Duke Ellington (1899-Forever)

Here it is the night of Duke Ellington’s 114th birthday and Rifftides has left you bereft of a flowery tribute to his genius, immortality, indispensability and __________ (fill in the blank). Instead, let’s see all of that in action in a clip from the 1930 RKO film Check and Double Check.

Trumpets: Freddie Jenkins, Cootie Williams & Arthur Whetsol.
Trombones: Joe (Tricky Sam) Nanton & Juan Tizol (valve trombone).
Reeds: Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard.
Rhythm: Ellington (p), Sonny Greer (dr), Fred Guy (gtr), Wellman Braud (b).
Solos: trumpet, Jenkins; baritone saxophone, Carney; soprano saxophone, Hodges.

Did RKO brass order the makeup staff to blacken Juan Tizol’s face? Could be. In those days, movie executives were a bit nervous about mingling the races on screen. Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel were five years off.

Ellington 1925That was not Ellington’s first film appearance. His Hollywood debut seems to have been five years earlier, a discovery announced today by The Library of Congress. The library’s blog posted details on this anniversary of Ellington’s birth. To see the explanation by their moving image maven Mike Mashon and a brief (extremely brief) clip, click on this link. After watching it several times, I concluded that the blink-of-an-eye scene runs from 37 seconds to 41 seconds of the sequence. I lifted a still from the movie and blew it up, but unless the sharp focus of your vision is better than mine, we’ll have to take Mr. Mashon’s word for what we’re seeing.

All that aside, to paraphrase what Ellington often said to audiences following a Johnny Hodges solo, as if addressing the deity:

Thank you for Duke Ellington.

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  1. Terence Smith says

    Maybe Miles Davis filled in the blank for all of us in one of his Downbeat blindfold tests” (with Leonard Feather: Sept 21, 1955):

    Oh, God! You can give that twenty-five stars! I LOVE Duke…That band kills me. I think all the musicians should get together one certain day and thank Duke.

    Today would be a good day. And have you ever noticed how many artists do their best work when they decide to record tributes and their own takes on Duke and Strayhorn?

  2. Jeff Sultanof says

    The answer to the question you raised is, yes. RKO demanded that Tizol darken up, as the powers that be were concerned that Southern audiences would go crazy seeing a ‘white’ musician with a black band. Lena Horne’s performances for MGM were also easily cut out of the films they appeared in to appease southern audiences, and she was denied a role that she was perfect for, Julie, in the 1951 version of “Show Boat.” Such was Hollywood in those days.

    On the other hand, the Soundies Corporation apparently couldn’t have cared less about such issues. Take a look at the short films the Gene Krupa Orchestra made with Anita O’Day and Roy Eldridge.

  3. Terence Smith says

    Every time I hear “Caravan”, I think about how much Juan Tizol contributed to the landscape of music. And I think that Tizol would not have done so without his membership in the unique and ever-enduring Duke Ellington organization.

    Although Ellington is one of the greatest of pianists, not for nothing did Duke say that the band was his instrument. Ellington magnetically attracted musicians with unique personal voices and melodic gifts. And he translated their raw ideas into an endless gallery of masterpieces such as “Caravan” which I believe probably grew from a beautiful phrase Tizol was fooling around with.

    Yesterday I was listening to Rex Stewart doing ” Boy Meets Horn” and I realized once again how synergistic was the mind and Orchestra of Duke Ellington. They made music that speaks, forever.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Ellington and Tizol share composer credit for “Caravan.” The resourceful publisher Irving Mills, who was also Ellington’s manager, is listed as the writer of a lyric for the song, which was a big hit for Billy Eckstine.

      • Terence Smith says

        I had forgotten that Juan Tizol’s name is listed as co-composer of “Caravan”. I’ll bet Tizol remembered every time the royalty checks mailed out!

        I thought of “Boy Meets Horn” because it is so obviously Rex Stewart “talking”, and so affectionately, unforgettably framed by Duke’s orchestral setting, just as “Caravan” sounds like Tizol’s voice Ducally immortalized.

        After reading your informative comment I checked the sheet music of “Boy Meets Horn.” Duke listed Rex Stewart as co-composer, and there is Irving Mills again with the “resourceful” lyric!

        “Duke & Company” is such a generous ever-renewing source of musical invention. God Bless them, every one.

        • says

          When I play “Caravan”, I always blow the melody in Juan Tizol’s register, as a little reference to the great man. It’s also a delight introducing the song with some explanatory words on Duke’s, er, *composition techniques*, meaning: Duke heard some fellow noodling around, wrote it down and, voila: A new Ellington tune was born, and – if the guy was lucky – it became a feature number for that very fellow.

          By the Dukish way, the “boy,” Rex Stewart, was also featured in the spectacular “Trumpet In Spades” (1937), where he unpacked all his tricks like halve-valves and glissandos all over the cornet.

          • Doug Ramsey says

            Before Stewart gets technical in the tricks section, he reminds us with his lyricism how much he owed Bix Beiderbecke. Sometimes, that part of Rex Stewart is submerged in a tsunami of technique.

  4. says

    Thanks for featuring this rare film. Fantastic show! It’s amazing to see how they were celebrating this number. Freddie Jenkins’ solo is super-hip, and very modern with its rhythmical shifts. Didn’t know he was a lefty. Funny!

    Here’s another one with the Duke and his greatest asset on tenor since Ben Webster, Señor Gonsalves who plays no less than … at the chart he owned like no one else… ah, just take the ride, and count yourself (it’s recommended to listen rather than only counting, ’cause Paul plays some pretty interesting stuff, to understate it):

    To see it, click here.

    P.S. — As for filling in your blank:

    …and *status beyond category* :)

    • Terence Smith says

      Brew, your link is the gift that just keeps giving!! Paul Gonsalves can DO NO WRONG!

      Thank you!

      And wherever Gonsalves was going with the coda when they cut to commercial is where I wanna be!

      • says

        Yeah, Paul Gonslaves, since he saved Duke’s a** at the chaotic Newport Jazz Festival concert on July 6 & 7, 1956, he could never do wrong, even when he sometimes fell asleep on the bandstand in later years, or had some unpleasant “meetings” with Mr. Booze.

        A great player!

        As for lengthy solo trips, when I did some research for my Lester Young/ Artie Shaw lecture, I found a wonderful quote by producer John Hammond:

        “In a jam session in Detroit in December 1937, he (Young) improvised eighty-three choruses to Sweet Sue, without moving from his place. That, any initiate will tell you, marks a great and imaginative jazz artist.”

        The very same goes for the one and only Señor Paul Gonsalves.