Saturday, 28 July 2012

Black, Brown and Neige

Dashing through the snow...

Why did Duke Ellington record a version of Jingle Bells as part of his sessions for the Midnight in Paris album?

This particular session, Ellington’s penultimate for Columbia, took place in New York on 21 June, 1962:

Columbia recording session at the 30th Street Studio.

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra: Ray Nance, c; Cat Anderson, Bill Berry, Roy Burrowes, t; Lawrence Brown, Britt Woodman, tb; Chuck Connors, btb; Jimmy Hamilton, cl, ts; Johnny Hodges, as; Russell Procope, as, cl; Paul Gonsalves, ts; Harry Carney, bs; Duke Ellington, p; Aaron Bell, b; Sam Woodyard, d.

June seems a little previous to be thinking of Christmas music (although it’s true that stars such as Frank Sinatra recorded their Christmas albums in August). It’s pretty much an ‘orphaned’ track. Was it intended as a single? What would have been on the reverse?

In fact, the recording remained unreleased until after Ellington’s death when it appeared first on a series of five albums on CBS in – appropriately – France. The track occasionally turns up on compact disc anthologies of Jazz at Christmas, etc.

Well, one possible reason might be found in the dialogue from the film Paris Blues. In his book on jazz and film, Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema, Krin Gabbard transcribes part of a scene of the film. Ram Bowen (Paul Newman), the eponymous trombone-playing hero of the piece, has gone to see music impresario Rene Bernard (played by Andre Luguet) with a view to getting his most recent composition played in concert.

The dialogue is as follows:

Bernard: You have a good melodic feel.
Bowen: Mr Bernard, I want to develop that theme into a piece to be played in concert. Now, what’s the possibility?
Bernard: Mr Bowen, you are a creative musician. Every time you put a horn in your mouth, you are composing. Your improvisations are highly personal. They give you a stamp as a musician. But there is a great deal of difference between that and an important piece of serious music.
Bowen: In other words, you’re trying to tell me that I’m just sort of a lightweight.
Bernard: I don’t know what you are yet, Mr Bowen. And neither do you. I’m only saying that you haven’t yet given yourself a chance to find out.
Bowen: I’ve worked with musicians all my life. I know everything I can do.
Bernard: Perhaps you need to do something else now. Paris is a great city for an artist to work and study composition, harmony, theory, counterpoint. Perhaps you need to change you life for a couple of years in order to give yourself a chance to do what you wish.
Bowen: Well, in other words, it’s no good.
Bernard: On the contrary, I like it.
Bowen: But it’s not good enough to be played.
Bernard: Oh, I’m certain, [pause] a record company...
Bowen: But nothing more than that.
Bernard: It is what it is. A jazz piece of certain charm and [pause] melody.

The piece in question is Ellington’s theme for the film, Paris Blues. All his life, Ellington suffered a comparison between his work and that of the Western, European tradition. Such comparisons are not only odious but also completely irrelevant to what Ellington and Strayhorn were trying to do. Worse, whenever Ellington did attempt something beyond the confines of the three minute seventy-eight side, he was castigated by the likes of John Hammond for pretension if not betrayal of the blues form: for pieces such as Reminiscing in Tempo or Black, Brown and Beige  Ellington repeatedly suffered this charge, culminating, famously, in the Pulitzer Prize Board’s failure to give him the award in 1965.

The dialogue from this film for which Ellington composed the music resonates, then, in a very particular way. It is not as if, in composing the film score, Ellington was offering parody or pastiche.  It was – to paraphrase the dialogue – what it was: consummate work by Ellington and Strayhorn. It is Ellington’s music itself then which is being given seven shades of back handed compliment in this exchange.

Did Ellington dwell on this dialogue when he was assembling pieces for his French album twelve months later? Well, Ram Bowen’s final retort in this scene – not transcribed here by Gabbard – gives us pause. In response to the claim that his piece has a certain ‘charm’ and ‘melody’, ‘Ram’ replies:

‘Yeah, well, Jingle Bells is a great tune. You can hum that the first time you hear it.’

In other words, the composer finds the remarks of the impresario crass, patronizing and insulting, the fruits of his labours being of no more artistic merit than – literally -  a jingle.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris was the final album Duke Ellington made under his contract with Columbia Records.  Ellington was, reportedly, increasingly dissatisfied with the company. This particular album, in fact, took six months to complete – between January and June, 1962. Ellington was simultaneously working on his Featuring Paul Gonsalves album at Fantasy and squirreling away recordings in his own private stockpile, too.

It’s easy to look at the somewhat indifferent cover art, listen to the rather middle-of-the-road content of the album and conclude that this particular project was the casualty of the shifting pop market as record companies lost confidence in ‘adult pop’ and went chasing The Beatles and the new demographic.

But look again. It’s easy to imagine, rather, twin impulses behind this particular collection.

Firstly, Ellington’s general dissatisfaction with the way things had turned out over his film project, Paris Blues. Unlike his previous, much heralded, film score, Anatomy of a Murder, Ellington’s work on the 1961 motion picture Paris Blues was not celebrated by a release of the music on album from Ellington’s ‘house’ label. A soundtrack did appear on MGM. Perhaps it was because of the involvement of Louis Armstrong no longer signed to the label, an album on Columbia was not possible.

As it is, much of the music from Paris Blues was not released. The recent album French Touch from Laurent Mignard’s superb Duke Orchestra included some of that unreleased music. 

Perhaps in compensation, a couple of numbers – Wild Man and Battle Royal – Ellington himself featured on the Columbia album he made with Count Basie and his Orchestra. Ellington also ensured there was a collaboration with Louis Armstrong in the studio, too, in the famous couple of albums they recorded for Roulette. And finally, Midnight in Paris allowed the bandleader to put out an album on Columbia with a Parisian theme and which included his own compositions Paris Blues and Guitar Amour.

And the second impulse is Billy Strayhorn. Any surface artistic frustrations Ellington was feeling were nothing compared to the deep river of Strayhorn’s love affair with the City of Light. And this is Billy Strayhorn’s album.

The title track (originally intended for the Basie album), Under Paris Skies, My Heart Sings (a feature for Joya Sherrill back in the day), Comme-Ci, Comme-Ca, Speak to Me of Love, I Wish You Love (Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet is sublime), River Seine, Petite Waltz and No Regrets were all arranged by Strayhorn. It is Strayhorn’s touch on piano through several of the tracks, too. Twelve months earlier, whilst in Paris with Ellington to work on the score for the film, Billy had recorded an album of his own compositions at the Barclay Studios in the city. Now, back home in New York, Strayhorn was the principal architect behind this new Parisian themed collection. And what pastel shades he created, what a rich and varied tapestry is woven throughout the thirteen selections.

The album has never been released on compact disc in the USA – and appeared only fleetingly in a very small print run in – appropriately enough – France.

Here, then, for your listening pleasure, is Midnight in Paris.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Blues in Paris

Essential reading about Duke Ellington's involvement with Paris can be found in the article Busy Winters by Matthew Asprey which is on the Pop Matters site here.

And for an interesting piece on the making of the 1961 motion picture Paris Blues by Krin Gabbard, his illuminating essay is available  as a PDF here.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

A Week in Paris

Pendant mes vacances...

The works outing for Duke's this year is a week in Paris.  The hotel – Pallais de Chaillot - was booked on the strength of it being named for the venue where Duke Ellington played a concert on 3 April, 1939.

There’s going to be, then, something of a Gallic theme to the next few postings, exploring the music of the Ellingtonians in France.

Ellington’s band played the Palais de Chaillot again when they returned for a tour of continental Europe in 1950. During the band’s stay in the City of Light, a small group of musicians made a few sides for the Vogue record label under the leadership of Johnny Hodges. Sixteen of the sides have been anthologized several times on the Vogue label. Somewhat more rare is the first session for the label by this small group.

They recorded four sides on that initial date which took place on April, 14, 1950. The first of the tunes, Saint-Germain des Prés Blues appeared under Harold ‘Shorty’ Baker’s name. The remaining three sides credit Hodges as leader.

The full discographical details for the session are as follows:

Harold Baker (tp) Quentin Jackson (tb) Johnny Hodges (as) Don Byas (ts) Raymond Fol (p) Wendell Marshall (b) Butch Ballard (d)

Paris, April 14, 1950

OSW671 Saint-Germain des Prés Blues
0SW672 Good to the Last Drop 341, Onyx ORI216
0SW673 Only Wish I Knew 349, -
0SW674 We Fooled You - , -

What of the music recorded during this session? Well, as one might expect, it’s very different to that recorded under Hodges’ leadership in the late thirties and early forties.

Be bop is clearly making its presence felt in the sharp stabs from the brass lines behind the soloists. The presence of Don Byas – living in Paris at the time, I think – also lends a cool modernism to the proceedings. The sound of the group is reminiscent of the recordings James Moody was making about this time in Sweden. Indeed, the 1950s saw the beginnings of that emigration of musicians from New York to the European continent.  Hodges himself, before long, of course, would attempt to fly free of the Ellingtonian nest and launch his own solo career. The sessions are, in some ways, a launching pad for his flight.

Three of the four numbers are up-tempo, the exception being the ballad Only Wish I Knew which in Baker’s tender horn lines, and despite its rather abrupt ending, is somewhat reminiscent of Miles Davis’s work in the Birth of the Cool sessions.

Anyway, presented here are those four sides from Hodges’ Paris sojourn. Medium rarities.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Every Tubbs

I recently acquired half-a-dozen copies of the music magazine Crescendo from the mid-sixties.  I thought I’d share the following from the magazine for March 1964 on Duke Ellington’s appearance at the Royal Festival Hall, a month earlier:

At the opening Festival Hall show, Paul Gonsalves was temporarily indisposed. Tubby, who happened to be backstage, found himself literally whisked into the vacant chair.

It is an indication of Tubby’s outstanding musicianship that he navigated without apparent effort scores he had never seen before. As Duke remarked:

“You’d think he’d made the rehearsal.”

In fact, the rest of the band had rehearsed the new compositions from 10 am until 4 pm that same day.

Tubby’s reaction to the experience:

“It was tremendous. I felt as if I was dreaming. Some of the parts were pretty difficult such as ‘Harlem’, with its changes of tempo. There weren’t any parts for a couple of things, so those I didn’t know I didn’t play. ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ I knew okay.

“The band was very helpful, especially Jimmy Hamilton. Some of them weren’t played as written, so he tipped me off as to what to leave out, where to come back in and so on.

“The second time through I knew what was coming better, so I was able to watch Duke more.

“Playing in that section was wonderful. The quality of sound was quite frightening at times. And they didn’t seem to be blowing over- loud. As for the band as a whole – most of the time I was concentrating on looking for the music and playing, but I particularly noticed Lawrence Brown’s terrific sound behind me.”

There is more than a little poetic license about Tubby’s happening to be backstage, the truth being rather more prosaic. The quotations are gold dust, however.

This legendary performance was in fact recorded, as you can see from the picture of the tape box which  headlines this post.

I have it on good authority from Tubbs expert Simon Spillett, however, that the sound quality is nothing to write home about. He says:

 “The Ellington recording is extremely lo-fi (think the worst Parker airshots and you get the picture) so it's unlikely that it will receive commercial release."

If it were, I’d still buy it in a heartbeat...

Recordings by the saxophonist just days before his allegedly impromptu appearance with the Ellington band are available, however, on the Savage Solweig label. The disc can be purchased here.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Things ain't what they used to be...

I found the following rather melancholy footage of Dutch writer Simon Carmiggeldt recently whilst browsing You Tube.

It’s a quality of great music, I suppose, that it can conjure a nostalgia for times lost quite outside the music itself. If I listen to something by Glenn Miller, I can remember quite distinctly what it was like to be seventeen – but that’s because I was listening to Glenn Miller’s music when I was that age. The music, in a sense, cannot transcend the times in which I first encountered it, its principal interest to me now, purely nostalgic.

Ellington’s music, in contrast, takes me back to all sorts of corners of my memory despite the fact I wasn’t listening to Ellington’s music – wasn’t even aware of him, perhaps – in that time. This is truly great music which exists in, of, for, outside and beyond itself.

That’s one thought prompted by this luminous recording from 1935.

Secondly, the claims made for the music by Simon Carmiggelt, lost  -I don’t doubt to an extent – in translation are, nevertheless, particularly germane. Carmiggelt says

“It’s a remarkable epic kind of music. It’s telling and afterwards – when the music is over – you can actually tell anything about it, it fits everything. Indeed, it seems that Ellington was and still is a great man, since the music has remained as strong as steel all these years.”

And the third point is this: that Ellington’s response to the times in which he lived, the injustice and indignity frequently visited upon black Americans, was gracious, beautiful works such as this is remarkable. And one wonders the extent to which in those lost times, as he listened to this piece, one of the things that ‘fits’ is Simon Carmiggelt’s memory of his brother...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

... like an ever-rolling stream...

There are some very desirable artefacts often for sale courtesy of Jazz Record Center’s Ebay auctions. As I write this, there is a little under two hours to go on what is described as ‘rare Duke Ellington LP’ on the Gotham label. The starting price is $250.00 and there’s at least one bidder.

The item is described as follows:

"This recording - “Holiday Greetings from Gotham Recording Corporation” - on Gotham GRC-2873, includes two of the rarest studio tracks by Duke Ellington. The deep-groove record is pressed on red vinyl and was distributed as a holiday promotion (“Not to Be Sold, Broadcast or Copied”). The first two tracks on Side A are Duke’s “Duet” and “Threesome”, recorded on June 28, 1951. “Threesome” has a spoken intro by Duke; the band then plays while he and Freddie Robbins introduce members of the band as they take their solos: Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, Shorty Baker, Paul Gonsalves, Britt Woodman, Russell Procope, Cat Anderson, Juan Tizol, and Nelson Williams. The sound quality is superb, with just a few random tics. The remaining tracks of Side A are “Largo al Factotum” from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” (with audible scratch) and an orchestral version of “I’ll Be Around”. Side B is a bizarre spoken bop narrative that sounds like a radio play with a lot of hipster terms that were popular in the early 1950’s. The cover has a 1” area in the top left corner of the front where a sticker has been removed; clear tape along the bottom seam. A folded information sheet is included."

It’s not exactly a Duke Ellington LP. Ellington’s contribution consists of two tracks, the rest being classical music. They’re not wrong, though.  These Holiday Greetings LPs are difficult to come by – and they are studio recordings by the Ellington Orchestra made in the Gotham Recording Studios in 1951.

 Ironically, a much cheaper to the Gotham LP is also available on Ebay at present and this contains fifteen minutes of those studio sides. The auction is for a 16” transcription disc for the Stars on Parade radio series. The cost of shipping is prohibitive for this particular potential bidder, but if you fancy a punt, details are here.

Ellington authority Steven Lasker is no stranger to bidding on transcription discs. In an edition of the Duke Ellington Music Society Bulletin in 2009, Mr Lasker wrote:

“Today's mail brought two 16-inch ETs which I won from a recent record auction. "Stars on Parade" program 575, "Ellington Moods" by Duke Ellington, is paired with "Stars on Parade" program 576, "Davy Crockett" starring Conrad Nagel. "Stars on Parade" program 581, "Music of Manhattan," is paired with program 582, "A Matter of Time" starring Ethel Griffies.

“The labels show the dates each program was to be aired: program 575 (by Ellington) was "release: week of August 19, 1951"; program 576 was "release: week of August 25, 1951"; program 581 was "release: week of September 30, 1951"; program 582 was "release: week of October 7, 1951."

“I note that each date cited was a Sunday, when the Gotham Recording Studio was likely closed, and that the label of my copy of program 581 (release: week of September 30, 1951) bears the penciled notation "WMIL 9-22-51," which I'll guess is the date when the disc was received at radio station WMIL.

“So: Ellington's "Stars on Parade"/ Gotham recording session wasn't held on 19Aug51 as shown in every discography, but at some earlier date, perhaps in late July or early August. To see a photo of the session and a list of the personnel, see DEMS 02/3-12. The photo is also found on the back cover of CBS(F)66607 ("The Complete Duke Ellington, 1947-52"), but misdated to 5oct51, the date of the Down Beat issue in which the photo was first published.”

Researching these Gotham sessions, I found an extract from one of the transcription discs on You Tube which certainly gives an impression of the fine recorded sound.

Al Hibbler sings Ol’ Man River. The early fifties were not a particularly propitious time for the Ellington band as the flame of the big band era guttered. Ellington’s problems were compounded by the recent departure of such stars of the Ellington firmament as Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn.  And with the voracious demands of countless radio broadcasts, Ellington cast the net a little more widely for repertoire than he might otherwise have done. They played show tunes very infrequently. This particular show tune – well, in its time and given some authenticity in the dignified performance by Paul Robeson, it is a testament to a certain picturesque view of the issue of civil rights. In 1951, politics had moved on somewhat and Ellington’s position within that political situation was unique anyway. This song is rather dwarfed by Ellington’s achievements as a creator of ‘American Music’. Within months – on the tenth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbour, in fact – he was to record a major work in his Tone Parallel to Harlem. The composition and performance here is not in the same league. It is presented, however, for your enjoyment as a souvenir of some sixty-one summers ago...

PS: The Gotham LP sold for $338.33