Sunday, 15 September 2019

Reed All About it...

I first heard clarinettist Samantha Wright play at the inaugural concert of the then newly formed Ellington Orchestra of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire at the Town Hall, Birmingham in early 2017. On that evening, she showed a mastery of her instrument with regard specifically to Ellington's music embracing a range of styles which captured both the woody, New Orleans inspired tones of Barney Bigard and the more classically oriented, Goodmanesque style of Jimmy Hamilton.

Samantha has continued her studies, presently in Germany, her mastery of the clarinet only accentuated by a Masters degree itself.

Generously, she has made her dissertation, An exploration of the clarinetists who performed with Duke Ellington from 1924-1942, freely available to download.

The link to the download may be found at Samantha's website here.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

In the beginning...

Duke Ellington, Westminster Abbey, 1973

Jeremy Price, Head of Jazz at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and one of the prime movers behind the 25th Duke Ellington Sydney Group International Conference 2018, will be leading a day long course in Oxford on the Sacred Music of Duke Ellington on 
12 October, 2019.

Details of the course, part of University of Oxford's Department for Continuing Education programme are posted below. The source of the text, and the facilities for booking on the course may be found here. 

Ellington's Sacred Music
In a career spanning some sixty years Duke Ellington became one of America’s most widely respected musicians. As a pianist, composer and particularly as a band leader he became one of the most influential jazz musicians of his time, although he preferred to call his music “American music” rather than jazz. Even after his death in 1974 his influence remained strong, as evidenced by the posthumous award of a Pulitzer Prize in 1999.
Throughout his career there is a strong moral and religious thread discernible in much of his music. In this day school Jeremy Price, Head of Jazz at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, explores this aspect of Duke Ellington’s life and music, focusing on the Sacred Concerts composed in his later years.

Programme details

9.45am            Registration
10.00am          Moral messages in earlier Ellington
Ellington communicates moral messages right from the start, particularly in the Deep South Suite and Black Brown and Beige. These works can be examined as precursors to the eventual composition of the first Sacred Concert.
11.15am            Coffee/tea
11.45am            The First Sacred Concert
Circumstances of its composition and first performance
1.00pm            Lunch
2.00pm            Subsequent revisions and additions
Sacred Concerts 2 and 3 and other renditions under Ellington.
3.15pm            Tea/coffee
3.45pm            Contemporary performances
Ellington’s Sacred Music has become firmly established in the concert repertoire. This session examines what the Sacred Concerts mean to us in the 21st century by looking at recent performances and interpretations.
5.00pm           Course disperses

Recommended reading
T. Teachout: Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Alfred Publishing)
E. Green: The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington (CUP)


Accommodation in Rewley House - all bedrooms are modern, comfortably furnished and each room has tea and coffee making facilities, Freeview television, and Free WiFi and private bath or shower rooms.  Please contact our Residential Centre on +44 (0) 1865 270362 or email for details of availability and discounted prices.


Tuition only: £70.00
Baguette Lunch : £5.00


Jeremy Price


has been Head of Jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire since the Jazz Department was established in 1999 and wrote the Conservatoire's first ever BMus (Hons) Jazz programme. He is also the author of the Associated Board's Jazz Ensemble series Jazz Works and has also written material for International Music Press.

Jonathan Darnborough

Director of Studies

Jonathan Darnborough is Director of Studies in Music and Departmental Lecturer in Music at Oxford University Department for Continuing Education.  He is a composer and pianist and has worked in continuing education throughout his career.
Jonathan studied piano and composition at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and the Royal Northern College of Music.  He was a prizewinner in the 1992 Franco-Italian Music Competition in Paris and has performed in the USA, France, Holland, Italy and Indonesia.  The Boston Globe has described him as having “a compositional voice that was unmistakably his own”.  He is currently working on an opera based on Euripides’s Hecuba and writing an online course on musical analysis for Oxford.
He is the author of an online course, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Life is alright in America...

An extract from a TV interview with Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein has been available on Youtube for some time but now the complete half hour programme has been made available.

The interview took place 2 July 1966 at the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company in River Hills, Wisconsin.

I've posted the full programme below and also included the extract...

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Mapping Duke's World...

The website for the 26th International Duke Ellington Study Group Conference is now live.

The 26th International Duke Ellington Study Group Conference will take place at Georgetown University in Washington, DC from March 11-15, 2020. 

From the website...

This five-day multidisciplinary conference will bring together leading researchers and performers across the arts and humanities. The event will feature academic papers, panels, roundtables, and cultural walks/visits, as well as an exciting program of performances by local Washington DC performers.

Full conference details will be available on the website from 15 October, 2019.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Do Get Around Much...

Mosaic Records have long shone like a good deed in a naughty world. In September, their light will burn with a blue flame with the release of The Complete Woody Herman, Decca, Mars and MGM Sessions 1943-1954.

For collectors of Ellingtonia, it is interesting to note that the first disc is comprised entirely of sessions in which Ben Webster
participates and which were recorded for the World Transcription service in November 1943. Webster had left the Duke Ellington orchestra under something of a cloud in August of that year. What makes these particular recordings particularly fascinating is that Ellington himself recorded for World Transcriptions and his very first session for the label was on the same day as Webster was in the studio with the Herman Orchestra. Did Ben run across his old boss on that occasion? It is quite mind blowing to think that through the revolving door came two world class name bands on the same day. From the ever-reliable Lord's discography, here is a 'screen shot' of the Herman sessions with Webster...

The Mosaic collection anthologises these recordings which are obtainable otherwise only across numerous obscure LPs. 

Outside of the collection's remit is one final encounter in the recording studio between herman and Webster in the forties which took place for a V-Disc session on 24 january, 1945, one title recorded: Somebody Loves Me. That particular track was published on the album Ben and the Boys.

An even more rare encounter between Herman and the Ellingtonians is also included on this seven disc set. Another session for World Transcriptions on 4 April, 1944 was recorded with a group that included Ray Nance and Johnny Hodges. From Lord, here are the details...

Twelve months earlier to the day, or as good as, Ben Webster had been a member of the Ellington Orchestra and they were appearing 'in residence' at The Hurricane Club, Broadway. Ironically, the Orchestra was again playing the Hurricane when Nance and Hodges must have 'moonlighted' to play the session with Herman. It's a small World!

Recordings of the Ellington Orchestra with Nance and Hodges at the Hurricane from that same week or so were included on a  CD released by Duke Ellington Society UK at the end of 2017.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Wisely and well...

Notice of a new book on the music of Duke Ellington: Sweet Thunder by Jack Chambers.

This is not a review. I am lucky to consider Professor Jack Chambers of Toronto University a friend and had the privilege of helping to prepare proofs of original versions of two of the essays included in this collection for publication in DESUK's Blue Light when I was Editor.

I enjoyed reading the book immensely. Jack's knowledge of Ellington's music is extensive. The style is conversational and sends the reader straight in search of the music, listening again with enhanced appreciation.

From the publicity poster...

Sweet Thunder explores the music of Duke Ellington by tracing nine themes through his amazingly productive 50 year career as composer, orchestrator, pianist, and cultural icon. Lifelong listeners to Ellington and newcomers seeking an entry point into Ellington’s voluminous works will find this book stimulating, illuminating, and entertaining.
1 Ellington’s Harlem...
“...the world’s most glamorous

2 Sweet and Pungent
Duke and the Plunger Mutes

3 The Fifth Reed
Ben Webster and the Tenor Ascent

4 Lotus Eaters Unite!
The Spectral Alliance of Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn

5 Panther Patter
Duke Ellington at the Piano

6 Bardland
Shakespeare in Ellington’s World

7 Afro Eurasian Ellington
8 Duke Ellington’s Parallel Universe: The Stockpile
9 Three Steps into The River

One aspect of Jack's Ellingtonian studies not covered by the book is the research he did on Ellington's 1972 composition Celebration which he presented at the Ellington conference last year in Birmingham. I'm holding out, then, in hope of a sequel to this marvellous collection of essays.

Such is the generosity of Professor Chambers, it is possible to sample quite extensively the essays in this book. While the definitive versions of Jack's essays can be read only in the book, an earlier version of Bardland may be read in an edition of the Duke Ellington Music Society Bulletin here.

A valuable supplement to the Con Chapman biography of Johnny Hodges reviewed here previously, an early version of my favourite chapter in the book, Lotus Eaters Unite! entitled Sweet as Bear Meat: The Paradox of Johnny Hodges may be read here.

Full details of the presentations Jack Chambers has made to TDES 40: The Toronto Chapter of the Duke Ellington Society may be found (2000-2012) here and (2013-present) here.

The book is available in the UK from Amazon here.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Run ,Rabbit

Just finished reading Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges by Con Chapman (Oxford University Press).

It left me with the impression, as do all the best biographies, that I have spent time in the company of the subject. This is some achievement given that Hodges gave very little away, his face while he spun those ineffable creamy solos from his alto sax as immobile and enigmatic as that of an Easter Island statue; and a man in the very few interviews in which he participated, neither given to candour nor introspection. What sources are available, however, Chapman has gleaned like a prospector panning for gold. The book is scholarly and thorough, the presentation and organisation of the facts and material sympathetic to its subject.

The biography is organized largely chronologically. Chapman draws the musician’s early history and family background very effectively. While the political aspects of Hodges’s story are not particularly emphasized in this study, the casual, careless nature of the paperwork surrounding his birth, upbringing – down to the accuracy and order of his forenames and whether his surname ended in an ‘s’ or not – speaks to the, at best, indifference of the authorities to his heritage. Like many young black men of his age, music was the way for Hodges to aspire, threatening to steal a particularly beautiful soprano saxophone upon which his attention had fallen if his mother did not buy it for him.

Equally evocative is the way in which Chapman also draws the musical milieu of the jazz age in New York as the young man goes to the big city, ‘scuffling; in search of useful employment. While bracketing the story of Hodges’s life in a largely linear and chronological fashion, the biography also comprises a number of ‘side trips’, largely self-contained essays on subjects as diverse as Women and ChildrenFood and Drink

One particular chapter on His Tone is both instructive and important. Chapman has certainly done his homework. The book is researched meticulously and the writer’s scrupulous approach is evident in the close observation he has brought even to watching videos of the artist at work in order to explain the various positioning of the mouthpiece Hodges employed in order to achieve his varying effects.

And it is that tone which is the essence of Hodges’s place in the pantheon of great musicians, as instantly recognizable and inimitable as the deft stroke of a charcoal pencil in the hand of Picasso, a true master; an artist. The modernists make fleeting appearances in the Hodges story. One chapter is entitled The Coming of Bird though between Johnny’s collaboration with Parker in the Norman Granz jam sessions in the early fifties and his series of albums on the Verve label in the late fifties following his return to the Ellington fold, the younger man had perished. Coltrane has a walk on part in Hodges’s life also (see photograph), being Coltrane’s employer during Hodges’s brief flirtation with early rhythm and blues and his solo career as bandleader. Throughout all the twists and turns of modernism, Hodges sailed on serenely, his essential style unchanged.

Johnny Hodges with Shorty Baker and John Coltrane
Like that of his own main employer. What of Hodges’s return to Ellington in the mid-fifties? Occasionally, as Chapman catalogues Ellington’s successes post- Newport and the albums that followed immediately in its wake, for instance, Hodges is in danger of dissolving like Disprin in his own story. As he felt once again the gravitational pull of Ellington’s orbit, that, I suppose, is the point, however. How did Hodges feel about Paul Gonsalves effectively stealing the thunder with his incendiary tenor solo at Newport? Or having to return to the Ellington Orchestra at all following the soul destroying accumulations of the business end of the music business when he fronted his own units? We will never know. In his exhaustive research, Con Chapman has found much that is interesting in what Hodges had to say about the ‘external’, practical reasons for his return to Ellington. Hodges argues that he could have settled for a lucrative career as a session musician but, rather, he chose to return to Duke’s aggregation. We must allow Johnny that little conceit, given such an option may have been difficult in that he was not the most facile sight-reader, a necessary condition for such studio work. 

Hodges knew his own worth and despite – perhaps because of  – the hardships of life on the road, he kept his own counsel and stood by his own standards. In defining and defending his artistry, he was uncompromising in what sort of music he would and would not play. In the penultimate chapter of the book entitled The Blues, Chapman makes an incisive assessment of what this phrase means in terms of popular music and how it was understood by Johnny Hodges. The great gift of Con Chapman’s book is to remind us that as an artist, Hodges was rooted, via the music of his great mentor Sidney Bechet forever faithfully and uncompromisingly in the blues. This was the yardstick against which he invariably measured the worth of any music upon which he was called to essay. His tenacious hold on the form, Chapman tells us, ensured that Ellington’s music itself, too, remained ‘earthed’. 

Last December, I attended Coventry Cathedral for a screening of a Sacred Concert telecast filmed there fifty-two years earlier and unseen since. At one point in the broadcast, Harry Carney is soloing when suddenly, unnecessarily and yet knowingly, Johnny Hodges leans conspicuously into shot to tidy the sheets on his music stand. It is almost as if, in his impish fashion, Hodges is intruding just to remind us that he is still there. Con Chapman’s excellent biography does just the same, rendering Hodges present for us again.