Rockin' in Rhythm

Edited by Gary Giddins
Coordinated by Elora Alexander

When I first heard it on the car radio, I nearly crashed. When I excitedly bought the CD, I somehow lost the liner notes before I got home. The track that displaced me was "Les Fleurs Africaines," from the 1962 session Money Jungle, an almost absurd meeting of the egos— Ellington, Mingus, Roach. James Newton and David Murray made admirable covers of it, Miles Davis objected to it ("How am I supposed to rate that?" he growled in response to a Down Beat blindfold test for the album), but no one has ever been able to recapture the uncanny original 3:33, in which Max's cool, inchoate rumblings glide beneath the Duke's Zen intervals and Mingus's steady yet loose pluckings. I was playing in an ensemble at the time, naively eager to persuade a robotic bassist to somehow cathect Mingus's mysterious trills on the main motif and emulate the hypnotic, peripatetic wanderings that are both away from and in response to Duke's refrain. Of course, it would have been daunting even for a virtuoso to come anywhere near the fiery pastorale, the flowering of "Les Fleurs Africaines." To borrow a phrase from the former Mingus sideman Eric Dolphy, "You can never capture it again." —David Yaffe

Knowing the emotional etymology of almost every sound a man could make and what those sounds said about the men who made them, Ellington built into some of his best works (and, of course, into the orchestra that cocreated them) a special sort of musical self-awareness. "The Sergeant Was Shy," from June 1939, is lovely that way, a kind of glorious, golden jest about how many ways there might be to feel about bits and pieces of "Bugle Call Rag"— marchingly mysterioso, Frenchified tangoish, parade-ground earnest, and "Here comes the band!"­gleeful (all in the first 16 bars alone). And yes, this two-minute, 36-second kaleidoscope of moods is about being such a kaleidoscope, about the ways we inevitably place ourselves by the way we sound. In fact, I think that among the most central points of celebration that Ellington ever allowed himself is the blaze-of-sunlight break with which the trumpet section begins chorus eight, after which the master chastens their sassiness with the finger-wagging of Tricky Sam Nanton (this leads to fierce dissonance) and then asks Harry Carney to smack his basso seal of sobriety on a seriocomic masterpiece. —Larry Kart

Ellington's compositions not only fueled his own orchestra but provided musical sustenance for virtually every band or singer in the jazz-pop spectrum. Yet one facet of Ellington's recorded output remains largely unexplored by international reissue programs: his cover albums of what Roland Kirk used to call "other folks' music." These range from a double-length gathering of key songs associated with other swing-era bands (reissued as Recollections of the Big Band Era), a romantic, Strayhornized suite of French chansons (Midnight in Paris, which introduced "Guitar Amour"), and delightfully Dukish treatments of show and film scores (All American and Mary Poppins). While the idea of Ellington stooping to conquer hits by the Beatles, Acker Bilk, Bob Dylan, Tijuana Brass, and Manos Hadjidakis may rankle those same purists who were always denouncing the band's vocalists, there's great music on these albums: Lawrence Brown transforming "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" into a plaintive moan, Paul Gonsalves wailing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," Wild Bill Davis and Johnny Hodges exploring the sensual side of "Soon It's Gonna Rain" (on the superrare 1969 Reader's Digest sessions). And you oughta hear what Cootie Williams, Hodges, and Gonsalves do with "Danke Schoen" on Ellington '65. Wayne Newton it ain't. —Will Friedwald

Most of Ellington's musical gems are 12-measure blues formulations, a matrix he never tired of; for example, "The Mooch," "Creole Love Call," and "Transblucency." Yet for "The Blues," the only sung section in Black, Brown and Beige, he follows his mentor "Dad" (Will Marion) Cook's proscription, "First you find the logical way, and when you find it, avoid it, and let your inner self break through and guide you." The almost atonal introduction, harmonic progressions, bar structure, and melodic contour of "The Blues" are a jazz world away from the standard blues. Only when the singer finishes the first chorus of the song and steps back to listen, do Ellington's trombones wail a demonstration chorus of the 12-bar blues, a chorus that he later recycled and developed into the "Carnegie Hall Blues." A haunting interlude for tenor sax leads us back to the song. Its final lick quotes the theme from "Work Song." Ellington's "The Blues" is a masterpiece about the blues. By the way, it was Cook who predicted, "There would one day come a Black Beethoven, burned to the bone by the African Sun." —Maurice Peress

I was a high school student in Chicago in 1943. One winter night in a freezing rain I went to Orchestra Hall to try to get into the sold-out Duke Ellington concert. In the confusion and chaos of the lobby, using a technique of backward walking and temporary invisibility, I got inside. It turned out there were a few empty seats, and as the lights went down I found quite a good one. It was the first time I had seen Ellington, and despite the war and the draft, the personnel of the 1938 band was still largely intact. That night I saw Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, et al., and I remember them playing "Take the A Train," "Passion Flower," "Cottontail," "Main Stem," "Perdido," and maybe "Chelsea Bridge." I can't find the program from that night, but I remember in the second set part of Black, Brown and Beige was played, the section called "Come Sunday." I was enthralled and thought I was listening to the most beautiful, the most moving music I'd ever heard. It has stayed in my mind for years. My son Christopher used it at his wedding and I think I've told enough people that I want it played at my funeral. —Robert Andrew Parker


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