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.
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!