The Magazine

Take the ‘E’ Train

A definitive life of the great American composer.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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What, by general consensus, represents the Ellington band at its greatest is known as the Blanton-Webster band of 1940-42. Jimmy Blanton was a 19-year-old bass player whose life was cut short by tuberculosis in 1941, less than two years after joining Ellington, and whose memorable, plucked-bass solos are most vividly heard on a 1940 recording, “Jack the Bear.” Ben Webster, already a veteran tenor man and fresh from making a number of sides with Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson, provided a gutsy, full-throated voice to add to the other saxes: Hardwick, Hodges, and Harry Carney.

With Ray Nance having replaced the trumpeter Cootie Williams, the band played a remarkable date, in frigid February 1940, at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota. This performance was recorded by two young engineers on a portable disc cutter and features standbys such as “Cotton Tail,” “Never No Lament,” and “Harlem Airshaft.” The result, heard 70 years later, is as fresh and full as the band would ever sound. After the concert, a local fan left a description of the seemingly casual array of musicians before the concert began, galvanized when Carney, the baritone sax player with a truly noble tone, “began to tap his foot and suddenly the orchestra burst into full cry.” That fan, named Daniel Halpern, said, “I felt cheated by the records to which we had been listening for so many months. They were nothing like this.”

My credentials as an Ellington listener are somewhat suspect, in that I’ve never listened to very much of what he produced after World War II. Teachout is obliged to describe the origins and contents of a number of orchestral suites, which have not inspired many listeners. More exciting was the Newport Jazz Festival of 1956, in which Webster’s replacement on tenor sax, Paul Gonsalves, took 27 choruses of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” originally an eight-minute extended piece, electrifying the audience and bringing the band to a renaissance of popular acclaim, short-term though it was. 

Unless my own case is untypical, I think Ellington will continue to be listened to mainly for the short, three-minute numbers from 1927-42. Teachout says about “Ko-Ko,” perhaps the most impressive and most praised recording from this period, that it constituted “a relentless procession of musical events that contained not a wasted gesture.” Repeated listenings to its propulsive excitement prompted me—as when reading a poem notable for its diction and rhythmic movement—to look for critical help in unpacking some of its richness. But, of course, any attempt to break down and represent technically what the music makes us hear so powerfully is difficult—especially if the chordal structure, the chromatic sequences, are as dense as they are in not just “Ko-Ko” but in any number of similarly thickly textured arrangements.

Teachout does very little of such musicological analysis, although his commentary on particular recordings is always shrewd. What he does do, aside from keeping the narrative moving along, is provide telling portraits of Ellington’s sidemen as they came, stayed, and eventually left. He calls Johnny Hodges Ellington’s greatest soloist, with Cootie Williams, “Tricky Sam” Nanton, and Ben Webster not far behind. Rex Stewart’s “half-valve” performance on cornet is but one example of the “idiosyncratic” mix that different styles of playing produced. The veteran Harry Carney, whom Teachout calls the first great baritone-sax player in jazz, is beyond praise, and there is the curious, rather special contribution by Juan Tizol, the only non-African American in the band (he was from Puerto Rico), who invented attractive solos on the valve trombone. The drummer Sonny Greer was, from the first, one of the band’s great drinkers—“all our horn players were lushes,” declared Ellington—but Greer deserves a place of honor because he had a tendency to fall off the stand. Ellington finally had to get rid of him, but his array of percussive contributions was admirable. Billy Strayhorn, who did 300 compositions for the band and played occasional piano, has latterly received his due, which he didn’t always get for one or another piece he invented. And there are others.  

Outshining these luminaries is the trombonist Lawrence Brown, who joined Ellington in 1932—the same year as the band’s finest singer, Ivie Anderson—and stayed with him, on and off, for four decades. They never got along; and, indeed, Brown kept his distance from other band members, since he was a minister’s son who neither drank nor smoked, earning him the nickname “Deacon,” which he disliked. 

Brown mapped out his solos in advance, could repeat note-for-note the same solo on future occasions, and was formidably skilled as a technician. (One of the trombonists who sat next to him said that, in five years, he never heard Brown make a mistake.) Teachout describes his tone as “chocolate-smooth” and “cello-like,” and some of Ellington’s more rigorous critics thought he was too smooth to be featured in a jazz band. On occasion, Brown produced a fast-moving solo, as in “The Sheik of Araby,” “Rose of the Rio Grande,” and the final chorus of “Main Stem.” But his trademark contribution was slow-paced, somewhat meandering, in tone, gorgeously full in its unfolding. He is heard on some of Ellington’s most famous hits—“Sophisticated Lady,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “In a Sentimental Mood”—but also on less-known gems, chromatic subtleties such as “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Serenade to Sweden,” and “A Gypsy Without a Song” from the 1930s, and “Dusk” and “Moon Mist” from the 1940s. Readers of Duke are invited to listen for themselves to determine if Lawrence Brown was unique. More generally, they will surely be stimulated by this fine book to reacquaint themselves with the astonishing achievement that was Duke Ellington’s over the years.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.