including many of the announcements of numbers and soloists really gives the listener a sense of Being There.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Duke Ellington!” says the announcer on the first track. After the applause, the Piano Player settles into a solo, backed by bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Rufus “Speedy” Jones. “Kinda Dukish” is the piece, though as had become standard by this point it really served as the introduction to the 1931 classic “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” I wonder if there were any in the audience who remembered “Rockin’” from the Orchestra’s first tour of their country nearly 40 years earlier?
“Cootie Williams is the trumpet soloist now, in our theme Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’,” the Maestro announces, but then continues to say, “One of the very important aspects of this particular performance, ladies and gentlemen, is the fact that the first chorus will be played by our Piano Player.” He then launches into a whirling waltz-time version of the Strayhorn classic, to the delight and amusement of the audience.
During the Big Band era, jazz orchestras had theme songs or signature tunes which identified the band when they played on the radio. Count Basie had “One O’Clock Jump.” Glen Miller had “Moonlight Serenade.” For a long time, the Duke Ellington Orchestra theme was “East St. Louis Tootle-O.” In 1940, Duke decided to retire this old “Jungle” era tune and for about six months the fairly obscure, though pretty, “Sepia Panorama” served as the band’s theme.
Then came “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Billy had written it based on directions he received on how to get to Duke’s flat in Harlem. He then forgot all about it. Later, Duke had to have a whole new book of music to perform on the radio because a strike between the musician’s union, ASCAP, to which Ellington belonged, and the radio broadcasters kept all of his older material off the air. Strayhorn and Duke’s son Mercer Ellington spent a fevered few days in a Chicago hotel writing new works for the band to play. One of them was a swing version of “‘A’ Train,” arranged in a Fletcher Henderson style. Billy nearly threw it away, but Mercer mercifully rescued it. The band first recorded it in February 1941 and it quickly became a leitmotif of the Swing Era.
Billy died two years prior to the 70th Birthday album performance, his loss undoubtedly still sharply felt. So on this occasion, one of the final recordings of their theme song, the band went all out.
“And now ‘Black Butterfly.’ The soloist is Johnny Hodges.” With that introduction came three numbers that featured the master alto sax player. “Black Butterfly” dates back to the 30s, but it had been revived and turned into a showpiece ballad for Hodges. This version, in my opinion, is more polished all the way around than the one from the Berlin concert shown in the YouTube clip above. He then was featured on “Things Ain’t the Way They Used To Be,” one of Mercer Ellington’s contributions to the band’s book during the ASCAP strike, and then “Laying On Mellow.” This would be Hodges’ last time traipsing through Britain and Europe with the Orchestra. He had been in poor health for some time and illness would finally take him some six months later in May, 1970. One would never know how ill he was, though, listening to his playing.
Accompanying the Orchestra on this tour was a friend of Hodges’, organist Wild Bill Davis. Duke announced him as the composer of “Azure-te,” misidentified on the CD as Ellington’s “Azure.” But if you turn up the volume and listen very carefully to his on-stage announcement, you can hear him say, “‘Azure-te, remember the title.”
“Satin Doll” also received a definitive treatment in this collection. Cat Anderson, the high note maestro, reached for and achieved the stratosphere during his solo, not missing a note.
While Duke liked to introduce new works in his performances, ever the showman, he knew his audiences liked to hear some of the band’s considerable legacy. For a while in the 1950s, he relied, some say too heavily, on a medley of his old material. He nearly played a set at his first appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, but wisely chose not to. However, in this instance, old warhorses like “Sentimental Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” “Caravan,” and “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So” receive star treatment in a well balanced, well blended medley, a classy way to record these gems one more time.
The album ends with Ellington talking one more time. As the band plays a reprise of “Satin Doll,” he takes the stage to explain to the audience how to achieve a state of cool nonchalance while snapping their fingers on the off beat – “One never snaps one’s fingers on the beat; it’s considered aggressive,” he states – and tilting their earlobes on the beat. He then reminds the audience that he loves them madly, in several languages.
If I had a TARDIS, these concerts from late November 1969 would be one of my go to destinations. They remain Beyond Category.
To come: Togo Brava Suite and The Eastbourne Performance.
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.