I fully appreciate Duke Ellington's importance and contribution to jazz. But for the longest time I've never been overly nuts about his music. For years, I felt that a large percentage of his works were wound too tight, oppressively mannered and sticky-fancy in places. But that's largely ignorance talking, since I've never really given Ellington a serious chance. [Photo above of Duke Ellington at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival by Don Hunstein]
Part of my resistance stems from an event that occurred when I was 14 years old. After waiting an hour for Ellington to appear at an August 19, 1972 benefit concert organized by Stan Getz at the Lyndhurst Estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., a bunch of us pint-size fans extending sheet music for a signature were rudely brushed aside by a huffy Ellington who was running late.
The other part of my resistance has been my inability to find the Ellington period that appealed to me most. I've long gotten over the snub, and now I've also found my own private Dukesville—a seven-year period in the 1950s that is breathtaking.
On Nov. 6, Sony/Legacy released Duke Ellington: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection: 1951-1958. Produced by Michael Cuscuna and Michael Brooks, and mastered by Mark Wilder and Maria Triana, this new set will knock you out. Each of the nine discs comes in a thick, mini-LP sleeve with the original front and back covers. The sound is big and warm and sprinkled with vivid sonic detail. From the piano and drums to the horns and reeds, all of Ellington's colors and flavors are on full display and the result is magnificent.
The 1950s were a golden period for jazz. After a worrisome dive in 1950 and 1951 as Columbia and RCA battled to promote their new formats—the 33 1/3 LP and the 45rpm—jazz musicians began to find work again and recording opportunities bloomed as both formats were adopted by the marketplace.
But the big event in the 1950s was the surge of the 12-inch LP in 1955. The 12-inch album was aimed squarely at the home market and helped by emerging national record chains and label-owned record clubs.
Almost immediately, albums quickly became billboards for jazz artists who were featured in photographs on covers and in liner notes on the back. As fidelity improved along with playback technology, jazz soon attained a prestigious place in American music. Jazz musicians who wondered how much longer the music would last in 1950 suddenly became prominent again. Ellington became a hi-fi superstar.
Part of the credit for jazz's high-end makeover goes to Columbia producers George Avakian and Irving Townsend, who viewed the music as larger than life and made sure that amazing artists like Ellington, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck received the same first-class treatment that the label's classical violinists and pop singers received. To George Avakian and Irving Townsend, jazz was high culture on par with art, architecture and sculpture.
With this background, you find yourself listening to these albums in awe. Among the highlights: Vagabonds from Masterpieces by Ellington (1951), Skin Deep and Harlem Suite from Ellington Uptown (1952); Me and You and Blue Rose, the title track from the album recorded with singer Rosemary Clooney (1956); The Telecasters, with Harry Carney on baritone sax, from Such Sweet Thunder (1956); The Sky Fell Down, Cop-Out and Under the Balcony, from Ellington Indigos (1957); Blues in Orbit and Mahalia Jackson's a cappella version of Come Sunday on Black, Brown & Beige (1958); The Peanut Vendor and Got a Date with an Angel from At the Bal Masque (1958); and Early Autumn and Jones from The Cosmic Scene (1958).
If you're like me and haven't completely embraced Ellington, this box will turn your head. You certainly have heard some of this material in bits and pieces. But listening to all nine albums, one after the next, makes you realize that this music is like fine jewelry: It just keeps getting more beautiful with time.
JazzWax tracks: Duke Ellington: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection: 1951-1958 is available here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Under the Balcony from Ellington Indigos...