DUKE ELLINGTON Vol.6
'Tootin' Through The Roof' Original Recordings 1939-1940
As pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader, DukeEllington's accomplishments throughout his 49 years (1925-74) as the head ofhis orchestra are enormous. One ofhis greatest feats was his ability to hire sidemen with unique tones and stylesand somehow blend them together to form a unified ensemble sound.
The band he had in 1939 is a good example of this talent atwork. Most big bands of the swingera had at the most three or four top soloists, usually a trumpeter, atrombonist and perhaps two saxophonists. Ellington had eight. Of thesix non-soloists, Wallace Jones was used as a lead trumpeter, valve trombonistJuan Tizol was valuable in the ensembles, altoist Otto Hardwick was in the bandmore for sentimental than musical reasons (since he was an original member ofEllington's Washingtonians in the mid-1920s) as was the largely inaudiblerhythm guitarist Fred Guy, Billy Taylor was a fine ensemble bassist and drummerSonny Greer was an underrated timekeeper who added colour to the band. In other orchestras they would be amongthe stars but Ellington also had eight very original voices to feature.
Cootie Williams, who succeeded Bubber Miley in 1929, wasboth a specialist with mutes (achieving colourful tonal distortions) and anexcellent open trumpeter. Cornetist Rex Stewart gained fame for his false fingerings andhalf-valve techniques in addition to his wide range and wit. It would have been difficult to findtwo trombonists who sounded more different than Lawrence Brown and Joe \TrickySam" Nanton. While Brown'stechnique was impressive and he could play as warmly as Tommy Dorsey, Nantonwas able to create otherworldly sounds with his mutes. Clarinettist Barney Bigard had a NewOrleans tone and the ability to make complex lines sound effortless. Johnny Hodges was the unrivaled leaderamong altoists in the 1930s (only Benny Carter was close) and his beautifultone on ballads made him a major attraction although he could also dig intoblues and stomps too. There wereno significant baritone-saxophonists before Harry Carney and his huge tone isstill the standard among baritonists. And as for the pianist, Ellington was influenced by Willie "The Lion"Smith and James P. Johnson but had developed his own percussive style by thelate 1920s and would remain a modern soloist throughout his career.
As 1939 began, Duke Ellington was 39 years old and had beena famous name for nearly a dozen years, ever since he and his orchestra debutedat the Cotton Club in 1927. Renowned for the many standards he had alreadywritten, Ellington had played swing before the swing era began, with his 1932song proclaiming "It Don't Mean A Thing If I Ain't Got That Swing." The great success of Benny Goodman in1935 launched the big band era but, rather than being crowded out by thecompetition of scores of new groups, Ellington's orchestra simply rose abovethe field, creating music in its own category that could not be copied.
Tootin' Through The Roof has twenty of Duke Ellington'sfinest recordings of 1939 and early 1940, cut for the Columbia label beforeDuke switched to Victor. Theprogram begins with Doin' The Voom Voom, a song first recorded by Ellington in1929 and featuring three of Duke's most famous soloists: Cootie Williams,Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney. Inaddition to spots for Nanton, Carney and Brown, Wallace Jones gets the earlymelodic lead on Serenade To Sweden. One of Ellington's most enduring (and joyful) originals from the periodis Portrait Of The Lion, his spirited tribute to Willie "The Lion" Smith. Lady In Blue succeeds as both dancemusic and creative jazz, with subtle and expressive playing from Brown, Carneyand Williams. The ensembles are inthe spotlight during the driving and catchy Solid Old Man other than shortspots for the contrasting trombones of Brown and Nanton and some fills from theleader.
Ivie Anderson was Duke Ellington's main vocalist during1932-43 and is considered the best of all of his singers. She is featured on the bluesy In A Mizz(one of only two songs on this set not written by Ellington), the rambunctiousI'm Checkin' Out Goo'm Bye, and the obscure A Lonely Co-Ed. Between them, Bouncing Buoyancy" andThe Sergeant Was Shy (which is based on "Bugle Call Rag") have statements fromall seven of Ellington's horn soloists with the latter even including a briefspot for Guy's chordal guitar.
In 1939, there were two important additions to DukeEllington's mighty orchestra that made the big band even stronger. Earlier in the year, Billy Strayhornjoined as Duke's right-hand man, contributing compositions and arrangements ina style similar to Ellington's, filling in occasion-ally on piano and writinglyrics. In the late summer, JimmyBlanton replaced Billy Taylor as the band's bassist. Blanton revolutionized the string bass by becoming its firstimportant soloist, improvising with the fluidity of a guitarist and playinginspiring notes in the ensembles and behind the other musicians.
Blanton's presence is very much in evidence from the startof I Never Felt This Way Before, playing quiet doubletime lines behind thehaunting ensemble. He drives theband on Grievin' which is a surprisingly celebratory performance. Ellington would compose and record manymusical portraits during this era, with Weely paying tribute to BillyStrayhorn, who is heard briefly on piano between the solos of Stewart andCarney. Tootin' Through The Roofis climaxed by Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams taking a famous cornet/trumpettradeoff.
It was a measure of Duke Ellington's great respect for JimmyBlanton that he chose to accompany his bassist on a pair of unprecedentedduets, Blues and Plucked Again. This combination of instruments had never recorded together before inthis type of format and Blanton really comes through.
In early 1940, Ben Webster joined the band as Ellington'sfirst major tenor-saxophone soloist. Grouped with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young as one of the big three ofswing tenors, Webster had a sound influenced by Hawkins but a simpler andwarmer style of his own. The 14 February1940 session, which features remakes of four Ellington hits, has Webster heardin short solos on the first three numbers along with singer Ivie Anderson. Solitude and Mood Indigo are two ofDuke's most famous songs while Stormy Weather, which is more closely associatedwith Ethel Waters and (a little later) Lena Horne, was popularized by Ellingtonearly on. Tootin' Through The Roofconcludes with an inventive remake of Sophisticated Lady that gives listeners afinal chance to hear the beauty of Hodges, Carney and Brown.
While Duke Ellington's orchestra of 1940-42 is often ratedby jazz historians as his finest band, the selections on Tootin' Through TheRoof show that his 1939-40 edition was quite classic too.
- author of eight jazz books including Duke Ellington,Swing, Jazz On Record 1917-76 and Trumpet Kings