In The Wall Street Journal, Nat Hentoff reminisces about his relationship with Duke Ellington. The occasion is the release of a massive Mosaic CD box set of early Ellington recordings remastered by Steven Lasker. The column is packed with anecdotes, including this one from the early 1940s, when Hentoff was a young broadcaster in Boston:
Off the air, he once told me: “I don’t want listeners to analyze my music. I want them open to it as a whole.”
And I was there when he played dances, just to get as close to the bandstand as I could. One night, the band played a number entirely new to me. During one of their quick breaks I whispered to a sideman, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, “What’s the name of that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “He just wrote it.”
Hentoff gives historical context to his enthusiasm for the Mosaic collection:
During the summer of 1929, the orchestra appeared in Florenz Ziegfeld’s revue “Showgirl.” Its performance roused that legendary producer to call the orchestra “the finest exponent of syncopated music in existence. . . . Some of the best exponents of modern music who have heard them during rehearsal almost jumped out of their seats over their extraordinary harmonies and exciting rhythms.”
Now, thanks to Mosaic, I have almost jumped out of my seat because the sound engineering by Mr. Lasker and Andreas Meyer brings these Ellington orchestras swinging right into the room. As Billy Strayhorn (eventually Ellington’s associate arranger) put it in Down Beat in 1952: “Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is the band. Each member of the band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I call the Ellington Effect.” That characteristic sound is as present in these recordings as it would later be in the 1940s and beyond.
To read the entire article, go here.