duke ellington and his orchestra

Showing 26 posts tagged duke ellington and his orchestra

Introduction

Hi, everyone!

I’m Jonathan Bogart, and close OWOB watchers may remember my Faces week back in March. I still tumbl under my name, and I’m writing in various other locations scattered about the web (and offline too), but check back at the end of the week for a full listing. We have too much to get to today.

First things first: what on earth am I doing here again already? It’s not fair — I get a second round when there are plenty of people who haven’t even had their first shot yet? Believe me, I think it’s as ridiculous as you do; but I’d offered a while back to take another week if our generous ringleader Hendrik ever had any emergency drop-outs, and apparently there was one (writing for free, amiright), so here we are.

Now onto the more important subject: what in God’s name am I getting us into? It says One Week One Band up there at the top, not One Week One Classic American Composer or One Week One Jazz Orchestra. Those of you who are here for the indie rock and nothing but the indie rock may well be rolling your eyes and snorting disdainfully throughout the week, as is your sacred right. But I’m much more of a pop historian (thanks Tom!) than a rock fan, and I thought I might be able to say something useful and intelligent about a form of music that doesn’t, to put it mildly, ordinarily get a lot of press on the usual hip-music-blog circuit.

But a couple of caveats before we go any further. Real jazz heads may well be utterly bored by this week. Choosing to write about Duke Ellington is the jazz equivalent of choosing to write about the Beatles, i.e. both the epoch-making influence and the immediate sensuous attraction of the music are so nakedly apparent to the ear of even the most haphazardly-educated music fan that it’s vanishingly unlikely I’ll be able to say anything that hasn’t been said a million times already, and better. Also, I’m not musically trained in any but the most general listening sense. I can’t describe what’s happening in the music without resorting to metaphor and simile, so this will be a pop appreciation rather than a compositional, technical, or musicological one. There will be some history, which I am as likely to get wrong as otherwise, and there will be a lot of borderline-incoherent attempts to explain just what excites me about music that is, at the very youngest, seventy-seven years old.

Because here’s the thing: when I first realized that I wanted to write about Duke Ellington, I knew that I wanted to write about a particular piece of his career. He cut his first record in 1924 and played his last gig in 1973, and in between he was one of the most prolific composers, live performers, recording artists, and touring musicians of the twentieth century. There would be no way to cover fifty years in five songs, no matter how many Youtube videos I interpolated.

So instead I’m covering the years 1927-1934. The reasons for those specific cutoffs I’ll hopefully explain when we get to the songs themselves; but I chose the era because it fascinates me generally and because in the broader conversation about music it’s underappreciated. Jazz heads, classic song aficionados, and the general population are much more likely to be interested in reworkings of this music in the 50s, 60s, and 70s than in its original form, for a whole host of reasons having to do with generational mythologizing, technological change, the tyranny of the living over the dead, and basic unfamiliarity with the aesthetics and tropes of a vanished world.

This music was almost entirely initially released on ten-inch slabs of shellac (not vinyl) that played back at 78 revolutions per minute (compare to the 33⅓ of the twelve-inch album and the 45 of vinyl singles), and held about four minutes’ worth of song on either side. For two generations, this was the standard format of recorded music, the format listened to by everyone from Mark Twain and Queen Victoria to J. Robert Oppenheimer and Jack Kerouac. It was replaced by high-fidelity vinyl in the 1950s, in an inspired turn of destroy-the-past marketing compared to which the CD revolution was small beer indeed (you can still find vinyl records), and every surviving artist of the years before recorded and re-recorded their old hits on the new equipment, with stereo separation, studio effects, and crystal-clear sound — and, inevitably, a loss of the old, charged atmosphere.

It could be argued, in fact, that the cults of Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and Hank Williams are least partially due to the fact that they didn’t survive to re-record their records in hi-fi; not coincidentally, they made very nearly the only mastered-from-78s records everyone agrees are worth hearing. But for those willing to push through the surface noise, the limited dynamic range, and the clotted masses of sound, the old electrically-recorded (and, before 1925, acoustically-recorded) music has its own charm. For one thing, it has a specific sound that you can’t actually get with live instrumentation; people like Tom Waits have spent large sums of money trying to replicate the sound of old 78s with modern recording equipment; and the loss of hearing the band would actually have sounded like in the room is made up for by the elegant concision with which Duke (first among his peers) wrote and scored for the records. Through smart microphone placement and delicate arrangements, he used the studio as an instrument decades before technology made it possible for everyone to do so; and doing so, he pushed popular music into new territories, both making the record an art form in itself and making jazz something worth hearing in something other than a dancing or jamming-along context. But I’ll be talking more about all that throughout the week: for now, just get ready to hear music you may not quite understand all the rules to right away.

The past is indeed another country; my mission here will be to try to give you the tools to visit it, to walk around and explore without just hitting the obvious tourist attractions and saying you’ve been. Luckily, they (mostly) share a language with us, and the exchange rate has never been more favorable. But I’ll sign off before this metaphor gets too out of control.

Up next: the music.

Track

East St. Louis Toodle-Oo

Artist

Duke Ellington & His Kentucky Club Orchestra

Album

Vocalion 1064

Duke Ellington & His Kentucky Club Orchestra, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”
(Ellington)
Vocalion 1064 · Nov. 29, 1926

They only called it the Harlem Renaissance in retrospect.

At the time, when you wanted to call something black, you named a Southern locality. The Charleston, for example, written by a man from New Jersey. The flip side to this record was titled “Birmingham Breakdown,” but Edward Ellington, who composed both numbers, knew as much about Birmingham and East St. Louis as he did about Morocco and Cairo. The real operative words here were “Toodle-Oo” and “Breakdown,” words that chugged and clanged with real American energy.

Ellington may not have known the Deep South — though as a native of Washington, D.C. he was familiar with segregation, with the condescension of power as well as with its elegance — but he did know trains. He’d taken one up to New York in the teens, having dropped out of art school (like many a great contributor to American culture, he was a failed cartoonist), and took one back home when it didn’t work out. But his second sojourn in Manhattan proved more successful, and he got himself in with a strong group of players, gigging and backing up blues singers.

Blues singing was a fad just then, one which would eventually turn into the cornerstone of all American music. It was women’s music, because it was tragic, and so fit the landscape of tragic femininity which the culture found endlessly fascinating. At first limited to white women — because who would want to hear black people speak in their own language? — the music had been taken over entirely by black women beginning with Mamie Smith’s 1920 “Crazy Blues.” Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Gladys Bentley, Lucille Bogan, Rosa Henderson, Victoria Spivey, Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, Lizzie Miles — the list went on and on, an avalanche of suddenly-discovered music that the record companies had only just now (somehow) discovered was not only available, but salable. Black people’s money, it was discovered, was just as good as other folks’.

Ellington was only a drop in the flood moving northward. If jazz originated in the South (in New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, and a thousand other spots on the map of the Old Confederacy [EDIT: Trust a Westerner to get the South wrong; of course Missouri — and certainly Illinois — were never part of the Confederacy.]), it came to maturity in the North. In Chicago, where mob-run dives and hoochie palaces would take any old music for entertainment, as long as it didn’t make the customers lose their thirst or their hard-ons; in Detroit, where the factories and assembly lines provided their own unyielding rhythm against which to syncopate; in far San Francisco, where the vaudeville circuits ground to a halt and black entertainers took a few weeks at a local bordello or theater to earn a ticket back to the other side of the Rockies; and above all in New York, where humanity teemed and a black man could live the same as a prince, and in real housing too, built for the ancien Dutch aristocracy who gave it the name Haarlem, but prosperous black men and women had begun buying up blocks in the 1890s and renting out rooms to less prosperous black men and women, and — for a while anyway — it was the Promised Land that Capitalism Built.

All this traveling, all this criss-crossing the nation in search of work, or equally in search of life, of money and drink and music and pussy — was done by train, and the brains of the population, white and black alike, beat to the rhythm of the rails. The first composition Duke Ellington waxed to record under his own name (“Duke Ellington & the Washingtonians”) was called “Choo Choo,” but it was a stiff-jointed thing, a rote concoction for the dance floors which were groaning for want of tunes the children of capitalists could shimmy to, and Ellington had other plans. Not that he would ever neglect the paying public’s need for a dance, as we will see, but he was the son of a professional man and a woman who insisted on dignity in all things, and he had ambitions greater than providing a soundtrack to the follies and indecorousness of white folks.

The Club Kentucky was one of many that had opened in Manhattan in the wake of the surprise success of Shuffle Along, the groundbreaking 1921 musical that had kicked off the “fad” for Negro entertainment in New York. It had once been the Hollywood Club, but a 1925 revamp in direct imitation of the Plantation Club (where the ingénue of Shuffle Along, Florence Mills, reigned supreme) gave it a stupid antebellum plantation-pastoral theme. Still, it was Ellington’s first gig headlining at a major nightclub (he’d played in other men’s bands for years), and right in midtown Manhattan, too. (47th Street between Broadway and 7th, if that means anything to you.) He didn’t stay long, or the club didn’t stay open long, but while it was still a name with any cachet he cut a few records billing his band as The Kentucky Club Orchestra, most notably “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”

(This might be as good a time as any to point out what all that stuff after the title in bold is. The parenthetical gives the names of the people who wrote the song, followed by the label and original catalog number (especially early on, Ellington, like everyone, recorded for half a dozen different labels and they often reissued popular records a half a dozen times over the next ten years; giving the original issue is a way of nailing down specifically which recording I’m talking about), and finally the recording date — not the release date, which for most records back then aren’t really known, especially since distribution networks were hardly so efficient as to allow for a single street date across a single city, let alone nationally.)

East St. Louis, of course, is a historic black city (not Missouri neighborhood) in Illinois. And toodle-oo? Well, that’s more difficult. It’s British slang for goodbye, and in the 20s would have been recognized by Americans as a deliberate piece of Wodehousian mockery, as in “toodle-oo, pip-pip, and all that rot.” But there’s an elegaic quality to the song, a sense that a real goodbye is being said, and of course there’s also a phonemic association with the childish toot-toot of a train whistle; based purely on sound alone, especially in the opening section, the orchestra seems to be imitating a train. The saxophones sway dreamily back and forth like the motion of the car, the banjo strikes regular chords that could well be onomatopoeized as the chug-chug of the steam wheels, and Bubber Miley’s muted trumpet raises its quavering tone like a lonesome whistle blowing across a quiet night landscape.

Except of course this is jazz, which in 1926 means a dancing music, and the rhythm, though subtle, will not be denied. It’s perfectly possible — and I field-tested this hypothesis just last night — to cut a shuffling buck-and-wing on one’s bed to the strains of this song.

In fact I recommend you move to it; that’ll help you hear the underlying rhythm as the solos get more conventional. Here’s a brief music-education lesson, in case you don’t know what you’re listening to: the first thing you hear is a saxophone bed: alto and baritone sax together. The growly, squawking horn that takes the first solo is a muted trumpet; after that comes the trombone, which you can always tell because the notes are raggedy around the edges, then the clarinet, high and sweet and sometimes shrill. Then after a couple of piano chords, both trumpeters play together, followed by clarinet and alto sax together, then the trumpets again. Finally, the muted trumpet returns to finish the song. The woozy, sighing, deep-voiced instrument you hear making up-and-down fills throughout is a baritone sax, which was unusual for a jazz orchestra in the 20s, but Ellington was already interested in instrumental textures and colorations outside the freewheeling melee of trumpet-sax-trombone-rhythm-bass which was the common jazz-band arrangement in the 20s. You’ll notice that you hardly hear the drums, and the rhythm is set instead by a banjo, strummed for simple chords, with occasional runs that sound like a ukelele, instead of being picked. This was usual: drums tended to overwhelm the rest of the instruments in a studio recording, and the banjo hadn’t yet lost its historic associations with black music. There’s also a double bass (I think being bowed rather than thumbed, but I could be wrong) in the mix, and you might be surprised to realize that you don’t hear Ellington’s own piano much on the recording. Though he first fell in love with music by hearing ragtime and stride pianists as a teenager, and was a great pianist himself, full of delicacy and nuance (as we’ll hear in time), he was the least showy of bandleaders, infrequently writing himself a solo, and concentrating much more on the effects he could get out of his brass and winds.

There are good reasons for this — at a busy nightclub, the piano could be overwhelmed by the surrounding instruments, and he was doing as much conducting as playing anyway, as his arrangements became more complex and his ideas more original. He was not the kind of person you’d describe as an intellectual, though his education had been solidly middle-class, but in his own way he was doing a lot of thinking about what this moment meant, the sudden surge in popularity of black music and entertainment, the black colonization of Harlem, the growing ability of black artists like the comedian Bert Williams, the tap dancer Bill Robinson, or the singer, dancer and comedian Florence Mills to set their own artistic agendas without truckling to minstrel stereotypes, and be rapturously received by audiences black or white. Too, he had his own ambitions. The Jewish Broadway composer George Gershwin had premiered his Rhapsody in Blue in 1924; Ellington knew ambitious black composers like Will Marion Cook (who had written for Bert Williams’ musicals in the 1900s), Eubie Blake (who had written the music to Shuffle Along), Will Vodery (who had been Florence Mills’ musical director), and William Grant Still (who had written an oratorio for Ms. Mills, which she had performed beautifully). Ellington was young — only twenty-seven years old in 1926 — but he was already starting to use jazz as a deeply-felt compositional language, rather than as a set of improvisatory guidelines.

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, “Black and Tan Fantasie”
(Ellington-Miley)
Victor 21137 · Oct 26, 1927

All that thinking had to bubble out into music.

Harlem in the 1920s was as much an international city as the New York that surrounded it; in some ways, even more so. Jamaicans and Haitians, Senegalese and Moroccans, rubbed shoulders with Louisiana Creoles, Cuban Prietos, and long-term Manhattanites who had moved north from the Tenderloin and Hell’s Kitchen once the viability of Harlem as a black Mecca had been established. Langston Hughes, among others, has written movingly of how exciting and alive the city was in those years, especially with music. Cuban danzón, New Orleans jazz, St. Louis ragtime, Georgia spirituals, Mississippi blues, Italian opera, Jewish freilech, and classical and theater music from everywhere poured out of homes, businesses, and street corners: you walked down the street and you could hear a dozen songs in a block. Every home had a piano, and most had a gramophone.

But music was not the only music. Black voices, in every possible key and register, raised in celebration, in argument, in denunciation, in sorrow, in anger, in pride, in nonsense. Marcus Garvey, collecting subscriptions for a resettlement of Africa; Timothy Drew, calling all black peoples to return to the tenets of Moorish Islam; hustlers selling everything from bootleg liquor to high yaller girls to sheet music, a nickel a copy, and I can sing it for you you’ll love it if you just hear it.

Ellington heard much on the streets, and he heard much in the nightclubs, and he also frequented the theaters — musical comedy, revue, operetta, recitals — with their own conventions and significations. And he wrote “Black and Tan Fantasy” (issued as “Fantasie” in its second and better recording) as a sort of comic, but not entirely unserious, commentary on that jumble of blacknesses, American, African, Eastern, Caribbean, Latin. For most whites, a nigger was anyone darker than Italian; whether you were Cherokee, Senegalese, Saudi, Hindi, or Australian aboriginal, you were black in the eyes of the officious cop or excitable storekeeper who wanted you out of the way. So when Ellington pulled together comic stings of Near Eastern music — the blues scale he’s working could also stand in for a Turkish or Persian scale — and let Sam Nanton and Bubber Miley swan all over the place with their trumpet solos, he’s intentionally calling up the stage music of the fakir, the “Streets of Cairo” melody, and the minor-key Jewish melodies, which, as Gershwin argued, were half-black already. Miley’s solos, weeping and sobbing and hiccuping — or is that laughter? — are particularly stunning, at one point anticipating Raymond Scott’s 1939 concert-jazz piece “Tobacco Auctioneer.” And then the whole thing ends on a quotation from Chopin’s Funeral March.

Funny, perhaps, but only if you didn’t get the joke. A black and tan club was one that admitted both whites and blacks; in 1927, Ellington had accepted a gig as the headlining act at the lavish Cotton Club, a Harlem nightclub that catered to “slumming” whites. The staff — Ellington and his men included — were black, but the clientele was exclusively white. Never slow to spot an irony, but also unlikely to use words when music would do, Ellington lodged his protest in the form of a song title. Listen to it again, and that opening stomp sounds furious, the sly piano chords on the off-beat the only thing that keeps it from being a march to war.

From here on out, Ellington’s subject matter would be blackness. What’s remarkable is how popular he was with whites anyway; his polite demeanor disarmed them, while the music smuggled in the payload.

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, “Creole Love Call”
(Ellington-Miley-Jackson)
Victor 21137 · Oct 26, 1927
vocal by Adelaide Hall

Writing about Florence Mills’ nightclub act, the critic Gilbert Seldes marveled at the ability of the saxophone to imitate the human voice — and, in Ms. Mills’ case, vice versa. The black educator, historian and novelist James Weldon Johnson wrote about her incantatory, improvisatory singing, in which she left words behind and sang “real wood notes,” like a nymph or dryad. And William Grant Still, in his oratorio Levee Land, had actually written wordless parts for her to sing, a black siren of jazz.

Adelaide Hall was friends with Florence Mills, as was (it seemed) every black woman who ever performed in New York, and when Florence took her show overseas to Paris and then England, Adelaide (and Ethel Waters) stepped into her shoes at the Plantation. When Florence returned from Europe, she was deathly ill from overwork, and was eventually taken to the hospital. The day after she was admitted, Duke Ellington entered the studio to cut some records with Adelaide Hall. These are facts.

I can’t prove that Ellington got Adelaide Hall to sing on a couple of records because he couldn’t get Florence Mills — who had made tests back in 1924, but the old acoustic technology had been inadequate to capture her high, thin voice — and I can’t prove that she sang wordless solos with the band in tribute to Florence. But she was never known for her improvisatory singing again; and as it happened, “Creole Love Call” was the first record ever made with an entirely wordless vocal. She growls and moans like Bubber Miley’s muted trumpet, taking both the first and the last solo (as Bubber normally did), and though it’s titled a love call (playing off of Rudolf Friml’s popular “Indian Love Call” from the 1924 operetta Rose-Marie), it sounds to me more like grief.

Dept. of Corrections: it was British critic James Agate, not Johnson, who said she sang “real wood notes.”

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, “The Blues I Love to Sing”
(Ellington-Miley)
Victor 21490 · Oct 26, 1927
vocal by Adelaide Hall

That October 26 recording date was a productive one; not only the two songs with Adelaide Hall, but the barnstorming second version of “Black and Tan Fantasy“ were laid down there.

“The Blues I Love to Sing” was the second of the two Hall recordings to be issued, and if that implies it’s a lesser work, that may only be because “Creole Love Call” is so breathtaking. Nobody could mistake the sweet-voiced, theatrical Hall for a blues singer (though like all black women at the time she sang her share of twelve-bar compositions on stage), so when she sighs “that’s the blues I love to hear” it’s less an attempt to insert herself in the lineage of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and more a signal that the blues are opening up, flowering into new and different forms. This song is as free-form as “Creole Love Call,” but as the slap bass makes clear in the opening bars, is more upbeat and lighthearted. Adelaide turns kittenish, cooing and playfully squealing, “oh, you’re killin’ me!” at a particularly funky Bubber Miley riff, though her vocals are again mostly wordless.

Florence Mills, the most beloved black entertainer of her generation, died November 1, 1927, aged thirty-one. We have no recordings of what she sounded like, only descriptions from people who saw her when, but I like to think that Duke and Adelaide preserved some small part of her spirit in these records, even if that’s not at all what they were intending to do. And even if they didn’t, even if her ghost which haunts my waking dreams is justly forgotten, only a pale shadow of what she was, once upon a time, made out to be — they’re still great records in their own right, the first pure vocalese recordings, showcasing a loose, unscripted side to Duke and his band that would come to the forefront much more rarely in the future.

I wanted to kick off our second Duke Ellington day by talking about some of the barriers people can have to getting into very old music like this, and why I think it’s important to at least understand it, rather than relying on second-hand recreations from decades later. Yesterday, on my personal Tumblr, I asked people why they thought they (or people in general) had trouble getting into older recordings, especially of the pre-high-fidelity era, and the responses I received were illuminating.
Several people cited the low fidelity of the music itself — and especially for audiophiles who want to hear every detail crystal clear through their high-end headsets or speakers, this can be a dealbreaker. Music, or sound, that doesn’t lend itself to such complete immersion is functionally useless for them; past a certain point, you can’t even turn it up to hear it better, since the dynamic frequency of the original track is so low that it just warps and garbles into hiss.
Others were fine with the fidelity — after all, if some of us are used to hearing music played through laptop speakers, phones, and Apple’s shitty white earbuds, the narrowly-compressed range of old records may actually pump through our tinny outputs better than more delicate sounds. But trying to figure out the context for these old sounds was more daunting to them: after several generations have passed, what once sounded fresh and vital may now sound stiff and hokey, or just incomprehensible. People listened to that? Why? What pleasure could they possibly get from it? Or worse, the intervening years have accreted other contexts and associations onto it, so that many people can’t listen to old records without thinking of the dull documentaries they were used to score, or the creepy horror movies that use the rustle and shriek of old 78s to ominous effect.
And of course, some people just don’t see the point. Michelle smartly noted that listening to old records doesn’t provide you with any social capital the way listening to new music or even classic rock does — for the most part, you can’t talk about it with your friends, and there’s not even any real critical establishment insisting on the eternal value of the music in the way the Boomer (and more recently the Gen X) pantheon is endlessly celebrated. If nobody’s either asking or haranguing you about it, if you have to seek it out but then once you do there’s not a clear subculture in which to talk about it, what’t the point? That answer fascinated me, because I’ve rarely gotten any social capital out of listening to any music at all. I’ve always swum more or less alone, so in diving ever further down into the waters of history, I was leaving nobody behind.
I don’t have any answers to these objections; as far as I can see, they’re all perfectly valid, and I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to listen to music that gives them no pleasure, that they don’t understand, or that doesn’t enrich their lives. All I have to offer is personal history, so idiosyncratic as to be non-replicable. In short, I was curious, so I dug. I’ve always, since I was a small child, been historically-minded; my favorite movies are all black and white, my favorite books are all older than my parents or even my grandparents are, and even many of my favorite comics are newspaper strips of the kind that died out in the 50s and 60s. When, inspired by all the “Greatest _____ of the Century” lists that came out around the turn of the millennium, I turned to that other great turn-of-the-millennium fad, Napster, to start trawling through the decades, it seemed only fair to be as interested in the music of the Thirties, Twenties, Teens, and Oughts as in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. And so, piece by piece, record by record, I began reconstructing the past. I don’t know any other way to do it.
I still know very little, compared to all that there is to know. (People who focus on a single era, on a single branch of music, on a single discography, are as incomprehensible to me as I’m sure I am to many of you.) But I am, after ten years, comfortable enough flitting among the many and varied worlds captured on 78s that what sometimes appears to me to be a snobbish, finicky, or simply ignorant preference for recreations or revivals of this music using later technology, later arrangements, or later understandings seems more and more disrespectful and even, in a sense, pernicious.
I want to be clear about this: there is no such thing as definitivity. Duke Ellington’s 1966 recordings of “Creole Love Call” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” are just as valid as the ones from 1927; and recordings of those same tunes made by your high school jazz club last year are too. Music is music; get your pleasure where you can. What irks me is the implicit assumption that later is better, for whatever reason — better dynamic range, greater availability on compact disc, the crude solipsism of one’s own existence being contemporaneous with that of the performance.
I don’t want to lock the past in the past; on the contrary, I think that’s what a preference for re-recordings does, limiting our palates only to what’s acceptable in our own times. It’s something close to an insult to the ingenuity, the expertise, and the genius of the people who made those original recordings to assume that they got it wrong, and we can do better now. Even if we hit all the notes, even if we keep time better and control our breath better and never allow a single sharp dissonance, we are still only standing on the shoulders of giants, only recreating what they created.  They had a cruder medium in which to work — but what they did with it!
Finally, some people mentioned that they felt as though there was simply no way into the impenetrable thicket of pre-LP music. Without album discographies to guide listening in the simple, orderly manner of the rock era, how is anyone supposed to find their way? You might wonder that anyone in the era of twelve-inch mixes, white-label singles, and Soundcloud downloads finds the prospect of digging through disorderly discographies so daunting, but without a truly comprehensive database of 78s comparable to what Allmusic, Rateyourmusic, and Discogs have done for albums, I feel their pain. One of my hopes, in my various blogging endeavors, is to provide pathways for the interested, so that they can be assured that at least one person has been this way before. High-res

I wanted to kick off our second Duke Ellington day by talking about some of the barriers people can have to getting into very old music like this, and why I think it’s important to at least understand it, rather than relying on second-hand recreations from decades later. Yesterday, on my personal Tumblr, I asked people why they thought they (or people in general) had trouble getting into older recordings, especially of the pre-high-fidelity era, and the responses I received were illuminating.

Several people cited the low fidelity of the music itself — and especially for audiophiles who want to hear every detail crystal clear through their high-end headsets or speakers, this can be a dealbreaker. Music, or sound, that doesn’t lend itself to such complete immersion is functionally useless for them; past a certain point, you can’t even turn it up to hear it better, since the dynamic frequency of the original track is so low that it just warps and garbles into hiss.

Others were fine with the fidelity — after all, if some of us are used to hearing music played through laptop speakers, phones, and Apple’s shitty white earbuds, the narrowly-compressed range of old records may actually pump through our tinny outputs better than more delicate sounds. But trying to figure out the context for these old sounds was more daunting to them: after several generations have passed, what once sounded fresh and vital may now sound stiff and hokey, or just incomprehensible. People listened to that? Why? What pleasure could they possibly get from it? Or worse, the intervening years have accreted other contexts and associations onto it, so that many people can’t listen to old records without thinking of the dull documentaries they were used to score, or the creepy horror movies that use the rustle and shriek of old 78s to ominous effect.

And of course, some people just don’t see the point. Michelle smartly noted that listening to old records doesn’t provide you with any social capital the way listening to new music or even classic rock does — for the most part, you can’t talk about it with your friends, and there’s not even any real critical establishment insisting on the eternal value of the music in the way the Boomer (and more recently the Gen X) pantheon is endlessly celebrated. If nobody’s either asking or haranguing you about it, if you have to seek it out but then once you do there’s not a clear subculture in which to talk about it, what’t the point? That answer fascinated me, because I’ve rarely gotten any social capital out of listening to any music at all. I’ve always swum more or less alone, so in diving ever further down into the waters of history, I was leaving nobody behind.

I don’t have any answers to these objections; as far as I can see, they’re all perfectly valid, and I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to listen to music that gives them no pleasure, that they don’t understand, or that doesn’t enrich their lives. All I have to offer is personal history, so idiosyncratic as to be non-replicable. In short, I was curious, so I dug. I’ve always, since I was a small child, been historically-minded; my favorite movies are all black and white, my favorite books are all older than my parents or even my grandparents are, and even many of my favorite comics are newspaper strips of the kind that died out in the 50s and 60s. When, inspired by all the “Greatest _____ of the Century” lists that came out around the turn of the millennium, I turned to that other great turn-of-the-millennium fad, Napster, to start trawling through the decades, it seemed only fair to be as interested in the music of the Thirties, Twenties, Teens, and Oughts as in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. And so, piece by piece, record by record, I began reconstructing the past. I don’t know any other way to do it.

I still know very little, compared to all that there is to know. (People who focus on a single era, on a single branch of music, on a single discography, are as incomprehensible to me as I’m sure I am to many of you.) But I am, after ten years, comfortable enough flitting among the many and varied worlds captured on 78s that what sometimes appears to me to be a snobbish, finicky, or simply ignorant preference for recreations or revivals of this music using later technology, later arrangements, or later understandings seems more and more disrespectful and even, in a sense, pernicious.

I want to be clear about this: there is no such thing as definitivity. Duke Ellington’s 1966 recordings of “Creole Love Call” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” are just as valid as the ones from 1927; and recordings of those same tunes made by your high school jazz club last year are too. Music is music; get your pleasure where you can. What irks me is the implicit assumption that later is better, for whatever reason — better dynamic range, greater availability on compact disc, the crude solipsism of one’s own existence being contemporaneous with that of the performance.

I don’t want to lock the past in the past; on the contrary, I think that’s what a preference for re-recordings does, limiting our palates only to what’s acceptable in our own times. It’s something close to an insult to the ingenuity, the expertise, and the genius of the people who made those original recordings to assume that they got it wrong, and we can do better now. Even if we hit all the notes, even if we keep time better and control our breath better and never allow a single sharp dissonance, we are still only standing on the shoulders of giants, only recreating what they created. They had a cruder medium in which to work — but what they did with it!

Finally, some people mentioned that they felt as though there was simply no way into the impenetrable thicket of pre-LP music. Without album discographies to guide listening in the simple, orderly manner of the rock era, how is anyone supposed to find their way? You might wonder that anyone in the era of twelve-inch mixes, white-label singles, and Soundcloud downloads finds the prospect of digging through disorderly discographies so daunting, but without a truly comprehensive database of 78s comparable to what Allmusic, Rateyourmusic, and Discogs have done for albums, I feel their pain. One of my hopes, in my various blogging endeavors, is to provide pathways for the interested, so that they can be assured that at least one person has been this way before.

Track

Black Beauty

Artist

Duke Ellington & His Cotton Club Orchestra

Album

Victor 21580

Duke Ellington & His Cotton Club Orchestra, “Black Beauty”
(Ellington)
Victor 21580 · Mar 26, 1928

Forty years before the “black is beautiful” slogan reached critical mass in American culture, the loose community of writers, artists, musicians, poets, sculptors, polemicists, and entertainers that would later be identified as contributing to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s began to assert its truth. From the flat-plane drawings and paintings of Aaron Douglas, whose masterful designs were inspired as much by African art as by the pared-down modernism of the Deco era to the poems of Countee Cullen and Claude McKay celebrating the rainbow of beauty they saw every day on the New York streets, to the very exploits of icons like the daredevil aviators Bessie Coleman and Hubert Julian, black men and women asserted the full humanity — the beauty, intelligence, grace, ambition, complexity — of their race over and over again.

Few did so more successfully, or with greater approbation from complacent white onlookers, than Florence Mills. Small and frail, with a large round head, big, expressive eyes and a gift for dancing that effectively silenced all critics, she fit in perfectly with Twenties ideals of delicacy, lightness and sweetness; the opposite, as many noted at the time, of the big, rough-voiced, and forthright Bessie Smith. That some people tried to claim that Bessie was more truly black, more deeply in touch with the sorrows of her race or whatever, only underscores the latent racism underlying many rockist (or bluesist!) assumptions about authenticity, blackness, and the desire to condescend. Be poor, be suffering, be angry — or you’ve betrayed the race, at least in the eyes of the white people setting themselves up as arbiters of blackness. Actual black people loved Florence deeply — her funeral packed the streets of Harlem for days, and the resolutely dignified nature of the mourning was both perfectly matched to her own preferred manner of dealing with life, and an intentional rebuke to white assumptions about black emotionalism and “primitive” displays of grief.

With her dignified, slight bearing and high, thin voice, Florence anticipated women like Diana Ross and Whitney Houston, both of whom have also been denigrated in favor of fuller-voiced (and fuller-bodied), less polished singers, as though there was only one way to sing soul (or jazz, or anything). Rawness, as such, is overrated; intelligence, humor, and good judgment are necessary regardless of the roughness or delicacy of presentation.

I bring all this up for a couple of reasons. I first heard “Black Beauty” after researching the life of Florence Mills, because I had been intrigued by a few scattered references in volumes of popular-culture criticism from the 1920s, and I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t just download some mp3s and listen for myself. (No, kids, everything is not available. The historical record always has gaps.)

In 1943, as part of a concert at Carnegie Hall, Duke Ellington presented three musical “portraits” of great black entertainers: the great comedian Bert Williams, the great tap dancer Bill Robinson, and Florence Mills. The pieces for Williams and Robinson were new; but the “Portrait of Florence Mills” was a new arrangement of “Black Beauty,” originally recorded by him and his orchestra in 1928. (The version heard here was the second recording, five days after the first. Throughout the 20s, Ellington regularly recorded multiple versions of his compositions for competing record labels. That way he got paid twice; he was no fool when it came to business.) Ellington rarely talked about his music, preferring to let it speak for itself, so there’s no way of knowing whether he originally intended “Black Beauty” as a tribute to Florence Mills — there’s not even any actual proof that he ever saw her perform, though given both her popularity and his proclivities, it’s far from an unreasonable assumption — but inferences can be drawn.

In 1924, the jazz pianist and impresario Clarence Williams recorded a version of Florence Mills’ signature song “I’m a Little Blackbird (Looking for a Bluebird),” a lightly ironized — as was the fashion in lyrics — complaint about prejudice and institutional racism that, according to reports, rarely left a dry eye in the house when she performed it. His wive Eva Taylor sang it in her good-natured alto (Florence was a winsome soprano), and Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet played dueling solos on trumpet and alto saxophone. Bechet’s fluttering, birdsong cries in particular recall contemporary critics’ descriptions of Florence Mills’ voice: “strange high noises” (Heywood Broun), “bubbling, bell-like, bird-like tones” (James Weldon Johnson), “untrained because of its astonishing facility” (James Agate), and although those runs are typical of Bechet’s playing, I’ve long harbored a secret conviction that in that song they were also a tribute to Florence, whose voice couldn’t be captured by the pre-electric recording process of ’24.

Bechet briefly played in Duke Ellington’s band in the mid-20s; he never recorded with him, but apparently his technical mastery and improvisatory brio pushed the other wind and sax players in the band to new heights. Barney Bigard on clarinet and Otto Hardwick on soprano sax play with a measure of Bechet’s sweet, rangey tones on this record, and if they don’t exactly break out into any wild bird-cry flourishes — when Duke Ellington wrote a song, he generally scored the solos as well — I can’t help hearing Florence Mills in their glissandos and fluting.

Because even though neither I nor more than a scattered handful of living people have ever heard Florence Mills sing or seen Florence Mills dance, I feel almost as though I can glimpse her movement and hear her silvery tones in the music of “Black Beauty.” The easy, loping sashay of the opening trumpet line, the rolling, decorative bounce of the piano, the hard, lunging tap of the bass, and above all else something we haven’t really heard from Ellington before, the jazzy, syncopated counterpoint, instrument calling to instrument, solos not parceled out in turn but trading off lines and runs, responding to each other with inventive, unfurling chords and patterns.

Mills’ dancing was described by others — and even by herself, though she was well-schooled in the art of publicity, and knew how to spin to her advantage — as always unpredictable, but nevertheless always perfectly synced to the music in her nightclub act, her revues, and her vaudeville appearances; she listened to the orchestra, responded to them, and interacted as though she were one of the jazz band, her whole body the instrument, feet as well as voice. “Black Beauty” sounds to me the perfect expression of her style: loose and responsive, but still sweet, controlled, even decorous. There would be no gutbucket blues for her, or for Ellington either — they were both children of the Washington middle class, and they believed in W. E. B. DuBois’ call for the Talented Tenth to elevate the stature of the race through example, ambition, and always, at all times, pure class.

But the connection may all be in my imagination. For ten years (my God, ten years!), I’ve harbored fantasies of writing — or drawing — a biography — or graphic novel — or regular novel — or screenplay — or something — about the life and world of Florence Mills. In fact you could say that much of my interest in the popular culture of the era has origins in the background research I started doing in 2002 … and somehow just never stopped. There was always more to read, more to listen to, more to see.

I’ve listened to this rendition of “Black Beauty” hundreds, possibly thousands of times (at least a dozen times while trying to pound these words into a meaningful shape alone), and I can still hear new things in it every time I do. If I had to say I had a favorite piece of music — which is something I try very hard never to say — it would probably be this one. It dances through my soul.

Yesterday, driving home through a miserable heat wave, 115 degrees in the shade, in a car with failing air conditioning, I plugged my phone into the car stereo and played this over and over again at top volume, letting the top range of the clarinet shriek splittingly, the rustle of surface noise roar into a white hiss, and the bass slaps throb and rattle my chassis as I sat in traffic and slowly cooked. And I was perfectly happy.