Duke Ellington conducted a septet drawn from his famous orchestra through “Pigeons and Peppers” in 1938 and the tune was released on a 78rpm single by Okeh Records. It’s been anthologized on a couple large collections of his late 30s small group recordings but hardly saw release on LP (you’ll have to find a Swedish compilation of Cootie Williams tracks to hear it at 33⅓). It’s hardly the only recording by the prolific bandleader to slip into relative obscurity, but this one is of particular interest.

“Pigeons and Peppers” is the first song written by his son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, to be recorded. He was eighteen at the time. A year later Mercer launched the first of several big bands he’d lead over the years. At one time or another many great musicians played in the Mercer Ellington orchestra: Dizzy, Mingus, Chico Hamilton, Carmen McRae, trumpeter Idrees Sulieman.

Mercer often returned to work for his father’s orchestra, writing songs in the early 40s (including orchestra favorites “Jumpin’ Pumpkin” and “Things Ain’t What the Used to Be”), managing the operation in the 50s and at various times performing on alto sax and trumpet. In 1975 he kept the late Duke’s memory alive with the first of two European tours by the orchestra.

We regard Mercer Ellington’s 1975 album Continuum as the final document of the legendary Ellington Orchestra — the record is, notably, the last recording of Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist who’s distinctive character is entirely inseparable from the Orchestra’s legacy. When Ellington had passed away in May 1974, Carney lamented: “This is the worst day of my life. Without Duke I have nothing to live for.” Four months later he was reunited with his lifelong friend and we can only imagine the beautiful music they’ve made together lazily driving around together up their in heaven.

Mercer Ellington lived until 1996. He conducted his father’s music on Broadway (in Sophisticated Ladies) and his mid-80s effort, Digital Duke, won a large jazz ensemble Grammy. Mercer also produced the debut of Queenie Pie, Ellington’s street opera left unfinished in 1974 and seen by many as the greatest of his “lost” works. As the Duke was dying, he and Mercer worked together on another unfinished project, Les Trois Rois Noir (“The Three Black Kings”) first written around 1971 when the Orchestra was in the spiritual throes of its Sacred Concerts.

The first of Ellington’s three kings represented his interest in the traditional representation of Balthazar, the youngest of the Magi who has been depicted as an African King for centuries. Ellington noted his appearance in a stained glass representation of the nativity in Barcelona’s Cathedral Del Mar when his Orchestra performed a Sacred Concert there. The second King is Solomon. Notably, months after Ellington strove to complete Les Trois Rois Noir before he left us, the heir to the Solomonic Emperor of Ethiopia, Haille Selassie was deposed by the Derg, a military council. Whether or not he was assassinated while interred is still undetermined.

The third is Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who the Duke had already celebrated in life in My People, a sweeping work which celebrated racial unity in 1963. One tune was “King Fit the Battle of Bama.” When Ellington later met the Reverend (a moving account of this momentous meeting can be seen and heard here) he had the Orchestra perform that piece.

ellington three black kingsMercer Ellington completed Les Trois Rois Noir from his father’s notes. He along with the Ellington Orchestra performed it with the Yale Symphony Orchestra, and later made this recording with the Warsaw Symphony. Mercer wrote of that performance, that “we could feel [the audience’s] participation increasing until the audience and the musicians seemed to be of one spirit. This unity began to accelerate and grow and continued in its momentum until we reached the climactic ending that resulted in one of the most spectacular experiences that had ever taken place in that hall.”

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There are so many songs about rainstorms big and small, it is probably one of the most common themes in pop music. Often times it’s used to set a sad mood, as in this playlist of tunes we posted in 2011. This morning’s gentle drizzle is just what our garden needed, so we’re thankful for it even if it’s going to keep us inside for much of a Saturday.

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There are, in fact, many happy songs about rain — a favorite of everyone’s is the singin’ in the rain scene in Singin’ in the Rain.

Another, for anyone who has heard the album, is “Light Rain Blues.” It’s on De Ole Folks at Home, the second half of Taj Mahal’s 1971 electric/acoustic double LP.

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“Light Rain Blues” by Taj Mahal

The newspapers have been black and white and red all over in 2015, with today’s one of the most upsetting yet. A twenty-one year old man facing a felony charge was given a semiautomatic handgun, which he used to kill nine people at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. The mass killing in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has shocked the nation, especially because it took place in a house of worship with a deep history of protecting the safety, freedom and dignity of all Americans.

It is hard not to think of the September 16, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four little girls were killed in the terrorist attack, called “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity” by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Incidentally, two black teens were also killed by firearms in Birmingham that day, one by a police officer and one by a white teen returning from an anti-immigration rally.

We posted John Coltrane’s harrowing response, “Alabama,” earlier this year on the anniversary of the beginningof the Selma marches. Political response to the bombing was swift and substantial. Public outrage over the crime became a primary catalyst in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We only wish our leadership had the same sort of political courage today.

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“Alabama”

Another song we posted in response to current events this year was “Heaven Help Us All,” a song by an ex-Marine named Ron Miller, made famous by Stevie Wonder in 1970. It contains the lines, “Heaven help the boy who won’t reach twenty-one / Heaven help the man who gave that boy a gun.”

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“Heaven Help Us All” by Stevie Wonder

And we don’t usually comment on politics here on the Hymie’s blog (after all what do we know about how to run the world when we hardly leave our neighborhood) but this line seemed strangely apt today. You may have read news accounts of Roof’s descent into isolation and racial hatred, and recall the twenty-one year old had been charged with felony narcotics possession in February. This, of course, would leave you to wonder how he could come to own a gun two months later, given the provision of the Brady Act which requires background checks before a firearm may be purchased. Here’s how: Roof received the Glock semiautomatic .44 handgun as a gift from his father, and South Carolina is one of the thirty-three states which do not require background checks for private transactions (Minnesota, in case you’re wondering, requires a permit which in turn requires a background check).

And, in addition to prohibiting felons and those charged with felonies from purchasing firearms, the Firearm Possession Prohibition Law, 18 USC § 922(g) & (n), makes it illegal to knowingly sell or give a weapon to an ineligible recipient. We can assume from this Mother Jones article about the attorney who represented Roof in the February case, that the killer’s father Ben Roof was aware his son faced a felony charge when he gave the boy the weapon in April. It’s hard to imaging he wasn’t also aware his son, unemployed and aimless, was hardly a safe candidate for firearm ownership. We hope the prosecutor in Lexington County, South Carolina will pursue charges against Ben Roof.

President Obama began his statement yesterday by saying, “I’ve had to make comments like this too many times.” It’s true: he has addressed the nation following a mass shooting more than a dozen times. After twenty children and six adults were killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, it seemed as though the Obama administration may have gathered the political courage to push for any changes to federal firearm regulations, but any efforts were doomed by Senate Democrats facing “red state” re-election campaigns in 2014.

A Pew Research poll found 85% in support of universal background checks. This is pretty common for polls on the subject. Additionally, Polls have shown strong majority support from gun owners, although the leadership of the NRA changed its position a few years ago to oppose universal background checks. All we know is that once again a person who would not have passed a background check came into possession of a semiautomatic handgun and the consequences were tragic.

“At some point,” the President continued in his address yesterday, “we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It is in our power to do something about it.”

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“Gun” by Gil Scott-Heron

If only the leadership of his political party had the courage to act on its conviction, and would allow a vote on the legislation nearly all Americans support.

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Did you know that Lester Young spent more than ten years living in Minneapolis? Minnesota History, the magazine of the Minnesota Historical Society, published this great feature by Douglas Henry Daniels in 2004, all about Prez’s formative decade here in our hometown.

He was called “The President” by Billie Holiday because he was simply the very best. He was an essential element to Count Basie’s Orchestra throughout the thirties, and possibly the most influential saxophonist of his time. Young adopted the tenor as his preferred instrument while performing here in bands led by Rook Ganz and Boyd Atkins — and he is largely responsible for its leap to prominence in orchestras of the swing era.

This 1939 recording of “Lester Leaps In” by Count Basie’s Kansas City Seven was first released on the Vocalion label. The song has become a standard, but it’s not the only thing Lester left us: he introduced the word “cool” to common vernacular.

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“Lester Leaps In” by the Kansas City Seven

 

 

 

hj kuntryHere is a surprisingly good privately pressed country LP from 1975. Sometimes we set aside these albums because the covers are comical, or there might be a good tune for the blog here, but this one was just a great honky tonk listen all the way through.

Herbert John Carter, ie “H.J. Kuntry,” is still out there touring and promoting what he’s called “dixiephonics.” According to this article from some batshit tea party website down in Florida, Kuntry has an index card for each of the 30,000 people he’s sold a a copy of They Call me H.J. Kuntry or another record. Kinda nice to know there’s still some folks out there rockin’ the old school promotional network (don’t expect Kuntry to invite you to join Linkedin any time soon). He reminds us a little of our own Sherwin Linton, whose motto is “forever on the stage.”

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“They Call me H.J. Kuntry”

We had an opportunity to DJ our collection of honky tonk and rockabilly 45s at one of Sherwin Linton’s shows last year, just after the Turf Club re-opened after its reconstruction. Not only did he let our pal Joe Killem (The Annandale Cardinals, Whiskey Jeff and the Beer Back Band) sit in on his set, but Mr. Linton was a ton of fun to talk to — he loved the records we were playing, and knew the words to just about every one. We kind of imagine H.J. Kuntry to be a similar kind of guy.

You can find his Myspace page here, which has a few tracks off this album. He’s still performing in the Tallahassee area.

 

 

Ornette

New York City, November 17, 1959: Ornette Coleman began a two week residency at the Five Spot, a club in the Bowery far more on the vanguard of jazz than the Village Vanguard. The club’s first show had featured pianist Cecil Taylor, and Thelonious Monk had recorded two exceptional albums there just a year earlier — but no precedent prepared its audience for Coleman that evening.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane were there. Also Leonard Bernstein. Coleman and his band had just arrived from Los Angeles, somehow overstepping the traditional dues paid before landing any such gig. The twenty-nine year old leader earned his reputation a different way: clearing audiences and stages in Los Angeles with his shockingly unconventional playing. He’d been beaten up outside one club, his saxophone smashed on the street. And like a badge of honor, he appeared on stage for his New York City debut with the only instrument he could afford, a white plastic horn.

Coleman was not entirely unloved in Los Angeles — his music had caught the ears of John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and avant garde pianist Paul Bley. And it was a music writer at The New York Times who procured for Coleman’s quartet unprecedented residency at the Five Spot.

They alternated two sets with the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet, and one of the biggest controversies in jazz was sparked. Coleman’s quartet, which featured Don Cherry on the pocket trumpet and cornet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins (and later Ed Blackwell) on drums, played entirely without the conventional structure of jazz: no chord progressions, and no tonic. Coleman’s compositions opened with simple “head” arrangements and had no other form. It was, in the phrase he later coined with an album title, free jazz.

 

Dizzy Gillespie said it was “not jazz.” Miles Davis said, “the man is all screwed up inside.” Max Roach followed him backstage and clocked him. But in the very same way the punks of ’77 drew rock and roll back to its basics, Coleman’s music altered the course of jazz, and many of his critics later changed their tune. Some even performed with him.

John Lewis had already used his clout at Atlantic Records to secure Coleman a contract and sales of his first album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, were propelled by the residency and the press it received (it had been released in October). The Five Spot loved controversy because it brought in business — Coleman’s residency was extended twice and he played there nearly through the end of 1960.

The music of Ornette Coleman — who passed away yesterday at the age of 85 — eventually grew far beyond the iconic quartet on those Atlantic albums. On his 1966 LP The Empty Foxhole he played the trumpet and the violin as well as the alto saxophone, and he ten-year-old son Denardo played drums. Coleman composed a concerto grosso in 1972 called Skies of America which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra on the album. Five years later he debuted an electric band, later called Prime Time, on Dancing in Your Head. In 2006 his album Sound Grammar received the Pulitzer Prize for music — on that album he quoted from a pair of standards by Richard Rogers and Stephen Foster, something he had rarely — if ever — done on record. He also quoted Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. Coleman had previously recorded a standard, Monk’s “Misterioso,” for the soundtrack to Naked Lunch, but nearly all of his recordings were of his own original compositions.

Coleman had been more or less retired for several years, and reportedly in poor health. His family announced his death from cardiac arrest yesterday, and he is no doubt being remembered by jazz fans around the world. We have already sold all the albums of his we had in the shop.

ornette this is our music lp

His life story was a testament to the virtue of perseverance. Coleman often responded to even his harshest critics with sincere praise for their work, and eventually saw his own music accepted into the mainstream. Ironically, one of his songs became itself a standard (“Lonely Woman”). One of our favorites is this one from his third Atlantic album, This Is Our Music. The album’s title may have referred to his quartet, but we like to believe it refers to all of us. There’s a genuine universality to Coleman’s music. No schooling or training is required to appreciate its underlying dignity and beauty.

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“Beauty is a Rare Thing”

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