For the Love of Ivie

I was talking with Duke Ellington in his dressing room when a slender, vivid, angry spirit swept in. It was Ivie Anderson, who had a grievance, which she expressed in remarkably inventive, salty language until she took note of me, stopped and vanished.

Characteristically unruffled, Duke continued our conversation. I wished she had stayed so I could have told her how often I played “Rose of the Rio Grande,” with Ivie and Lawrence Brown gamboling through the band. And when I was lonely, I’d sought companionship in her sensuous interplay with Johnny Hodges in “Rocks in My Bed.”

Ellington had three particularly distinctive singers. Adelaide Hall—as in the 1927 “Creole Love Call”—was really another instrument in her wordless vocals, which sometimes became the kind of evocative growls in which Bubber Miley, and later Cootie Williams, also specialized. And Kay Davis—with, as Ira Gitler put it, her “almost ethereal” soprano—delighted Duke as he wove her wordless sounds into the ensemble.

But it was Ivie whom Duke regarded as the vocalist who best embodied the band’s resilient spirit. As Harry Carney, Duke’s baritone saxophonist—and driver on the road—described her: on stage, “she looked angelic and above it all, yet backstage and on the bus, hotels and restaurants, everywhere she was always regular 100 percent. There was no side [pretentiousness] to her.” Ivie was much more than a girl singer. She was a sidewoman.

The Harry Carney quote is from Sally-Ann Worsfold’s scrupulously researched notes to Raisin’ the Rent, the first of two volumes of Ivie Anderson with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. The second is All God’s Chillun. \ The performances are from 1932 to 1937, as lovingly—I do not exaggerate—put together by Alistair Robertson, a jazz enthusiast and owner of Hep Records in Edinburgh, Scotland. As an index of his passion for making available again rarities of the past, Robertson’s many releases include sets by trombonist Jack Jenney; the powerful white blues singer Teddy Grace, who could also growl like a horn; and the incandescent trumpet player Billy Butterfield. (Hep Records is at P.O. Box 50, Edinburgh, EH7 5DA, Scotland; its American distributor is World Records in Novato, Calif. 1-800-742-6663.)

Ivie Anderson, born in a Los Angeles suburb in 1905, had been with various West Coast bands; worked as a dancer and singer in a vaudeville troupe headed by Mamie Smith; and sang with Earl Hines, where Duke heard and hired her in 1931. Asthma forced her to retire 11 years later, and she died in 1948.

Watching movie classics on television, you might see her in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, in which Ivie was cast as a washerwoman. But as Sally-Ann Worsfold writes, Ivie blithely transcended that role and the script: “In one of her most vivacious, jubilant appearances, a radiant Ivie, in Pied Piper fashion, is joined by a group of African-American children” followed by Harpo Marx, “blowing a penny whistle.”

Ivie had an unerring sense of jazz time. Her phrasing was so musicianly that she fitted seamlessly into the band, and she had as strong a presence as the famed soloists in the orchestra. Ivie became the lyrics, and her multitextured sound adapted easefully to the wide-ranging spectrum of Duke’s compositions.

In these recordings on the Hep label, Ivie exemplified “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and her contribution to “Solitude” was deeper than that of anyone else I’ve heard who ever sang it. She got into equivalents of characters in short stories through such haunting numbers as “Troubled Waters,” “In a Mizz” and a “Stormy Weather” that even eclipsed Ethel Waters’ way with that Harold Arlen song. When Ivie introduced the number to British audiences, she—as Duke recalled—would “stop the show cold.”

Ivie also appears in the justly treasured three-disc Duke Ellington The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird/RCA) in, among other tracks, “Rocks in My Bed” and “I Got It Bad (and that Ain’t Good”), the latter also in intimate consonance with Johnny Hodges.

Ivie always brings me out of the blues with her singing of “Rose of the Rio Grande” and “All God’s Chillun” on the Hep Records CD. Alistair Robertson expects to put out a third Ivie Anderson volume, including possibly Ellington air checks and Ivie’s post-Ellington recordings on the Black and White label.

Like Billie Holiday, Ivie, even with Duke, at times had to deal with what used to be called “dog tunes”—with apologies to my Samoyed, Lulu. But she could make even “Swingtime in Honolulu” and “Love Is Like a Cigarette” listenable. But fortunately, the two Hep sets include “Ebony Rhapsody,” “Mood Indigo,” and others worthy of her and Duke. Ivie was so vivid I can still see her storming into Duke’s dressing room.

Originally published in April 2001

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