Recently, after moving a large collection to the record shop, we discovered one of the boxes contained not albums but a variety of books. Many of them were jazz biographies, and one — Duke Ellington’s 1976 memoir, Music is my Mistress — has proven to be an especially enjoyable read.
One of the most remarkable things is its appendix which lists all of the songs he composed during his career in their copyright order — from “Blind Man’s Bluff” in 1923 to the four-part Togo Brava suite written in 1973 it takes nearly thirty pages to list them all!
Here is a song from early in his career (1929 according to this book) which was re-recorded many times over the years. It is on this RCA/Victor compilation of the 1927-9 band, which features several Ellington Orchestra alumni who worked for Duke for decades — one could hardly imagine the Orchestra without Johnny Hodges or Harry Carney for instance.
Our favorite era of Ellington’s enduring Orchestra is the 1940-2 incarnation known by fans as the “Blanton/Webster Band.” We posted about bassist Jimmy Blanton not long ago (here). One could spend a lifetime collecting only Duke Ellington record, and always have plenty of great jazz to listen to — his music changes so much from decade to decade based on the distinct personalities that make up the Orchestra, and it would take a post longer than this to list all the favorites of jazz listeners.
From his autobiography, Ellington describes the process of fluctuation as members come and go:
The cats who come into the band are probably unique in the aural realm. When someone falls out of the band — temporarily or permanently — it naturally becomes a matter of “Whom shall we get?” or “Whom van we get?” It is not just a matter of replacing the cat who left, because we are concerned with a highly personalized kind of music. It is written to suit the character of an instrumentalist, the man who has the responsibility of playing it, and is almost impossible to match his character identically. Also, if the new man is sufficiently interesting tonally, why insist upon his copying or matching his predecessor’s style.
In other words, if we are completely satisfied with the horse and buggy, who invent an automobile or airplane? In the first place, when a man is needed, I personally scarcely even know which way to look for a replacement. I haven’t the slightest idea whether the grass next door is greener or leaner. So someone suggests so-and-so, and we send for so-and-so, and get him. We play together a day or two, and then I inquire whether or not the new cat likes what we are doing, having already watched his reaction in the band. If he likes it, he is invited to stay.
Everybody agrees he’s a nice guy until one day, sooner than expected, one of his other selves breaks through, or one of his more eccentric sides show. Then I confess, or one of the other cats in the band hollars, loudly, “Duke, you never miss!”
Our new man has come home to the home of homies. He manifests his acceptance of the honor bestowed upon him, and settles down to the prospect of welcoming the next new so-and-so.