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Nashville Scene Royal Flush

The Duke Ellington centennial celebration yields a tide of great reissues

By Ron Wynn

JUNE 1, 1999:  Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was never comfortable with the term "jazz" and argued for much of his professional life that there were really only two types of music: good and bad. But throughout his 50-plus year career as a composer, arranger, bandleader, and instrumentalist, Ellington was labeled a jazz musician, and his work embodied every positive attribute of improvisational music. Though his orchestra reprised many pieces during the course of his career, Ellington found fresh ways of arranging and presenting melodies until audiences were convinced they were hearing new versions of "Mood Indigo" or "Satin Doll."

Now that the nation is celebrating Ellington's centennial--he was born April 29, 1899--he's suddenly in vogue. The Pulitzer board, which in 1965 refused to award him a special prize for composition, despite the unanimous endorsement of its own committee, corrected that oversight a few months ago. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, under Wynton Marsalis' leadership, is devoting the entire year to a celebration of Ellington's music. Retrospectives, summits, and special concerts will continue throughout 1999.

Record labels are also going full-tilt to celebrate the event. RCA, the company for whom Ellington worked longer than any other, has issued a mammoth 24-disc set of his recordings, while Columbia and Milestone/Pablo, among others, are also churning out reissues. Surprisingly, publishing houses aren't as active. Neither Stanley Dance's landmark World of Duke Ellington or Ellington's autobiography Music Is My Mistress have as yet been rereleased. The comprehensive Duke Ellington Reader (Oxford Press), edited by Ellington scholar Mark Tucker and first released in 1993, has been reissued and offers a wealth of observations, reviews, analysis, and discussion about the composer/bandleader's life and times. It's the best place for any novice to start, and a good reference work for longtime admirers.

One could attempt to evaluate Ellington solely by the numbers, and they are incredible: He's credited with writing literally thousands of compositions, ranging from short period works to lengthy masterpieces. His recorded output is just as extensive. There's no way to ascertain an exact count of how many releases he made, given the number of bootlegs and European and Japanese issues.

From the time he was a 7-year-old in Washington, D.C., until age 75, when he could no longer sit at the keyboard, Ellington fused multiple traditions into a constantly evolving, uniquely individualistic approach. He never let precedent or convention rule his creative decisions: He would pen works with the baritone sax playing in the high register and the tenor in the low; he'd feature an eight-trumpet section, or he'd have flutes playing with brass, or other unusual combinations.

Because he despised categories, Ellington never had any problem embracing musical devices or taking approaches that supposedly weren't "jazz." He was sharply criticized in 1935 for "Reminiscing in Tempo," which covered both sides of a 78-rpm disc in an era when bands were only supposed to perform short, bouncy pieces for dancers. He would subsequently write, arrange, and have his orchestra play multi-part suites, not to mention works for symphony orchestras, theatrical productions, and film soundtracks; he even cut religious songs with limited improvisational sections.

Ellington was so comfortable with his own skills that he easily incorporated into his orchestra the contributions of Billy Strayhorn, another genius at arranging and composition. The Ellington/Strayhorn team collaborated from 1939-1967, and many often wondered where one person's work ended and another's began. There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about Strayhorn's homosexuality, and whether he and Ellington were enjoying more than a musical union during their time together. Whatever the case, they were so in sync that Strayhorn didn't complain when his own compositions such as "Take the 'A' Train" or "Day Dream" were mistakenly credited to Ellington.

Ellington recorded with singers as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Herb Jeffries, Ivie Anderson, Betty Roche, Mahalia Jackson, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Al Hibbler, Bing Crosby, Joe Williams, Teresa Brewer, and Alice Babs. He cut sessions with Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, and he sat in with the John Coltrane Quartet only three years before Coltrane's shift to the avant-garde.

The mammoth wave of current reissues showcases Ellington's magic in every phase, from exuberant bandleader to engaging writer and arranger. Without question, the most eagerly awaited, most comprehensive project is RCA's new multi-disc The Duke Ellington Centennial Project. Concurrently, Columbia's Legacy division has released four single-disc sets--Such Sweet Thunder, Black, Brown & Beige, First Time! The Count Meets The Duke, and Anatomy of a Murder--along with the two-disc Ellington at Newport 1956--Complete. Milestone checks in with some late-period Duke: The Pianist and Duke's Big Four, plus Piano Duets--Great Times!, an early-'50s collection that pairs him with Strayhorn for a series of wonderful keyboard encounters.

The RCA project purportedly contains every known recording Ellington made for the label from 1927 to 1973--many of which have never been issued on CD, and several others that have only been available on costly European imports. Centennial Project groups the material chronologically, beginning with seven discs covering 1927-1934. These include his "jungle" material, along with the Cotton Club dates that initially established the orchestra's reputation. Other gems from this era include the earliest versions of "East St. Louis Toodle-O," "Creole Love Call," and "Black and Tan Fantasy," plus several other Ellington songs that eventually became anthems.

The next six discs cover 1940-1942, when Ellington introduced bassist Jimmy Blanton to the jazz world. Blanton's unprecedented style and range radically altered the instrument's use in jazz compositions, and his solos and strumming accompaniment remain memorable four decades later. This band also included tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, whose rumbling, aggressive licks earned him a superstar reputation for the remainder of his career.

The set's second half covers Ellington's career from the mid-'40s to the end. Included are all three of his Sacred Concerts from the '60s/early '70s, which are grouped together for the first time, and his final RCA sessions. Without question, the greatest of these is the 1967 tribute LP to Billy Strayhorn: And His Mother Called Him Bill contains Ellington's most moving, most passionate piano work outside of the sacred sets. The immaculate mastering finally allows the listener to hear clearly the orchestra's swooping support in the background.

The Columbia sets, which are only the opening salvos in the company's full-year Ellington tribute campaign, focus on his work between 1956 and 1962, a time when some critics foolishly concluded that Ellington's creative output had ebbed. The signature release Ellington at Newport--Complete includes tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves' glittering 27-chorus solo on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," which ranks among jazz's most historic performances. The number not only landed the orchestra on the cover of Time, it marked Gonsalves as one of jazz's top soloists.

Initially, Columbia was so distressed by the numerous fadeouts and glitches caused by shoddy microphone placement that the label had the band rerecord its July 7, 1956, performance in the studio. This ersatz live recording was subsequently released and passed off for many years as the real deal, complete with fake applause. The new set contains both the actual live concert and the studio recordings; the live date far outshines the companion disc.

Such Sweet Thunder features the Ellington orchestra playing songs inspired by Shakespeare's plays, among them Othello, Macbeth, and Henry V. The numbers are superbly played, but the date pales in comparison to Black, Brown & Beige and Anatomy of a Murder. The former is a 1958 reworking of the six-part composition that premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943 to mixed reviews. For this newer version, Ellington convinced Mahalia Jackson to make a rare appearance with a secular orchestra, and her wondrous trills and glorious leads here enhance Ellington's reconfigured composition, notable for its tighter arrangements and shorter solos.

Anatomy of a Murder was yet another landmark release in Ellington's storied career. It was the first time he'd ever been asked to provide both compositions and orchestrations for a film; he was personally commissioned for the assignment by director Otto Preminger. But because of his unfamiliarity with studio deadlines and film work, Ellington wound up battling a huge time crunch, and only 34 minutes of his music made it onto the soundtrack LP, while even less made it onto the screen. The reissue adds all the deleted material and sequences it in a manner that roughly resembles the way it was to be utilized in Preminger's film. Even better, the Legacy disc eliminates the horrendous reverb that plagued the original release.

First Time! shows both how similar and how different the Ellington and Basie bands were. Despite such song titles as "Battle Royal," the LP isn't so much a contest as an interaction. The Ellington Orchestra's arrangements flow, while the Basie band follows its textbook 4/4 swing style. The groups do manage to mesh, despite some messiness that erupted during the recording: Basie refused to play on "Take the 'A' Train," forcing Strayhorn to take his place, and Ellington trombonist Juan Tizol and trumpeter Cat Anderson openly fought in the studio; Tizol resigned immediately after the session ended that night.

Of the Milestone reissues, The Pianist compiles trio sessions Ellington recorded from 1966 and 1970, while Duke's Big Four is a quartet date from 1973. Ellington plays with zeal, if not excessive imagination, on the former disc. He's helped by longtime drummer Sam Woodyard, whose crisp lines and steady hand guide "Slow Blues" and "Never Stop Remembering Bill." Likewise, on Duke's Big Four, it's the surprisingly efficient drumming of Louie Bellson that holds things together, while guitarist Joe Pass fills in the space whenever Ellington falters. If anything, these two dates reaffirm Ellington's roots in stride and ragtime: His right-hand phrasing, solid melodic readings, and interplay with the rhythm section display an aspect of his work that critics failed to notice throughout his lifetime.

Piano Duets--Great Times! proves the standout of the Milestone discs. Strayhorn, who often stayed in the background, takes center stage here on both piano and celeste. Ellington sometimes defers to his collaborator and at other times gently but firmly challenges him with rollicking right-hand rhythms or nifty phrases. Strayhorn in turn offers elegant, thoughtful melodic explorations, nicely teaming with Ellington on "Johnny Come Lately," "Cotton Tail," and "C-Jam Blues," among others.

Many, many more Ellington items are due later this year, among them a three-disc boxed set on Columbia ranging from early '20s Okeh dates to '70s recordings. Verve has both small-group and orchestra works slated for reissue, as do Capitol, Blue Note, and virtually every other label with any material handy. In the end, though, Ellington's legend looms so large that these records only remind us of how much he's missed, and of how much impact he had on the music called jazz--even if he never liked the word.

There's so much Ellington material around, it's impossible to cite all the records that are in print, but here are a few recommended titles for anyone interested in beginning or updating their Ellington collection:

Orchestra/Ensemble Releases

Early Ellington 1926-1931 (Decca/MCA three-disc set)
Fargo, North Dakota, Nov. 7, 1940 (Vintage two-disc set)
The Great Chicago Concerts (Music Masters two-disc set)
The Complete Capitol Recordings of Duke Ellington (Mosaic five-disc set)
Blues in Orbit (Columbia)
Paris Blues (United Artists)
The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic)
A Drum Is a Woman (Columbia)


Small Group Dates/Duos
The Duke's Men: Small Groups, Vols. 1 & 2 (Columbia two-disc sets)
Duke Ellington/Louis Armstrong, Complete (Roulette)
Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges (Storyville)
Duke Ellington & Coleman Hawkins (Impulse)
Duke Ellington/Charles Mingus/Max Roach, Money Jungle (Blue Note)
Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse)
Francis A. Sinatra & Edward K. Ellington (Reprise)
Jazz Violin Session (Atlantic)
Ella Fitzgerald/Duke Ellington, At the Cote d'Azur (Verve)


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