Listening to early Duke Ellington on a long journey by car, I remind myself of how good his sides for OKeh are. You always hear something new.
This time I hear what sounds mighty like rock ‘n’ roll ‘avant la lettre’. Listen to this Ellington blues composition, Lazy Duke, from 1929, the opening reminiscent of Frankie and Johnnie. At about 1:18, the chorus is taken by Barney Bigard on clarinet – the piano figure underneath is almost where boogie and blues would go thirty years later.
The two wailing reeds take an effective combined solo, and the percussive acoustic bass drives at an insistently steady rhythm.
Here’s the original 78 “Fox Trot”, credited to The Harlem Footwarmers, one of Ellington’s many aliases on OKeh.
In 1920, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson opened a club called Club DeLuxe on the corner of 142nd and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York.
He is said to have gone broke. A prominent gangster called Owney Madden took over the club in 1923, re-opening it after a year. Madden, an immigrant lad from Leeds in England, had risen through the New York underworld with a reputation for violence.
Madden and business partners Big Bill Dwyer and Big Frenchy De Mange (below)
Big Bill Dwyer, believed to own the Pittsburgh Pirates
Big Frenchy De Mange
also became owners in the exclusive Stork Club, where influential gossip columnist Walter Winchell (below) held court.
Walter Winchell in 1939 Photo by Granger (fineartamerica.com)
An owner in more than twenty clubs, Madden was known for his Prohibition-era business activities. He was also known for his revenge tactics and his pay-offs of City Hall.
From these origins sprang the musical culture which was to conquer the world, to nurture the aristocratic Edward Kennedy Ellington, and to make the name of the Cotton Club an international by-word for exotic sophistication. We should not be surprised that U.S. rappers glorify gangsta culture, or that funk in Rio is associated with organised crime. Whether they will produce another Duke remains to be seen.
Digital remaster of October 30th 1930 session by The Harlem Footwarmers, from The OKeh Ellington C2K 46117
How to write a jazz standard.
1. Listen, to your musicians …
“This thing that clarinetist Barney Bigard used to play, Ellington made a tune of that, “Mood Indigo”, that Barney used to warm up his instrument.” Clark Terry
… and to your teachers.
Bigard learned it from his clarinet teacher Lorenzo Tio, who called it a ‘Mexican blues’ and titled it Dreamy Blues.
The usual voicing of the horns was clarinet at the highest pitch, trumpet in the middle, and the trombone at the lowest pitch. Ellington voices the trombone at the top of the instrument’s register, and the clarinet at the lowest. With the electric microphones of the time, it created a ‘mic tone’ from the overtones of the clarinet and trombone, giving the illusion of a fourth instrument. Both trumpet and trombone were tightly muted.
English release of original recording, with credit to Ellington and Mills
3. Collaborate …
Lyrics were added in 1931 by Mitchell Parish, although credited to publisher Irving Mills, as was common practice, and accruing royalties for the publisher. Ellington never complained publicly about such arrangements, but praised Mills’ guidance and actions as invaluable to his career.
… with open eyes.
“Why in the devil, when you found out what was done to you” – double dipping on royalties and an agent’s fee – “why didn’t you blow the whistle?” (Maurice Lawrence) Ellington replied that he could have, but then he “would have been black-balled in Tin Pan Alley”
4. Do the marketing.
In truth, the Ellington band had succeeded beyond expectation, at the Cotton Club and on national radio. Mood Indigo, their most popular single yet, had been released at the end of 1930. In 1931 their first nationally distributed press kit was released by Irving Mills. Tours, films and recognition as a composer were the next steps.
Ellington was fond of saying, “Well, I wrote that in 15 minutes while I was waiting for my mother to finish cooking dinner.”
There were stars of the stage as well as the band stand in the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. One of the earliest was Florence Mills, who had learnt her craft on the East coast vaudeville circuit with her two older sisters, and in a quartet of performers called the Panama Four.
Cast of Shuffle Along 1921
But it was the Broadway success of Shuffle Along, the black jazz musical which marks the start of the Renaissance in 1921, that launched international careers for her and at various times for Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Lena Horne, Paul Robeson and Bill Bojangles.
From Shuffle Along, later included in revue Dover Street to Dixie
One of the earliest musical revues written and performed by African Americans, it ran for around 500 performances on Broadway and on tour, and in London, Liverpool, Paris, and other European cities. See http://jass.com/sissle.html on its production history.
Mills’ voice was too soft to register well on the recording technology of the day, but she became a very popular performer nonetheless.
Mills is said to have turned down a starring role in Ziegfeld’s Follies to work on the revue Blackbirds with entrepreneur Lew Leslie. From the first 1926 version starring Mills, Blackbirds became an international success.
by London society photographer Bassano, 1923
In London, Blackbirds was a sensation – Blackbirds parties were all the rage, and the cast were invited to fashionable ‘society’ events. The Prince of Wales said he had seen the show 11 times.
Christmas wishes from London 1926
Its success proved Mills’ undoing. The London show ran for more than 250 performances during 1926 – something like five shows a week for a year – and it took its toll on her health. She returned to the US unwell the following year, dying of an infection while in hospital, aged just 32.
Thousands of admirers came to the funeral home and to the funeral. Duke Ellington memorialised her in a piano composition. Rooted in the ‘stride’ style of Harlem, it’s notable for being a solo composition reaching into the parlours of white American and middle-class black American culture – a piano is a weightier investment than the brass instruments of New Orleans jazz. Here it is, played in October 1928. You can hear the Duke finding his voice in this tribute to Florence Mills.
Way back in November 1929 in New York, the band led by Duke Ellington, resident at the Cotton Club and known on record as The Washingtonians, The Harlem Footwarmers, Joe Turner & His Memphis Men, Sonny Greer & His Memphis Men … and so on, recorded a side for OKeh written by Ellington called Blues of the Vagabond. Duke was the immaculately dressed gentleman professional, arranging, playing piano and leading the band. He looked like this.
The young Duke
At the apogee of what was called the New Negro Movement – later known as the Harlem Renaissance – in the following year they recorded as Mills’ Ten Blackberries, Frank Brown & His Tooters, and the New York Syncopators. In October 1928 for Okeh, under the Duke’s name, they had recorded what became something of a signature tune, The Mooche, also written by Ellington. Here it is: irresistible!