The Long-Playing Duke

Always when writing about Duke Ellington there is the temptation to become a listmaker. Because once you get past the generalities and charge joyfully into the specifics, you find yourself in a Borgesian labyrinth no less alluring to an Ellingtonian than a cloister is to a medievalist. The inclination to get lost in Ellington and write about nothing else was never greater than in the middle and late 1970s, when posthumous works appeared almost weekly—many important, all encouraging revisionist wonder and, oh, maybe, hyperbole. Ellington copyrighted between 1500 and 2000 works (his Köchel will have a lot of cleaning up to do) and at least five times as many recordings, either intentionally or fortuitously, thanks to a legion of transcribers, recordists, tapers, and pirates, whom he blithely encouraged. Due to this plethora of versions and discrete interpretations, the labyrinth grows more intricate the deeper you wade.

Put aside the masterpieces and you find more masterpieces, or at least works of undeniable enchantment and satisfaction. One of my favorite records is a version of "In a Jam," performed—according to discographers—in New York at an unknown location (presumably for a radio broadcast) sometime late in 1944. Ellington recorded the piece flawlessly in 1936, abandoned it for eight years, dug it out briefly, then shed it once and for all. The AABA tune is oddly ancillary to a dramatic eight-bar intro that recurs throughout—for example, extending the six-bar finish of the first chorus to 14 bars. That chorus is played, as on the original, by trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, using two different mutes. But the G-spot of this particular performance is a chase chorus—actually two choruses—by Johnny Hodges and Ray Nance. In 1936, Hodges and Cootie Williams traded impeccable two-bar phrases. In 1944, Hodges and Nance roll out a riotous conversation in which phrases are two, three, and four measures, including a mimicked glissando that always makes me laugh. After that, tenor Al Sears plays a chorus, the sagacious Rex Stewart leaps in with a break and half-chorus, and the band goes out with that killer intro.

My point, beyond the one about God and details, is that this delightful find exists by accident; it's more fun than the original; it radiates a charm wholly distinctive within the immense Ellington canon; and there are hundreds more where it came from. Ellington wrote so much music he even lost track of a few potential hits. The other night at the Firebird I heard Daryl Sherman sing an evocative melody—unknown to me—called "It's Kinda Lonesome Out Tonight." A little research shows that Ellington introduced it in 1947 on Armed Forces Radio with a vocal by one Chester Crumpley, and never recorded it or played it again—until 1973, when he recovered it for a Teresa Brewer album. Well, who listens to Teresa Brewer? After Daryl's rendition gets around, it's going to become a new Ellington standard—bet on it. Then there are the pieces he abandoned and reconfigured. The shapely "Black Butterfly" was a not particularly exciting 1938 vehicle for Lawrence Brown. Ellington jilted it for 30 years, only to revamp it for a 1969 European tour as an exquisitely dynamic concerto for Johnny Hodges.

Ellington was famous for renting studio time out of his own pocket and stockpiling music. The most astonishing example, because its existence was kept secret for so long, is The Queen's Suite, a serenely impressionistic six-part work written as a gesture of gratitude for the "red-carpet treatment" he was accorded by Queen Elizabeth in 1958. Ellington recorded it at three sessions, pressed a single copy for her ears only, and never said a word about it until 1973, the year before his death, when he played excerpts and described the piece at length in his memoir, Music Is My Mistress. The public first heard it in 1976, a major work kept under wraps for 17 years; two sections, "Sunset and the Mocking Bird" and "The Single Petal of a Rose" have already (thanks largely to Tommy Flanagan) joined the list of Ellington standards, and "Northern Lights" is likely to follow.

People often describe their first time with Duke Ellington in terms of losing their virginity, and for me it seemed like the next best thing. I began at 15, with Masterpieces by Ellington, which I selected from the bewildering bin because the title promised a logical entrance point for a musician about whom I knew nothing. The album was recorded midway through the remarkable and often neglected 1947–52 period that produced Liberian Suite, A Tone Parallel to Harlem, "The Clothed Woman," the Betty Roche "Take the A Train," "The Tattooed Bride," and the so-called "concert" arrangements of Ellington songs that he conceived to exploit the new long-playing album. The first of four tracks, an eventfully languorous 15-minute "Mood Indigo," struck me as so serenely erotic that I figured if I ever did have sex (which I was beginning to doubt) this was what it would be like. All those strange, weaving instrumental voices spoke like personalities; I could almost imagine them in specific raiment, and what they had to say seemed privileged, like the Varga Esquires stacked behind my father's hatboxes or the adult conversations that dried up as soon as I appeared. Had there been ratings, this was surely an R, not least for the mysterious one-name singer, Yvonne, with her lazy phrasing and lax intonation. The most mysterious episode was the chorus I later learned was played by trombonist Tyree Glenn with a plunger mute. Every note sounds like someone saying "ya ya," and back then I debated for months whether it was in fact a weird instrumentalist or another weird singer.

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