DUKE ELLINGTON Vol.4
'Echoes of Harlem' Original Recordings 1936-1938
By the early 1930s Duke was established as a top bandleader,a celebrated arranger and a respected composer in his own right, and would inall probability have preferred the more creative route of 'serious' jazz,suites and the like. However, with the swathes of Swing which followed BennyGoodman's breakthrough at the Palomar in Los Angeles in August 1935, theEllington Orchestra, notwithstanding its great ensemble, virtually overnightjoined a growing legion of bands vying to cash in on the new big band craze andfrom 1936 a combination of factors, some personal, some economic, forcedEllington to adopt a more commercial approach.
Born 29 April 1899 in Washington, DC, White House butler'sson Edward Kennedy Ellington enjoyed the benefits of a genteel, respectableupbringing and education. Afterhis first piano lessons at seven, he was inspired to study and master harmonyand by his teens was already honing tunes for his instrument and had made theHoward Theatre a \second home" where he could feast his ears and eyes on the"acrobatic" playing of Luckey Roberts and other exemplars of post-ragtimestride. His father, James EdwardEllington, hoped that his son would keep the piano as a pastime and become aprofessional graphic artist instead. Duke left technical college in 1917 and briefly ran his ownsign-painting business but later that year made his solo piano debut and wassoon gigging in Louis Thomas's band at society venues. In 1918, he formed a trio, Duke'sSerenaders, which offered sophisti-cated jazz to Washington's "select patrons"and in 1922 he moved to New York where he could observe at closer quarters thestride playing of James P. Johnson and Willie 'The Lion' Smith.
By the close of 1923 he had formed the Wash-ingtonians withtrio colleague Elmer Snowden (1900-1973) and scored the revue ChocolateKiddies. By the late 1920s theall-black Ellington outfit had become a society band par excellence, virtuallyexclusive to prestigious venues whose all-white clienteles were not inclined tofraternise with Negroes. However, through his residencies at New York's HolidayInn (and, briefly, the Kentucky on 49th Street and Broadway) and wider exposureon radio, he was able, without abandoning his 'Jungle'-style hot jazztrademark, to exploit the public's growing interest in dance music. At theCotton Club, his elegant twelve-piece largely satisfied a demand for both and astring of hits, beginning in 1930 with Mood Indigo, secured his name. By thetime 'Harlem's Aristocrat of Jazz' had left to tour the States in early 1931,it not only catered to the dance market but was also a top concert attraction.Salaried on a par "approximately equal to the best symphonic wages" it grossedalmost $50,000 per week and, while breaking all previous box-office records, offeredthe more thoughtful listener essays in instrumental tone-painting throughwhich, Duke hoped, jazz might finally acquire a certain merited dignity.
The period from 1931 was to prove the most productive ofEllington's career, a unique phase of creativity and activity. By late 1933again briefly ensconced in the security of the Cotton Club, his band - nowaugmented to six brass, four reeds plus a four-man rhythm section - hadtraversed the USA from coast to coast and taken Europe and London by storm andalready, during 1934, so many outstanding Ellington numbers of the three-minutepop-tune variety (charted versions of 'Creole Rhapsody', and 'Rose Room', for example) were beginning totrigger almost equal sales of certain items more accurately classified asnon-dancing mood-music. From 1934 Duke's successes on shellac veered moresignificantly towards the commercial, with versions of 'Cocktails For Two' and'Moon Glow' charting respectively at No.1 and No.2). Additionally, a number ofmore esoteric Ellington compositions, jazz tone-paintings including 'DaybreakExpress' (a No.20 in February 1934), 'Merry-Go-Round' (a No.6 in June 1935),'In A Sentimental Mood' (a No.14 in July 1935) and 'Reminiscing In Tempo' (allfeatured in Vol.3: Reminiscing in Tempo, Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120589) promptedJohn Hammond to remark (in Downbeat magazine) that his latest records onBrunswick 'had hardly any of the old-time Ellington sincerity and originality'while urging his fans to rush out and 'buy them all' - regardless.
To make money, while doing justice to jazz and to his owncreative status within the genre, soon became Ellington's dilemma - a challengehe solved in part by more overt displays of showmanship, living proof that notonly was he in fashion, but his crew were all virtuosos not to be found incommon or garden swing-bands. During 1936 a triptych of recordings casting a spotlight on his keysidemen made the US popular Top 30 charts: Clarinet Lament (featuring BarneyBigard) at No.12, Yearning For Love (featuring Lawrence Brown) at No.16 andEchoes Of Harlem (featuring Cootie Williams) at No.19 - and Duke's own pianosolo versions of Mood Indigo, Solitude, Sophisticated Lady and In A SentimentalMood revived some recent Ellington landmarks while providing a reminder of hisown prowess as a performer.
In March 1937 Duke made a further return to the Cotton Club(in a Cotton Club Parade revue featuring Ethel Waters), by July sheet-sales ofhis No.4 hit Caravan had made it a top American best-seller and in Septemberhis recordings of Diminuendo In Blue and Cresendo In Blue reassured the jazzbuffs that his penchant for innovative tone-painting remained untarnished.During that year, to prove that he was au fait with Swing and could hold hisown with dance bands, he appeared in the promotional film The Hit Parade (abehind-the-scenes drama for Republic, this also featured the Eddie DuchinOrchestra) and produced further hits, notably Scattin' At The Kit-Kat (No.9),'Azure' (No.13), All God's Chillun Got Rhythm (No.14) and The New East St.Louis Toodle-Oo (No.16).
Peter Dempsey, 2003