Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

78: “Black and Tan Fantasy” b/w “What Can a Poor Fellow Do?” by Duke Ellington & His Orchestra. Okeh 40955. Recorded 11/03/27 in New York City.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Anyone out there expecting a comprehensive, biographical take on Duke Ellington from me can forget it. I’d have no time to listen to music or make music if I were to attempt to do the man justice, and it’s hard enough getting people to read a 1,000 word blogpost, let alone a 1,000 page blogpost. Big fans of Ellington’s who happen to read this will, understandably, be disappointed by the glaring omissions—both canonical and those subject to personal taste. Righteous anger at the seemingly inaccurate way another person describes a favorite musician or songwriter is, of course, a sign of love for the person being described.

With that in mind, a brief biography: Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. in 1899. His parents were both pianists, and he started taking lessons at the age of seven, though baseball was of greater interest at the time. Apparently, President Teddy Roosevelt used to pass by on his horse and watch Duke and his friends play. He took music more seriously in his teens and was leading bands in D.C. and Virginia by his early twenties, playing to both black and white audiences, which was pretty unusual at that time. He soon moved to New York City and took the coveted Cotton Club house band engagement when King Oliver turned it down, and the exposure from the club’s radio show helped introduce him to the rest of America. He was a master at making three minute songs—that’s as much as a 78 side would generally allow—as tonally and structurally sophisticated as possible. That knowledge would pay off years later when LPs allowed for more ambitious pieces.

Ellington continued to make music into the 1970’s, just before his death. Over the course of over 50 years of recordings and performances he stretched the boundaries of popular music and blurred the lines between swing, bop, and even classical music. He rightly believed that jazz was a limiting descriptor, and he preferred that his work simply be referred to as American music. Fair enough.

So. The disc in question was released in 1928, hot on the heels of Duke’s first big hit, “Creole Love Call.” That one proved to be a big hit for collaborator Adelaide Hall, as well.

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78: “Are You Hep to the Jive?” b/w “Sunset” by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. Okeh 5804. Recorded in New York City, 08/05/40

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

 

Cab Calloway was born in 1907, in my hometown of Rochester, NY. We also gave the world Lou Gramm, Wendy O. Williams and Lydia Lunch. You’re welcome, world.

Cab’s mother was a teacher and his father a lawyer. They relocated to Baltimore in 1918, and it was there that Cab’s interest in music began. His parents encouraged this interest, though they weren’t thrilled with the idea of their son playing jazz. Blanche, Cab’s older sister, was also musically inclined and was the first woman to lead an all-male orchestra. She was a big influence on her little brother, and even got him his first break with the show Plantation Days, in 1925. While attending college, Cab went out to hear and perform music as much as he could. Supposedly Louis Armstrong taught him how to scat at one of those early shows.

By 1930, Cab had put together an orchestra and was gaining such prominence in New York City that his group became one of two house bands at The Cotton Club. The other group? Duke Ellington’s band. Calloway’s reputation for putting on dazzling, flamboyant shows might have been seen as a commercially viable way to balance Duke’s more ambitious sophistication. When one group was on tour, the other stayed home; apparently Cab adopted Duke’s plan to get past racist Jim Crow laws when traveling: just buy a railroad car for the whole band.

Calloway’s biggest hit was also his first: 1931’s “Minnie the Moocher.” The song told the  comically grandiose tale of a good-time girl doing what she could to keep living the high life. And I do mean high—the song made reference to “kick(ing) the gong around,” slang for smoking opium. Most listeners had no idea.

Minnie is being saved for the big finish. In the meantime, here is one of three Betty Boop cartoons Cab made with the Fleischer brothers. This one features three songs, and like the other two cartoons, has a character whose motion is provided by Cab himself, via the magic of rotoscoping. Here he is, as “The Old Man of the Mountain.”

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78: “Gotta Go Baby” b/w “Swingin’ The Cat,” “Cats Boogie” and “For Jumpers Only” by Cat Anderson. Apollo 771. Recorded in New York City, May 14, 1947.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

 

William Alonzo Anderson was born in 1916 in Greenville, South Carolina. The tragic death of his parents saw him moved to a Charleston orphanage at the age of four. While growing up there, he learned to play the trumpet and picked up his nickname of “Cat,” which was given to him by friends because of his fighting style. He played with a number of smaller groups throughout the Thirties and early Forties, eventually landing a spot in Lionel Hampton’s band. But his career really began in 1944, when he joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Ellington—who was unusually willing to share the spotlight with his sidemen—saw a lot of potential in this young man with a five octave range and delighted in writing songs that showed off Anderson’s ability to play higher than anyone else could. In 1944, Benny Goodman’s or Glenn Miller’s Orchestras might have sold more tickets, but Ellington’s band was the place to be if you wanted to musically shine.

So it might seem surprising that Cat left the band in 1947 to pursue his own interests. We’re lucky he did, because “Gotta Go Baby,” the one song I was able to find from this EP, swings hard and well. Check it out.

That was fellow trumpeter Joe Straud on vocals. Anderson employed a full orchestra, but the spare arrangement brings to mind the work of Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five, to these ears, anyway. Continue reading

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78: “Do Your Duty” b/w “Down In the Dumps” by Bessie Smith. Okeh 8945. Recorded November 24, 1933 in New York City.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

 

Born in Chattanooga, TN in the 1890‘s (the exact date is a point of some debate), Bessie Smith was hugely popular and influential in the 1920’s. She recorded 160 songs for Columbia Records, with her debut single (“Gulf Coast Blues” paired with “Downhearted Blues”) selling 750,000 copies in 1923. She would work with such future legends as Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, and Louis Armstrong, and she defied racial segregation by traveling with her band in their own private railroad car years before Duke Ellington could afford to do so himself. The woman was a star, rightly dubbed “Empress of the Blues.”

 

But the public’s taste can be fickle, and the depression hurt the public’s willingness to spend money on records, so Bessie was dropped from Columbia, cutting her final sides with them in 1931. Continue reading

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