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Jazz Legends

Jazz Legends - their life & music


While most of us associate the Duke with big band orchestral jazz, there was a time in the late twenties when he played traditional (or if you prefer classic) jazz. Ellington's Washingtonians were a small New Orleans style group who played and recorded some red hot gems of traditional jazz: Black Beauty, Rent Party Blues, Black & Tan Fantasy, The Mooch, Going to Town, Stevedore Stomp, Mood Indigo, Shout Em Aunt Tillie, ..... to name but a few. This was beautiful heartfelt music, which has stood the test of time.

The Duke was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington DC on April 29, 1899. By his late teens he was playing piano and working occasional professional jobs with his own and other bands. He came to New York in 1923 with a group called the Wahingtonians and opened at a Broadway speakeasy called the Hollywood Club [later renamed the Kentucky Club.] Artie Whetsol was on trumpet, Otto Hardwick clt/alto, Sonny Greer drums and Elmer Snowden banjo. At first the band was more of a commercial orchestra than a jazz band.

In 1925 Whetsol left and the new trumpet player Bubber Miley really sparked this band. To quote Ellington: "Our band changed its character when Bubber came in. He used to growl all night long, playing gutbucket on his horn. That was when we decided to forget all about the sweet music." Alongside Miley on trumpet, were Charlie Irvis (tbn), Otto Hardwick (clt/alto), Sonny Greer (dms), Fred Guy (bnj) and of course Ellington on piano. Bubber Miley and Charlie Irvis growled and moaned on the nightly radio broadcasts of Ellington's Washingtonians from the Kentucky club in New York in the twenties.

"Tricky" Sam Nanton, replacing Irvis on trombone, also was a key contributor to the Ellington sound. Tricky Sam, who was facile with the plunger mute, really hit it off musically with Bubber. Later, Ellington recruited the famed New Orleans clarinetist Barney Bigard.

A major part of Ellington's genius was the blending of all this talent, letting the musicians define the sound, and collaborating on original compositions that gave the band a unique distinctive character. This period of Ellington's music saw the recording of much fine traditional/classic jazz. They recorded with different band names on various labels - to get around exclusive contracts. Sometimes the Washingtonians, sometimes the Harlem Feetwarmers, or simply Duke Ellington and His Orchestra.

On recordings from this period you will hear a tight New Orleans style ensemble playing blues and blues influenced themes with tremendous vitality. My favorite recordings from the Ellington band in the twenties are Black and Tan Fantasy, East St. Louis Toodle-oo and Creole Love Call. [These recordings have been reissued and are available on CDs, for example Columbia Jazz Masterpieces: "The Okeh Ellington" and the Bluebird reissue "Early Ellington 1927 -1934".]

Examine the musical structure of a tune like East St. Louis Toodle-oo and it points both to roots in New Orleans and to the Duke's developing musical style. Composers Ellington and Miley blend a minor folk like melody with a second theme having the same chords as Sister Kate. Simple enough material but elegant when the first theme is reprised for a clarinet solo and a cornet coda.

In 1927 the great King Oliver turned down an engagement at Harlem's Cotton Club - he was not happy with the financial side of the deal. The gig was accepted by Ellington and they moved into the Cotton Club for a four year run and the rest as they say is history.

-------- ©   Mike Slack, 1998

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