Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and leader of a jazz orchestra, which he led from 1923 until his death over a career spanning more than six decades.
Born in Washington, D.C., Ellington was based in New York City from the mid-1920s onward and gained a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In the 1930s, his orchestra toured in Europe. Although widely considered a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a liberating principle and referred to his music as part of the more general category of American Music.
Some of the jazz musicians who were members of Ellington’s orchestra, such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges, are considered among the best players in the idiom. Ellington melded them into the best-known orchestral unit in the history of jazz. Some members stayed with the orchestra for several decades. A master at writing miniatures for the three-minute 78 rpm recording format, Ellington wrote more than one thousand compositions; his extensive body of work is the largest recorded personal jazz legacy, and many of his pieces have become standards. He also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, for example Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”, and “Perdido”, which brought a Spanish tinge to big band jazz. In the early 1940s, Ellington began a nearly thirty-year collaboration with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his writing and arranging companion. With Strayhorn, he composed many extended compositions, or suites, as well as additional short pieces. Following an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1956, Ellington and his orchestra enjoyed a major revival and embarked on world tours. Ellington recorded for most American record companies of his era, performed in and scored several films, and composed a handful of stage musicals.
Ellington was noted for his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and his eloquence and charisma. His reputation continued to rise after he died. He was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Award for music in 1999.
In October 1926, Ellington made an agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills, giving Mills a 45% interest in Ellington’s future. Mills had an eye for new talent and published compositions by Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arlen early in their careers. After recording a handful of acoustic titles during 1924–26, Ellington’s signing with Mills allowed him to record prolifically. However, sometimes he recorded different versions of the same tune. Mills often took a co-composer credit. From the beginning of their relationship, Mills arranged recording sessions on nearly every label including Brunswick, Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Pathê (and its Perfect label), the ARC/Plaza group of labels (Oriole, Domino, Jewel, Banner) and their dime-store labels (Cameo, Lincoln, Romeo), Hit of the Week, and Columbia’s cheaper labels (Harmony, Diva, Velvet Tone, Clarion) labels which gave Ellington popular recognition. On OKeh, his records were usually issued as The Harlem Footwarmers. In contrast, the Brunswick’s were usually issued as The Jungle Band. Whoopee Makers and the Ten Black Berries were other pseudonyms.
In September 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington after Jimmy McHugh suggested him and Mills arranged an audition. Ellington had to increase from a six to eleven-piece group to meet the requirements of the Cotton Club’s management for the audition, and the engagement finally began on December 4. With a weekly radio broadcast, the Cotton Club’s exclusively white and wealthy clientele poured in nightly to see them. At the Cotton Club, Ellington’s group performed all the music for the revues, which mixed comedy, dance numbers, vaudeville, burlesque, music, and illicit alcohol. The musical numbers were composed by Jimmy McHugh and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (later Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), with some Ellington originals mixed in. (Here, he moved in with a dancer, his second wife Mildred Dixon). Weekly radio broadcasts from the club gave Ellington national exposure. At the same time, Ellington also recorded Fields-JMcHugh and Fats Waller–Andy Razaf songs.
Although trumpeter Bubber Miley was a member of the orchestra for only a short period, he had a major influence on Ellington’s sound. As an early exponent of growl trumpet, Miley changed the sweet dance band sound of the group to one that was hotter, which contemporaries termed Jungle Style. In October 1927, Ellington and his Orchestra recorded several compositions with Adelaide Hall. One side in particular, “Creole Love Call”, became a worldwide sensation and gave both Ellington and Hall their first hit record. Miley had composed most of “Creole Love Call” and “Black and Tan Fantasy”. An alcoholic, Miley had to leave the band before they gained wider fame. He died in 1932 at the age of 29, but he was an important influence on Cootie Williams, who replaced him.
In 1929, the Cotton Club Orchestra appeared on stage for several months in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Show Girl, along with vaudeville stars Jimmy Durante, Eddie Foy, Jr., Ruby Keeler, and with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Gus Kahn. Will Vodery, Ziegfeld’s musical supervisor, recommended Ellington for the show, and, according to John Hasse’s Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington, “Perhaps during the run of Show Girl, Ellington received what he later termed ‘valuable lessons in orchestration’ from Will Vodery.” In his 1946 biography, Duke Ellington, Barry Ulanov wrote:
From Vodery, as he (Ellington) says himself, he drew his chromatic convictions, his uses of the tones ordinarily extraneous to the diatonic scale, with the consequent alteration of the harmonic character of his music, its broadening, The deepening of his resources. It has become customary to ascribe the classical influences upon Duke – Delius, Debussy and Ravel – to direct contact with their music. Actually his serious appreciation of those and other modern composers, came after he met with Vodery.
Ellington’s film work began with Black and Tan (1929), a 19-minute all-African-American RKO short in which he played the hero “Duke”. He also appeared in the Amos ‘n’ Andy film Check and Double Check, released in 1930. That year, Ellington and his Orchestra connected with a whole different audience in a concert with Maurice Chevalier and they also performed at the Roseland Ballroom, “America’s foremost ballroom”. Australian-born composer Percy Grainger was an early admirer and supporter. He wrote, “The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, Delius is very ill but we are happy to have with us today The Duke”. Ellington’s first period at the Cotton Club concluded in 1931. (wikipedia)
This second volume of Cotton Club Days contains twelver performances from 1928 – 1931.
Enjoy the early days of Duke Ellington and his great music.
Wellman Braud (bass)
Barney Bigard (reeds)
Harry Carney (reeds)
Duke Ellington (piano)
Sonny Greer (drums)
Fred Guy (banjo)
Otto Hardwicke (saxophone)
Johnny Hodges (saxophone)
Freddie Jenkins (trumpet)
Bubber Miley (trumpet)
Joe Nanton (trombone)
Juan Tizol (trombone)
Arthur Whetsel (trumpet)
Cootie Williams (trumpet)
Joe Cornell (accordion on 11.)
Irving Mills (vocals on 06.)
Bennie Paine (vocals on 08.)
Dick Robertson (vocals on 05., 07., 08.)
01. Tiger Rag (LaRocca/Edwards/Shields/Ragas/Sbarbaro)
02. Louisiana (Razaf/Schafer/Johnson)
03. Take It Easy (Ellington)
04. Black Beauty (Ellington)
05. Accordion Joe (Cornell/Wimbrow)
06. When You’re Smiling (Goodwin/Shay/Fisher)
07. Runnin’ Wild (Gibbs/Grey/Wood)
08. The Wang Wang Blues (Johnson/Mueller/Busse)
09. Oklahoma Stomp (unknown)
10. Six Or Seven Times (Mills/Waller)
11. Double Check Stomp (Bigard/Ellington/Mills)
12. Creole Rhapsody (Ellington)