When these sessions took place in 1951 and 1952, the Swing Era was receding into the past and the big bands—those that remained—were really in the doldrums. Count Basie, who had broken up his band to operate with a small combo, was casting about for ways to make a comeback as a bandleader. Only Duke Ellington had managed to survive continuously at the head of a big band, and not by any means serenely. At times he had to subsidize his high-priced group with royalties from his compositions.
World War II had played havoc with the personnel of the bands even before they broke up. Once it ended, the conditions under which they had operated so successfully had changed. Most serious of all was the fact that people had gotten out of the habit of dancing. Television was a new competitor and still a novelty. So why go out? Why not sit at home and munch potato chips, drink beer and watch the season’s soaps? It was cheaper.
For these and other reasons, jazz had increasingly turned from dances to concerts, with sometimes disastrous results. In the concert hail it was not imperative to swing or move the customers physically as it had been in ballrooms. The music had to appeal more directly to the head than the feet. Louis Bellson’s brilliant “Skin Deep,” for example, owed much of its enormous success—like all drum solos—to the fact that it was visually exciting. An extended work like “A Tone Parallel to Harlem,” with its constant variety of mood and emphasis, was also more appropriate to the concert hail than the dance hail.
Duke Ellington was always well aware of trends. Sometimes he set them, but just as often he flew cheerfully in their faces. When three of his old mainstays left him in 1951 to take their chances in a septet led by his greatest star, Johnny Hodges, to many the defections seemed to spell the end of the band as a top-rank attraction. But Ellington, ever resourceful, pulled off a master coup, one that came to be known as “The Great James Robbery.” An old friend, valve trombonist Juan Tizol, who was in Harry James’ band, was enticed away; he brought with him alto saxophonist Willie Smith and Louis Bellson. Smith, the great section leader of Jimmie Lunceford’s band and a formidable soloist, was the best possible replacement for Hodges, and Bellson added a spectacular new element.
Ellington’s library was, in any case, rich in material suitable for concert presentation. His arrangements were the most colorful and, with the addition of Clark Terry, Willie Cook and Britt Woodman to his brass in 1951, he had an orchestra that was both powerful and versatile in every department. But, typically, he did not do the obvious thing. Count Basis went to hear the “new” band and he was delighted.
“The so-called progressive jazz was going big then,” he said, in recalling his “biggest thrill” as a listener, “and here comes Duke Ellington on opening night at Birdland. He had just revamped his band, and no one knew just what he’d have. We all dropped in to catch him—and what we heard! What a thrill that was!
“The Duke was swinging. All this ‘progressive’ talk, and Duke played the old swing. He scared a lot of people that night. It was just wonderful. Of course, the Duke has always had the greatest band of all times. There’s never been another band for me, year in and year out.”
You can hear the band that thrilled Basie in this well-recorded collection. Besides the program of long pieces that the 12” Lp was then increasingly encouraging, the terse title, Ellington Uptown, undoubtedly contributed significantly to the substantial popularity the set enjoyed when it was first issued. “Harlem” was uptown; “The Mooche” was born uptown; and the “‘A’ Train” was what took you uptown in a hurry! For good measure, “Hi Fi” was added prominently on the original liner, and that was the current catchword for audio buffs, who are always in pursuit of some new conception of “life-like” sound. But “hi fi” was short for high fidelity and the engineers of that period sought zealously to achieve a faithful reproduction of how a band sounded in person, rather than gimmicky extensions of its extremes. So you may well be surprised here by the impact of the band when it begins to roar.
“Take the ‘A’ Train” was written by Billy Strayhorn in 1941 and subsequently adopted, with typical Ellington generosity, as the band’s theme. Betty Roché, who is featured in this extended version, sang it in 1943 during her first stay with the band. Here she adds to her original treatment a couple of hilarious scat choruses full of comic quotations and bebop allusions. After Betty Roché left, Ray Nance took over her “routine” and improved it in vocal choruses of his own. Previously, he had been the featured cornet soloist on the number and, after he left, his famous chorus was played almost note for note by Cootie Williams, thus illustrating the unique way traditions were maintained in the orchestra. From time to time, too, Paul Gonsalves had been heard on the number, and after the Roché vocal he comes fully into the limelight. The tempo slows and he delivers three superb choruses with a wonderfully mellow tone, showing an altogether different melodic approach to the tune. Then the tempo picks up and he rides out an exciting last chorus. Here, for those who were listening, the full potential of this great artist was revealed, nearly four years before his triumph at Newport.
“The Mooche” was one of the best “jungle” pieces Ellington wrote in his Cotton Club days, and it remained in his band’s book until his death because there was always someone on hand to request it. Exotic, colorful and sometimes sinister, it underwent superficial changes through the years, but its character always remained the same. It is built on two themes, one of twenty-four bars, the other of twelve. The statement of the first at beginning and end by the band, with insinuating commentary from Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet and Ray Nance’s plunger-muted cornet, provides a stage setting for a series of improvisations. First, Hamilton and Russell Procope duet on their clarinets, followed by Quentin Jackson and Paul Gonsalves on trombone and tenor saxophone, respectively. The latter is a novel instrumental pairing, but the two horns communicate meaningfully. Next, Harry Carney and Hilton Jefferson each have a twelve-bar solo to themselves. Jefferson, all too rarely heard as a soloist, was another great lead alto of the Swing Era, and he had replaced Willie Smith at this point. Finally, Ray Nance brings the performance to a menacing conclusion over a background of wailing clarinets.
“Harlem” was recorded eight months earlier than the other performances, and was written by Ellington as he returned from Europe on the Ile de France. Premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1951, it had been commissioned by the NBC Symphony, then under Toscanini’s direction, and planned as a kind of concerto grosso for the band and the symphony orchestra. Here the band is on its own in what the composer intended to be a brisk tour of Harlem, which, he noted, “has always had more churches than cabarets.” Like a kind of film montage, scenes follow one another with bewildering rapidity, overlapping and dissolving as Ellington’s musical images illustrate the different facets of the city within a city. After Ray Nance pronounces the word “Harlem” on his horn, many soloists are heard from briefly, among them Jimmy Hamilton, Quentin Jackson, Harry Carney (on baritone sax and bass clarinet), Paul Gonsalves, Britt Woodman, Russell Procope, Shorty Baker and Louis Bellson. Because Ellington was seldom so prodigal of ideas, it was a demanding work to play, and it was seldom performed so well as here. Bellson proves his worth again and Willie Smith can be heard leading the saxes in his inimitable fashion.
“Perdido,” another big hit from the early ’40s, was written by Juan Tizol. In this extended version, alter the introductory piano chorus, it becomes an extravaganza for brass. The first soloist is Ray Nance, and after two choruses featuring first trombones and then reeds, Clark Terry takes three that are dazzling in their agility. Bassist Wendall Marshall and Ellington provide everyone with breathing space, and then the horns take off in a four-bar chase: Nance, Anderson, Cook, Terry, Woodman, Nance, Anderson, Cook, Terry, Woodman, Nance, Anderson, Cook, Terry, Woodman and Nance. A final chorus by the band gets assists from Anderson and Nance. Some fun, eh? How did trombonist Britt Woodman get in there? Well, in those days he was the fastest boneslinger from the West!
The two-part “Controversial Suite,” premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1951, is unlike any other Ellington composition in that it looks askance at contemporary jazz movements. “Before My Time” is an amused and even contemptuous reference to the prevalence of Dixieland at that time. Shorty Baker, Russell Procope (on both clarinet and soprano saxophone) and Quentin Jackson oblige with the required corn. “Later” reflects the heavy Teutonisms of the Stan Kenton orchestra, then also inexplicably enjoying considerable popularity. Paul Gonsalves, EIlington and Wendall Marshall assume the solo duties.Louis Bellson’s arrangement of “Skin Deep” framed his own drum artistry very effectively. His innovative use of two bass drums was a sensation, and it enabled him to execute then unheard-of feats of virtuosity. Yet it was always virtuosity under control. Everything is in place here, neat and clean, never degenerating into bombast. The orchestra is brought in—and out—for relief and pace, and the swinging section midway gives a fulcrum to the whole performance, one that brings this program to a rhythmic climax.
Original Recording Produced by George Avakian
Recorded at the Columbia 30th Street Studio, NY
Digital Restoration and Engineering by Larry Keyes
Jazz Masterpieces Series Coordination: Mike Berniker and Amy Herot.
Historical Research: Nathaniel Brewster
Every effort has been made to preserve the integrity of the original (pre-stereo) analog tape recordings. However, the digital transfer and remastering from these sources may reveal imperfections that were inherent in the original recording techniques of that time.