We love Duke Ellington — surely no other jazz artist is as well-represented in our collection. It’s a pleasure to pull out a stack of his records, put a favorite on and pore through the liner notes, discovering how his composing adapted to the comings and goings in his famous orchestra and learning about the unique personalities. Duke once told an interviewer that he didn’t write for a particular instrument, he wrote for a particular performer — that is, he wrote a part for Paul Gonsalves playing the tenor saxophone, not the tenor saxophone.
Recently we were listening to an album in the shop which isn’t in our collection at home, The Intimate Ellington, which Pablo released in 1977 shortly after Duke’s death. It collects spontaneous pieces from 1970-1 sessions with smaller versions of the orchestra (including two suprising Monk-ish trio performances of “Edward the First”). The liner notes by Stanley Dance describe the atmosphere of his late-period recording sessions.
It is probably not too much to say that some of the happiest hours of Duke Ellington’s life were spent in recording studios at relaxed sessions like those illustrated here. He might call them when the band was laying off as a means of getting some return from those of its members permanently on a salary, but he always liked to hear next day what he had written overnight, and sometimes the summonses to appear went out at very short notice. If the music were of an experimental character or not completely worked out, the sessions too place with a degree of secrecy, quite unlike those commissioned by major labels and attended by an enormous retinue of relatives, friends and fans. The fact that he was paying all the expenses of the date himself did not guarantee his own punctuality. He often came in late to find that musicians who had arrived on time had wandered off on a variety of errands. Johnny Hodges, say, had gone to buy grapes for his monkey, and Paul Gonsalves was across the street having “breakfast” in a bar, but so long as the bassist and drummer were present Ellington was unperturbed.
Wait, let’s back up a minute. Johnny Hodges had a monkey? A monkey?! How is this extraordinary fact passed over so quickly? How has this never been mentioned in the liner notes to the hundreds of Ellington or Hodges albums that we’ve read here in the record shop? What kind of monkey? Did it come to the sessions? Is that why he had to buy grapes for it? Was the monkey in the room when they recorded? Did it behave? Can you imagine Curious George in a recording studio?!
This can’t be a drug references. We’re familiar with forties phrases like “feed the monkey” and references to the monkey on one’s back, but Hodges — who died at sixty-four the year before the sessions collected on Intimate Ellington — didn’t have a drug problem. He was buying grapes for a pet monkey. Probably a really awesome one, probably one who did the monkey to Hodges’ 1963 b-side “Monkey Shack.”
This 1997 review of a CD reissue of Hodges’ RCA/Bluebird album Triple Play, written again by Stanley Dance, gives us a little more insight because the disc includes an out-take, “Monkey on a Limb.” The monkey’s name was Shuma. So Johnny Hodges had a monkey named Shuma. It may have attended recording sessions. It was probably the awesome-est monkey in the entire world. Maybe Shuma’s still alive, maybe Shuma will make a record someday. There can never be enough Ellington tribute albums, especially if they include a monkey playing the saxophone.