ELLINGTON, Duke: Jump For Joy (1941-1942) (Billy Strayhorn/ David Lennick/ Duke Ellington/ Duke Ellington Orchestra/ Herb Jeffries/ Ivie Anderson/ Ray Nance/ Sarah Nicolls) (Naxos: 8.120743)
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DUKE ELLINGTON Vol.8
'Jump For Joy' Original Recordings 1941-1942
In 1941, the year that Duke Ellington turned 42,his band was in the middle of one of its greatestperiods. With Ellington assisted by his newright-hand man composer-arranger-pianist BillyStrayhorn, and featuring such relatively newadditions as tenor-saxophonist Ben Webster,cornetist-violinist Ray Nance and the remarkablebassist Jimmy Blanton, his orchestra wasrecording one gem after another.
The Duke Ellington Orchestra had actuallybeen in its prime for at least fourteen years atthat point. Ellington, born 29 April 1899 inWashington DC, was a natural-born leader inaddition to being a musical innovator. Althoughhe had originally thought of becoming an artist,when Ellington watched local stride and ragtimepianists perform, saw the joy of their music andbegan to envy their lifestyle, he knew that musicwas the field for him. Duke learned stride pianofrom slowing down James P. Johnson piano rollsto half-speed and got his career off to a faststart by taking out a large ad in the YellowPages. Never mind that he actually knew veryfew songs at the start; Ellington became abandleader. He sent out several differentensembles to various jobs around town andmade brief appearances with each one, playingthe two or three songs that he knew.
Ellington learned quickly and by 1922 was astrong enough musician to make his first visit toNew York, playing with clarinettist WilburSweatman. After that engagement ran out,Duke returned to Washington DC. But thefollowing year he was back in New York as amember of banjoist Elmer Snowden'sWashingtonians and this time he stayed. In1924 when a money dispute resulted inSnowden being ousted, Ellington became thegroup's leader. By then he was developing intoboth a skilled pianist and an adventurousarranger-composer. The Washingtoniansworked mostly at the Kentucky Club during1924-27. By the time they successfullyauditioned for a job as the house band at theCotton Club in December 1927, Ellington wasready.
The regular radio broadcasts from theCotton Club led to Duke's band being accuratelybilled as Duke Ellington and his FamousOrchestra. Ellington became a household nameand was among the first jazz musicians to beuniversally thought of as a genius. Anunderrated pianist, Ellington wrote unusual andhighly original arrangements, penned a coupledozen standards in the 1930s alone and blendedtogether a band of unique individualists into aunified group sound.
A quick rundown of Ellington's personnel atthe beginning of 1941 reveals why Ellington andStrayhorn were so inspired in their writing. RayNance was a triple threat on cornet (where hewas Cootie Williams' successor), violin and as asinger. Cornetist Rex Stewart used a self-taughthalf-valve technique to achieve unusual sounds.
The trombone section featured the smoothvirtuosity of Lawrence Brown and the colourfuldistorted tones of Tricky Sam Nanton. JohnnyHodges was the top altoist in jazz, Harry Carneyvirtually made the baritone into a soloinstrument, Barney Bigard was a majorclarinettist and Ben Webster ranked withColeman Hawkins and Lester Young as one ofthe big three of the tenor. Not to be left outamong the soloists were Ellington himself andJimmy Blanton, the first modern bass soloist.
Also valuable in the background were leadtrumpeter Wallace Jones, valve trombonist JuanTizol, altoist Otto Hardwicke, rhythm guitaristFred Guy and drummer Sonny Greer. Whilemost big bands of the swing era had three orperhaps four key soloists, Ellington had ten.
Beginning this collection of the best ofEllington's 1941-42 recordings is the originalversion of his theme song Take The 'A' Train.
Penned by Billy Strayhorn and permanentlyreplacing Duke's original theme \East St. LouisToodle-oo", this piece is particularly notable forRay Nance's classic cornet solo which hasbecome an integral part of the song.
The next three numbers were all written byDuke's 21-year old son Mercer Ellington.
Although none became as well known asMercer's most famous original, "Things Ain'tWhat They Used To Be," they each have theirmemorable moments. Jumpin' Punkins hasspots for Bigard, Carney and Greer althoughBlanton's bass lines often steal the show. BlueSerge is quite melancholy and, even with shortspots from Nance, Nanton, Duke and Webster,it is primarily a gloomy tone poem for the fullensemble. Much more light-hearted, JohnHardy's Wife is an obscurity well worth bringingback, featuring colourful statements fromCarney, Stewart and Brown.
Duke Ellington recorded relatively fewunaccompanied piano features until the 1950s.
He sounds nostalgic, melodic and relaxed onDear Old Southland and Solitude. Just ASettin'And A-Rockin' is a joyful ode to rockingchairs. Webster dominates the performancealthough Nanton, Bigard and Nance also helpout.
For a few months in 1941, Duke Ellingtonwas involved in staging and performing regularlyin a civil rights musical, Jump For Joy, that wasway ahead of its time. Although the productionnever made it out of Los Angeles, several of itskey numbers by Ellington and lyricist PaulFrancis Webster were immortalized inrecordings. Chocolate Shake has a trickymelody that Ivie Anderson handles effortlessly.
Herb Jeffries, who had become famous due tohis hit recording of "Flamingo" and is amazinglystill active as of this writing at the age of 93(sounding 63), is in fine form on The Brown-Skin Gal and the infectious Jump For Joy. Thehit of the show was I Got It Bad And That Ain'tGood, which ranks with Ivie Anderson's bestrecordings and has a pair of gorgeous melodystatements from Johnny Hodges.
Billy Strayhorn's picturesque Chelsea Bridge(with the composer on piano) became apermanent part of Ben Webster's repertoireafter he starred on this initial recording. JuanTizol, who can be heard briefly in the lead on"Chelsea Bridge", wrote Perdido which becamea jam session favorite and a staple of Jazz AtThe Philharmonic a few years later. Thisrendition features Carney, Stewart, Webster andNance. The romantic ballad Moon Mist gavethe band an opportunity to feature its firstviolin soloist, Ray Nance, along with Hodgesand Brown. The 'C' Jam Blues, one of thesimplest melodies ever written (consisting of justtwo notes), benefits from four-bar breaks thatintroduce the soloists and background figuresthat add to the piece's momentum. Nance(again on violin), Stewart, Webster, Nanton andBigard add to the jam session atmosphere.
Tragedy struck the Duke Ellington Orchestrawithin the next month as Jimmy Blanton wasdiagnosed with tuberculosis. He neverrecovered and passed away on 30 July 1942 atthe age of 25. It would be more than a decadebefore any jazz bassist played at his level.
Junior Raglin took Blanton's place withEllington and the band continued recordingmemorable numbers. What Am I Here For hasboth a catchy melody and a very danceabletempo; Nance, Stewart and Webster are amongthose heard from. Strayhorn's Johnny ComeLately feels complex but also inspires some hotsolos from Brown and Nanton. A Slip Of TheLip Can Sink A Ship has topical lyrics for RayNance to sing and a nice spot for Hodges.
Hodges is in the spotlight during much ofSentimental Lady, which would be renamed "IDidn't Know About You" after it gained lyrics acouple years later. This set concludes with thehard-swinging Main Stem, which gives Stewart,Hodges, Nance, Bigard, Nanton, Webster,Brown and the full Ellington Orchestra one finaltime to shine.
Great as the 1941-42 Duke EllingtonOrchestra was, the band still had 32 morememorable years to go.
- Scott Yanow, author of eight jazz books includingJazz On Film, Swing, Bebop, Trumpet Kings and JazzOn Record 1917-76"