Don't think of Duke Ellington as a bandleader. Instead, consider him in the same light as other great entrepreneurs like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook).
Ellington came up with a great new idea in the early '20s and ran his band and brand like a wildly successful business for six decades. In the process, he set high standards for jazz and changed the way the music sounded. Through the years, he remained the most sophisticated, regal and celebrated jazz musician and pianist of his day. Calling him a great bandleader or a jazz musician par excellence sort of sells him short. The music on a new essential box set from Mosaic (The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra) will tell you why.
To be a successful bandleader in the '20s, '30s or '40s required lasting power. You had to be both a gifted musician and an entrepreneur with a big dream—complete with all of the talents that this type of person requires to triumph repeatedly. Even with all of this in place, you could still fail—by losing your best musicians to other bands, not connecting with your audience or writing and choosing lackluster material.
All successful entrepreneurs stick to their guns when they have a visionary idea, tinker to attract the largest possible audience without sacrificing quality, create systems of production to ensure consistency, identify and attract the very best talent, and employ masterful psychological magic to hold onto talent and encourage them to flower and soar.
Ellington had all of this in place and wowed audiences—even though he faced a hurdle that many top bandleaders did not. Ellington was black—at a time when racism, segregation and lynchings weren't just an obstacle but state-sponsored oppression. The odds against success for Ellington were staggering—even with all of his musical gifts. Yet he managed to produce beautiful, graceful music that not only appealed to blacks but also resonated with whites in all regions of the country.
Now, I have to ask you to forget about Take the A Train, the famed Blanton-Webster band and Ellington at Newport. All powerful stuff, but I'm not concerned with those events for this post. Even before all of these musical accomplishments, Ellington was a star. Until now, many of the early, pre-1940 recordings were unavailable or in pieces on inferior sounding CDs and LPs. Now they're all together with alternate takes—and the remastering is nothing short of a miracle.
The box starts with Moon Over Dixie in February 1932 and ends with Sophisticated Lady in February 1940. Over the eight-year period, the 11 discs in this set shed light on a period of Ellington's music that has largely been forgotten or overlooked. Many people assume that big band jazz started with Benny Goodman in 1935 and quickly morphed into dance music that other bands picked up on. Actually, many black bands of the late '20s and early '30s were highly advanced and already playing jazz for dancing, Ellington among them.
The Ellington of yore provides a look at how his music and piano evolved during the pre-swing Depression—one of the hardest times in American music history. Swing was possible in the mid-30s only because coast to coast radio networks were in place and phonographs and records were of higher sonic quality than in the past. Ellington, in this regard, was ahead of the curve. Way ahead, as is evidenced here. [Duke Ellington and Irving Mills]
The Ellington story, of course, starts in about 1924, when the pianist began recording with other bands. Then in 1926, Ellington met Irving Mills, a jazz music publisher who founded Mills Dance Orchestras Inc. Mills first came upon Ellington and his band at New York's Club Kentucky. Here's a telling passage from Steven Lasker's liner notes for the Mosaic box:
"'We were playing the St. Louis Blues,' Ellington recalled, adding that Mills asked what it was. 'When I told him, he said it sure sounded nothing like it. So maybe that gave him ideas. He talked to me about making records. Naturally, I agreed, and we got together four originals.' That session, Ellington's first for a major label, was held November 1926."
From 1926 to 1930, Ellington made 100 discs but recorded very little in 1931. That year, the record industry was falling apart, largely because the consumers market lacked discretionary income. The Brunswick label changed hands that year and in early 1932 it signed Duke Ellington as well as Cab Calloway and Baron Lee's Blue Rhythm Boys—all of whom were represented by Mills.
Ellington's deal called for 24 new sides a year. At this point, magazine writers of the period began to note that Ellington's music had a particular sound that was a result of Ellington's writing and arranging, and the musicians he hired.
Throughout the 1930s, Ellington and his band prospered, largely due to the singular content he created and the rise of radio units that broadcast him and his band live. His appearance in movies and shorts also helped. Rather than merely record popular songs, as many bands were doing, Ellington penned originals that were so heartfelt and melodically poetic that 15 of them written in the Depression became jazz standards.
What's most surprising about the Mosaic box is how modern and fresh much of Ellington's material sounds today. There are few rinky-dink recordings or throwaways. Almost everything sounds as though Ellington had been putting everything he had into his sound and recordings. And the results were exciting. For example, It Don't Mean a Thing from 1932 features dramatic orchestral riffs behind alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges.
Or listen to Blue Tune from the same year. The modernity of this arrangement is positively electrifying. It could have been recorded by Claude Thornhill many years later, which makes you realize how taken Thornhill was by Depression-era Ellington.
And then there's Jazz Cocktail, with a machine gun chart that emulates the sound of ice and liquor being slammed around in a metal shaker. You'd hardly know it was September 1932. Slippery Horn from May 1932 has an upbeat, freaky feel with th emphasis on the first and second beats. Merry-Go-Round from 1935 also has the feel of whirling velocity.
As the years progressed, the Ellington band dug in. Yearning for Love in July 1936 is a mid-tempo ballad with a solo by Lawrence Brown on trombone. Scattin' at the Kit Kat from December 1936 has a finger waving kick.
There also are major works. Original versions of There's a Lull in My Life, Serenade to Sweden, In a Sentimental Mood, Solitude, Mood Indigo and several different versions of Sophisticated Lady are here—including my favorite Lady from 1940 featuring Harry Carney [pictured] on baritone sax, Johnny Hodges on alto sax and Lawrence Brown on trombone.
This Sophisticated Lady is Ellington's last recording on the Mosaic set and it's a winner. Again, if I told you this was Thornhill in the mid-40s, you'd believe it. Dig that crazy reed rundown at the end! A week after this session, Ellington's contract with Columbia expired and he signed a two-year contract with RCA on the same day.
So, how impressive is Ellington between 1932 and 1940? Put it this way: If Ellington in 1940 had hung up his top hat and tails to become a cab driver, never to recorded again, you'd still know his name. Now that's saying something.
JazzWax tracks: The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra (Mosaic) can be found here. There are 11 discs in all plus extensive liner notes by Steve Lasker.
The remastering of the material is remarkable. While there is some unavoidable hiss in some places, the solos and instrumental details have been freed and now stand tall. For the first time, you can truly hear the sweet, growly sound of the reeds, the sorrow of the trombones and the punch of the trumpets. Best of all, Duke's intentions with section interactions are now distinct.
JazzWax clips: Here's Duke Ellington and his Orchestra in 1934 playing Ebony Rhapsody. This song isn't part of the Mosaic set, but this clip will give you a fine sense of Ellington's sound, fame and skill in the early '30s. One does wonder, though, what transpires with that machine gun...