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Final Chorus: Inside the Ellington Band

Ruby Braff used to say that when he was very young, he entered the Louis Armstrong University, an educational institution from which you could never graduate because there was so much to learn. Duke Ellington’s sidemen-those who stayed and those who left-felt the same way. And now, in the Jazz Oral History project of Mark Masters’ American Jazz Institute (Claremont McKenna College, Pasadena, Calif., 626-795-6413), a reunion of Ellington alumni provides further illumination of what it was like to be inside that band where, as Clark Terry told me, the music was always in a state of becoming. According to Terry, “Duke didn’t like endings.”

“I think,” says trombonist Walter van de Leur about the arrangements of Duke and his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn, “what made the music sound so very special was that you could be the second trombone and have the evening of your life.” Another trombonist, Art Baron, adds that in all the other bands he played in, “I felt like anybody could sit in that chair.” But the way Duke and Strayhorn wrote, “it really mattered what your personality was. You had to have an individual sound in your horn.”

In Stanley Crouch’s new book, Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (Basic Books)-which will have a permanent place in the canon of jazz criticism-Stanley recalls “Ellington saying that when he heard a particular note, he always had to decide whose note it should be.”

“A man’s sound,” Duke explained to me long ago, “is his total personality. I hear that sound as I prepare to write, and that’s how I am able to write.” Accordingly, as Stanley Crouch continues, “A given note in Ellington’s three-trombone section could have at least as many different colors as players.”

And during the American Jazz Institute reunion, Art Baron, citing Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement of the standard, “Laura,” says that playing second trombone on that arrangement, “it feels amazing. You feel vibrations in your body. It wasn’t just a note. I heard a story.” And Art Baron was in that story.

For all the individualized care that Duke put into his writing, once the music came alive, adds drummer Dave Black: “Of all the band leaders I have worked for, he was very free-letting you play your way, your style. I remember one night we were playing ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ and I just got the bug. I played it as Latin 6/8, and he loved it. I felt like a million-dollar star. When the set finishes, he said, ‘That’s it. When you feel something, just go for it. That the way to do it.'”

Black’s comments remind me of how the 1957 CBS television show, The Sound of Jazz-on which Whitney Balliett and I worked-so rivetingly captured the immediacy of this music, such that being part of that show was the most important thing I’ve ever done. With Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Jones, Thelonious Monk, et al in the studio, the producer, Robert Herridge-who insisted the hour be live television with no editing-told the cameramen essentially what Duke Ellington told Dave Black: “When you get a shot you want, pay no attention to the control room, go for it! And if that shot includes another camera, so what? The musicians are the set!” With the cameras improvising along with the musicians, Herridge let nothing interrupt the life stories of the musicians. And in the control room, when Billie Holiday and Lester Young looked into each other’s eyes during “Fine and Mellow,” there were tears in all our eyes at the wonder of being in the presence of such searching intimacy.

But conflict-interpersonal conflict-is also part of making this music. Ellington alumnus Herb Jeffries, during the reunion, tells of Ben Webster bursting into Duke Ellington’s dressing room between shows “with the most violent language you can imagine” as he thrust a telegram at Duke, “who was powdering himself with a big powder puff.” Ben, furious at not having gotten a raise when, he thought, everybody else had, roared at Duke: “Take a look at this telegram I just got from Benny Goodman. He wants me to join the band and pay me [more than he was getting from Duke].”

“So,” Herb Jeffries remembers, “Ellington, still powdering himself, said, ‘I don’t want to see it. If it’s that good, I’d advise you to take it.'” Ben Webster later left the band, much to his subsequent regret because there was no university-or rather, jazz universe-like it.

Louis Bellson tells of the unique allure of working with Ellington. Juan Tizol had left Ellington’s band to join Harry James’ group, with whom Bellson and Willie Smith were working. Bellson recalls, “One time Duke called Juan and said, ‘I understand you got a young drummer there and Willie Smith. Why don’t you three guys come and join the band? You’re only working one or two nights [a week] with Harry James. Come and have some fun.’ So all three of us went to Harry James and said, ‘Harry, we got a chance to join Duke Ellington.’ And he looked at all three of us, and said, ‘Take me with you.’ That’s one of the joys of my whole life-to work with Duke Ellington.”

Just knowing Duke was one of the joys of my life. One night, the band was on, but he hadn’t come in yet. Standing at the door of the club, I felt a hand on my shoulder, then heard his magisterial voice. (Duke was also a master of the put-on.) “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are.” I felt I had been knighted.

Originally Published
Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

Over more than 60 years, Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) wrote about music, politics, and many other subjects for a variety of publications, including DownBeat (which he edited from 1953 to 1957), the Village Voice (where he was a weekly columnist from 1958 to 2009), the Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes, to which he regularly contributed the Final Chorus column from 1998 to 2012. Of the 32 books that he wrote, co-wrote, or edited, 10 focus on jazz. In 2004, Hentoff became the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award for jazz advocacy.