Inside the Ellington Band

No organization anywhere in the world has devoted as much space and care in illuminating the Duke Ellington Centennial as Jazz at Lincoln Center: Continuous concerts of his music across this country and others, panel discussions, and an Essentially Ellington High School Band Competition.

For me, exhilarated by Ellington since I was eleven years old, the most intriguing recent session was “Happy Reunion: Memories of Duke,” during which alumni of the band spoke of what it was like to be part of that orchestra far beyond category. Listening, I remembered what Duke told me once when I asked him what his criterion was for enlisting a new sideman. “First of all,” he said, “I want someone who knows how to listen.” I never fully realized what he meant until I heard the alumni.

For instance, bassist Jimmy Woode told that night of being faced with “a piece of manuscript of four to five pages. You’d have maybe these 47 bars with notes, and then there’d be nothing for another 20 bars. When you’d ask, he’d say, ‘Well, you know what not to do.’” Trombonist Buster Cooper: “I first joined the band in a recording studio. He was writing and said: ‘Buster, I want you to take eight choruses on this tune.’ I said, ‘Fine, but where’s the chord changes?’ Duke said, ‘Chord changes? Listen, sweetie!’”

Once, explaining to me how he wrote for the band, Duke emphasized that he wrote for each musician. “I know their strengths,” he said, “and their weaknesses.” Trombonist John Sanders (now a monsignor in the Catholic Church): “The copyist not only had to copy the notes from the scores to the individual parts, but you didn’t copy ‘first trumpet,’ ‘third trombone’ or ‘fourth tenor sax.’ You copied parts named for Johnny, for Harold, for Russell, for Brit, for Butter, for Ray Nance.” Duke wanted musicians who had their own stories to tell. Trombonist Britt Woodman told of how much he admired Lawrence Brown and when he first joined the band, Britt played on “Sophisticated Lady” some of the licks that Lawrence Brown used to play. He was called into the maestro’s dressing room. “Britt,” said Duke, “I’m very sorry I called that number. Whenever you play, I want you to play yourself.”

Duke was not much of a disciplinarian, but even he had limits of tolerance. Al Hib-bler wanted very much to sing with the band and one night, after sitting in, he was told by Duke, “Pack your bags and meet me at the train at 4 o’clock tomorrow.” Hib-bler celebrated by getting plastered, and at the train station, he staggered up to Duke, who said, “You’re not ready.” Ivie Anderson tried to intercede. “Governor,” she said to Duke, “keep him, and I’ll straighten him out.” “Look, Ivie,” Duke said, “I can handle a blind man, but a blind drunk, I cannot.” Trombonist Vince Prudente, who was with Duke the last two years of the band, noted that Duke didn’t have to fire anyone who wasn’t making it musically: “How can you be playing and see him over there and not try your best? I think if you didn’t, pretty soon you just left on your own because you realized the water was a little too deep for you.” Tenor saxophonist Harold Ashby told of a call he got from Ben Webster just after Ashby had joined the band: “Vibe the Governor and Rab [Duke and Johnny Hodges] a little smile from me. Now you’ll get your PhD in music, because you’re with the Boss.”

Drummer Butch Ballard summed up what I’d heard through the years from other alumni about the experience night after night of being in the middle of Duke’s creation: “When Ray Nance (we called him Nancy) got up to play a solo, you knew it was Nancy. And he played it with such beauty and such warmth along with Mex (Paul Gonsalves), you had to just sit up there and just feel good all over your body when you heard these guys play. You don’t hear that no more. You don’t hear that kind of beauty when a guy plays a ballad no more. Like when Johnny Hodges would walk out front.”

But you couldn’t let yourself get lost in all that beauty and warmth. Bassist Arron Bell: “You had to keep your ears cocked and your eyes open. You would ask Duke, ‘What chord is that?,’ and he’d say, ‘Huh?’ He never would answer you. He always wanted you to go for yourself.” But coming into the band was like entering Camelot. Vocalist Dolores Morgan Parker: “I was singing, and Johnny Hodges came and stood beside me. I looked and said, ‘My God, I’m standing next to Johnny Hodges!’”

When I was a kid, I once went up to Johnny Hodges at the stage door of a theater. I started to speak and couldn’t. I too was struck with awe.

Originally published in October 1999

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