Tributes have been flowing in to mark the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Duke Ellington Jazz Orchestra. Ellington was a force of nature, already a pro musician at 16, and by 1924 he had taken over and reshaped the Washingtonians Dance Band.
Irving Mills became Duke’s manager and the master pianist, writer and arranger began recording for various labels as Duke Elllington and his Orchestra. Classics like ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’, ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo’ (Both 1927 – the latter brilliantly covered by STEELY DAN on their “Pretzel Logic” LP) and ‘Mood Indigo’ (1930).
So, for those only vaguely acquainted with Ellington’s music where do you start? Firstly, I am a great believer in listening chronologically and his 1927-1929 recordings are expertly recorded and annotated on a trilogy of VJM mono records. ‘East St. Louis’ is the very first track (one of 2 different versions), co-credited with trumpeter Bubber Miley, as is track 4 ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ (and as ‘Black and Tan Fantasie’ on track 10- so 4 versions in all). ‘Creole Love Call, with twin clarinets, is based on Joe Oliver’s ‘Camp Meeting Blues’, the first vocals (wordless ones by Adelaide Hall) to be heard on Ellington’s rich catalogue of music.
“Ellington Uptown” (1952), with Louie Bellson and Clark Terry is another seminal recording. ‘Perdido’, ‘Take the A Train’ and the 14-minute ‘Tone Parallel in Harlem’ all appeared; the CD reissue also has ‘Liberia Suite’ from 1948.
Other good starting points are his album with JOHN COLTRANE on which Ellington changes the key of ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ (from 1935) to suit Trane’s tenor sax- Ellington also made an album with COLEMAN HAWKINS, “Meets Coleman Hawkins” in 1963; “Such Sweet Thunder” (1957); “Side by Side” with alto saxophonist JOHNNY HODGES (1959); “Blues in Orbit” (1960); “Money Jungle” (1963), a one-take session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and “The Far East Suite” (1966, with the 11-minute ‘Ad Lib on Nippon’ showing how the Duke’s music was inspired by different cultures, as evidenced on the classic ‘Caravan’ in 1937; the album was inspired by an Asian tour and was another collaboration with fellow pianist and musical traveller BILLY STRAYHORN, all the more poignant as Strayhorn died that same year – Ellington himself died in 1974 at the age of 75).