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ClassicsOnline Home » ELLINGTON, Duke: Echoes of Harlem (1936-1938) (Duke Ellington, Vol. 4)
DUKE ELLINGTON Vol.4
‘Echoes of Harlem’
Original Recordings 1936-1938
By the early 1930s Duke was established as a top bandleader,
a celebrated arranger and a respected composer in his own right, and would in
all probability have preferred the more creative route of ‘serious’ jazz,
suites and the like. However, with the swathes of Swing which followed Benny
Goodman’s breakthrough at the Palomar in Los Angeles in August 1935, the
Ellington Orchestra, notwithstanding its great ensemble, virtually overnight
joined a growing legion of bands vying to cash in on the new big band craze and
from 1936 a combination of factors, some personal, some economic, forced
Ellington to adopt a more commercial approach.
Born 29 April 1899 in Washington, DC, White House butler’s
son Edward Kennedy Ellington enjoyed the benefits of a genteel, respectable
upbringing and education. After
his first piano lessons at seven, he was inspired to study and master harmony
and by his teens was already honing tunes for his instrument and had made the
Howard Theatre a “second home” where he could feast his ears and eyes on the
“acrobatic” playing of Luckey Roberts and other exemplars of post-ragtime
stride. His father, James Edward
Ellington, hoped that his son would keep the piano as a pastime and become a
professional graphic artist instead.
Duke left technical college in 1917 and briefly ran his own
sign-painting business but later that year made his solo piano début and was
soon gigging in Louis Thomas’s band at society venues. In 1918, he formed a trio, Duke’s
Serenaders, which offered sophisti-cated jazz to Washington’s “select patrons”
and in 1922 he moved to New York where he could observe at closer quarters the
stride playing of James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith.
By the close of 1923 he had formed the Wash-ingtonians with
trio colleague Elmer Snowden (1900-1973) and scored the revue Chocolate
Kiddies. By the late 1920s the
all-black Ellington outfit had become a society band par excellence, virtually
exclusive to prestigious venues whose all-white clienteles were not inclined to
fraternise with Negroes. However, through his residencies at New York’s Holiday
Inn (and, briefly, the Kentucky on 49th Street and Broadway) and wider exposure
on radio, he was able, without abandoning his ‘Jungle’-style hot jazz
trademark, to exploit the public’s growing interest in dance music. At the
Cotton Club, his elegant twelve-piece largely satisfied a demand for both and a
string of hits, beginning in 1930 with Mood Indigo, secured his name. By the
time ‘Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz’ had left to tour the States in early 1931,
it not only catered to the dance market but was also a top concert attraction.
Salaried on a par “approximately equal to the best symphonic wages” it grossed
almost $50,000 per week and, while breaking all previous box-office records, offered
the more thoughtful listener essays in instrumental tone-painting through
which, Duke hoped, jazz might finally acquire a certain merited dignity.
The period from 1931 was to prove the most productive of
Ellington’s career, a unique phase of creativity and activity. By late 1933
again briefly ensconced in the security of the Cotton Club, his band – now
augmented to six brass, four reeds plus a four-man rhythm section – had
traversed the USA from coast to coast and taken Europe and London by storm and
already, during 1934, so many outstanding Ellington numbers of the three-minute
pop-tune variety (charted versions of
‘Creole Rhapsody’, and ‘Rose Room’, for example) were beginning to
trigger almost equal sales of certain items more accurately classified as
non-dancing mood-music. From 1934 Duke’s successes on shellac veered more
significantly towards the commercial, with versions of ‘Cocktails For Two’ and
‘Moon Glow’ charting respectively at No.1 and No.2). Additionally, a number of
more esoteric Ellington compositions, jazz tone-paintings including ‘Daybreak
Express’ (a No.20 in February 1934), ‘Merry-Go-Round’ (a No.6 in June 1935),
‘In A Sentimental Mood’ (a No.14 in July 1935) and ‘Reminiscing In Tempo’ (all
featured in Vol.3: Reminiscing in Tempo, Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120589) prompted
John Hammond to remark (in Downbeat magazine) that his latest records on
Brunswick ‘had hardly any of the old-time Ellington sincerity and originality’
while urging his fans to rush out and ‘buy them all’ – regardless.
To make money, while doing justice to jazz and to his own
creative status within the genre, soon became Ellington’s dilemma – a challenge
he solved in part by more overt displays of showmanship, living proof that not
only was he in fashion, but his crew were all virtuosos not to be found in
common or garden swing-bands.
During 1936 a triptych of recordings casting a spotlight on his key
sidemen made the US popular Top 30 charts: Clarinet Lament (featuring Barney
Bigard) at No.12, Yearning For Love (featuring Lawrence Brown) at No.16 and
Echoes Of Harlem (featuring Cootie Williams) at No.19 – and Duke’s own piano
solo versions of Mood Indigo, Solitude, Sophisticated Lady and In A Sentimental
Mood revived some recent Ellington landmarks while providing a reminder of his
own prowess as a performer.
In March 1937 Duke made a further return to the Cotton Club
(in a Cotton Club Parade revue featuring Ethel Waters), by July sheet-sales of
his No.4 hit Caravan had made it a top American best-seller and in September
his recordings of Diminuendo In Blue and Cresendo In Blue reassured the jazz
buffs that his penchant for innovative tone-painting remained untarnished.
During that year, to prove that he was au fait with Swing and could hold his
own with dance bands, he appeared in the promotional film The Hit Parade (a
behind-the-scenes drama for Republic, this also featured the Eddie Duchin
Orchestra) and produced further hits, notably Scattin’ At The Kit-Kat (No.9),
‘Azure’ (No.13), All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm (No.14) and The New East St.
Louis Toodle-Oo (No.16).
Peter Dempsey, 2003
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ELLINGTON, Duke: Echoes of Harlem (1936-1938) (Duk...