Rockin' in Rhythm

Edited by Gary Giddins
Coordinated by Elora Alexander

Sophisticated and elegant are the unavoidable adjectives when discussing Duke Ellington; his work is never less if frequently more. These qualities can be easily appreciated in his less monumental compositions. "Satin Doll" is a suave trifle recorded at Ellington's first session for Capitol in 1953. The incomparable reed section leads the orchestra on an easy, tasteful vamp— very '50s, ring-a-ding. But all that brass is framed by Ellington's spare figures on piano, the dash of bitters in the gin. The song slips so easily into the ear you will find yourself singing along even if you don't know Johnny Mercer's lyrics. Every listening brings added pleasure in the masterly intricacy of a relaxed urbanity. "Satin Doll" may be airy but it is not frivolous; its appeal is easy but not simple. The sophisticated sensibility does not deny the existence of darkness; rather it makes the shadow part of the composition— like the bass solos and abrupt exclamations from the baritone sax that punctuate "Satin Doll." It is this vinegar in the meringue that gives the song its evergreen enjoyment. For the sophisticate, fun is not a simple matter. To distill joy from existence is a constant and demanding task. To do it with style— to put the grinning skeleton in bells and motley— reveals just how tough-minded was Ellington's joyousness. As Harold Ickes said of Franklin D. Roosevelt, "It's the hard substance that can take the high polish!" —Michael Anderson

"Braggin' in Brass" is one of several Ellington masterpieces based on "Tiger Rag" (some others are "Daybreak Express" and "Hot and Bothered"). A showpiece for the band in the 1938 Cotton Club show, it is a fascinating study in textures and rhythms. As the title reveals, it shows off the prowess of the Ellington trumpet and trombone sections, but the reeds are in there as well to provide support and expand the sonic palette. Cup-muted trumpets start it off at a tremendous tempo (speed did not come to jazz with bebop), followed by the trombones in a staggering (and staggered) display of interlocking notes (a device known as "hocket," according to Gunther Schuller), quite unlike anything else in the annals of big band jazz. Cornetist Rex Stewart now takes two rhythmically contrasting choruses, filled with humorous inventions. A fiery ensemble backs a vehement Lawrence Brown trombone solo, and then Cootie Williams and his trumpet take us straight to Armstrong country. Actually, the entire performance is redolent of Louis. Like so much of Ellington in the '30s ("Lazy Rhapsody" = "Sleepy Time Down South"), "Braggin' in Brass" reveals that no one listened better to Louis than Duke. Bless 'em both! —Dan Morgenstern

To appreciate the effect Duke's music first had on me, I guess you'd have to be a vulnerable female teenager back in the early 1930s. Pores wide open, eagerly responsive to all artistic expression, I was a sitting duck when Ellington's music came into my life. And by the mid '30s I was a goner. The roundhouse punch connected in 1936: "Yearning for Love" (a/k/a "Lawrence's Concerto"). No clinical analysis needed here. Did I care how the arrangement was structured? Or that the recorded version was shorter than originally intended? All I knew was that a gorgeous feeling was shooting straight into my bloodstream. A stunningly handsome, seemingly aloof man was revealing, with each note he played, a secret passionate nature. "Yearning for Love" was the perfect title to go with the wishful scenario I constructed. Even now as I listen to that achingly beautiful Lawrence Brown trombone solo, I have trouble catching my breath. Talk about mixing memory with desire. You'd never know from these graceful sounds that a rift was brewing between the two principals. For Duke to continue to star such a valuable artist, despite their personal differences, tells us much about the maestro's genius. —Jean Bach

I grew up on a musical diet of rock and roll until I was 16, when I heard my first jazz band— Cannonball Adderley— and landed on a new planet. My learning process was simple: I figured out the big names, went to Dayton's on 8th Street, and bought any albums by them I could find for $1.99. I bought a lot. The first Ellington I encountered was, coincidentally, some of the first Ellington recorded, the early Victor classics, on a budget-line double album (two 10-song LPs for $1.99!) with a purple cartoon Ellington on the cover and a photo on the back of the most mysterious and elegant looking man I had ever seen. It was, without question, the oldest music I had ever heard and I was bewitched; it was the shock of the old. The throaty growls on "Black and Tan Fantasy"! The surreal wordless vocal on "Creole Love Call"! That dark rhythmic riptide and burbling saxophone of "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo"! The weird harmonies and percussive puckety-pucks of "The Mooche"! Those crazy gongs and laughing reeds on "Ring Dem Bells"! "Mood Indigo"!!!! My world shifted. Those magnificent early Victor records and that breathtaking "jungle band" have a permanent grip on my heart. —Lee Jeske

I was walking down Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile one summer night when I walked into "In a Sentimental Mood." It was my first time and I couldn't have been more undone by the melody if I'd been a snake and this very good streetcorner saxophonist my personal charmer. Subsequent inquiry revealed that the tune had been written by Duke Ellington and that the most salubrious version was to be found on the 1962 album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. Could that be right? I didn't know much about jazz but I loved Coltrane while Ellington for me was just a dapper image out of a '30s black-and-white movie. The album and particularly the song cured me of such callow notions. Duke's brief piano intro on "In a Sentimental Mood" was a revelation in itself— chiming, slightly dissonant, slightly Chinese-sounding and totally hip in a seemingly offhand way. So much for my Trane-derived notion that jazz had to sound agonized to be important, so much for my one-dimensional reading of Coltrane who, tempered by mouthpiece troubles and his own reverence for Ellington, follows the piano vamp with a straightforward and unsurpassingly gorgeous reading of the melody. —Joseph Hooper

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