Thursday, April 16, 2015
Taking The “A” Train-With Jazzman Duke Ellington
From The Pen Of Bart Webber
There was King Oliver, there was Count (Basie), there was Earl (“Fatah” Hines), there was Marquis Dubois and, of course, there was the Duke, Duke Ellington. The old time jazz guys, the guys who came of jazz age out of the blues mostly, were fond of playing the royalty game (and within jazz if not out in Mister James Crow’s Southern world where a lot of them hailed from, as did their blues brothers, they were royalty, worthy royalty and more royalty worthy than those to the manor born. But the Duke is a special case, a special case of the old time jazz guys since he laid down some very, very sweet high notes in a long career (help lyrically by Billy Strayhorn especially), brought a ton of guys (Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges to name just two) along to wail the night away. If he was not the father of be-bop for that would be a little off-key then he had been the step-father of those cool post-World War II 1950s guys who blew so cool, so Charley, so Dizzy, so Monkish, searching for their own high white notes blowing out into some foggy bay, some sultry Harlem River drift night, some Frisco blow it out to the Japan seas. And so you could see the progression when the “beat” brothers (and they were mostly brethren) put their words to paper, put their words to sound they floated out on that dank Harlem River and Frisco bay Japan seas in their own high white note fashion. Listen to Allen howl, Gregory Corso machine gun his verse, Gary Snyder Zen away, Lawrence Ferlingetti screed along and see if you don’t hear echoes of Duke’s tone poems to stand your hair on edge.
Yeah, sure, the guy who hipped me to jazz way back when, back in Harvard Square coffeehouse days like he did with a few other corner boys like Jack Dawson, Sam Lowell said that I had come late to an appreciation of jazz, had got my dander up messing around with the great rock and roll jail break-out and subsequently the long gone daddy folk minute and so those be-bop cats that animated his young interests didn’t hit me until much later. Later when a max daddy like the Duke was already blowing big fluffy notes in the great beyond. But when I did “dig” Duke like with a lot of things that I get the flame over I grab whatever I can. Early, late, good, bad, indifference since not every creative artist run the “A” train all the time. So I know that the Duke was crazy great when he had Ben and Johnny and the boys blowing stuff , maybe Ivy Anderson singing a low sway in the early 1940s when everybody needed a little something to get them through, a little sublime music to go with the rough slogging through sloppy roads. Needed too to blast off with some jitter-buggery on the dance floor when the liberty ships came in or the boys were on weekend passes. That is classic Duke.
I want to step back a minute though and go back to the beginning, Duke’s beginnings in the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age uptown Harlem Saturday night at the Cotton Club. And as the album cover says (see above) playing “jungle music” for the Mayfair swells. Jungle music meaning not the great American indigenous music that jazz contributed to the world songbook but another variation of Mister’s taking his pleasures wherever he wanted, when he wanted and so Duke got clowned, there is no other way to put it. But all those Mayfair swells turned to sawdust before long and to clay whereas the Duke (and the boys, I know, I know) played the universe clean-out. Proof, laughing proof, listen to that famous “come-back” album composed of Duke standards that brought the house down, had the usually staid 1954 Newport Jazz Festival crowd up and dancing, and murmuring, no, moaning for more. Yeah, that’s the high white note, brother, that is…. the hippety-hop hh…high white note.