Duke Ellington in Winnipeg

With the Jazz Festival in full swing, I asked jazz history buff Brian Chipney to wax eloquent on the Duke Ellington band as it was on Nov. 6, 1940, when it first played in Winnipeg. We don’t know all the tunes the band played on that date but fortunately the concert they played in Fargo the next night was recorded in its entirety, an amazing snapshot of the Ellington band at what many regard as its peak.


Duke Ellington band playing in Fargo, ND, Nov. 7, 1940. Photo credit: NDSU

Now, what to say about Brian? Brilliant…. handsome…. debonair. These words don’t begin to describe Brian Chipney. They don’t even resemble Brian Chipney. In fact, they have nothing to do with Brian Chipney. But he does play pretty good soprano saxophone and has read a couple of books about jazz. He also thinks Johnny Hodges was the best soprano saxophone player who ever lived—all the qualifications needed to talk about the Ellington band.

Brian Chipney is in his tenth season as producer and performer in the Thursday evening jazz series, “Jazz at the Station” at Resto Gare on the corner of Provencher and Des Meurons, where some of Winnipeg’s finest French cuisine can also be had. On July 27th Brian’s trio will be on hand with special guest Brad Shigeta (former trombonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington) to celebrate the official tenth anniversary of jazz at Resto Gare.

Here follows my e-conversation with Brian.

CM: The Duke Ellington band of 1940 has been described as the greatest band that ever was. Do you agree?

BC: I think labeling anything as the “best ever” is a fruitless exercise. The choice is always going to be subjective, dependent on the qualities one is looking for. And those qualities can vary wildly from one person to the next. For example, some would maintain that “best” band was the early Count Basie group, the band with Lester Young, Dickie Wells, Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, and of course the All-American Rhythm Section of Basie, Freddie Greene, Walter Page and Jo Jones. This Basie band frequently used a loose framework to showcase the various soloists. It swung like crazy and was tremendously influential on other bands, probably even more so than Ellington’s. Duke’s was more of an arranger’s band, generally more tightly structured than Basie’s. Can we say that the Basie orchestra was “better” than Ellington’s? It’s all a matter of opinion.

I think what we CAN safely say is that the Ellington band might have been one of the most UNIQUE big bands ever. It had a remarkable collection of solo voices and an arranger (Ellington himself) who consistently framed those soloists in brilliant fashion. The Ellington band could play any sort of style, from smooth, danceable ballads to roaring swingers. It could also create subdued moods that were beyond most bands. Certainly Ellington was also one of the great composers in jazz. So, fabulous music, brilliantly arranged, and featuring some of the best musicians ever. That’s a pretty winning combination! The Ellington band was arguably at its peak in 1940 and 1941 thanks largely to the presence of the great tenor saxophone soloist Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton, a young man who was instrumental in making the bass a viable solo instrument. Is all this enough to make the Ellington band “the best”? I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters. Any way you look at it, this was without question ONE of the best bands of all time. We’re fortunate in the Fargo recordings to have a complete and unique record of one night out of many in the life of this group. To the guys in the orchestra this was just another gig, but the recordings give us a wonderful snapshot of the Ellington band in its prime.

CM: The Ellington band hit Winnipeg at a pivotal moment in its history. Trumpeter Cootie Williams had just signed on with the Benny Goodman band and had left the Duke. How important was Cootie Williams to the Ellington band’s sound as it was in 1940?

BC: Cootie had become so much a part of the Ellington sound by 1940 that bandleader Raymond Scott even wrote a composition called “When Cootie Left the Duke”! The parting was amicable though. It came out in later years that Ellington had actually helped Williams negotiate a good salary with the Goodman band. Interestingly, Cootie himself said that his time with BG was his most enjoyable in music … lots of solo space with a disciplined, well-rehearsed orchestra that played fabulous arrangements. And Cootie starred with the Sextet that featured Charlie Christian. As Williams liked to say, that Sextet would romp! But back to the question at hand… Ellington was known for writing to the strengths of his players. Williams was a unique voice, a player who could play powerful open-horn and who could express a variety of emotions through the use of the plunger mute. He was a wonderful musician and was certainly a large part of the Ellington sound. We have to remember too that the Ellington band had a great deal of stability. By 1940 his main soloists had been together for a number of years. The band had achieved a unity that was truly remarkable. Williams was I think the first of these stars to leave the fold. At the time it must have seemed to some to be an insurmountable loss. But history has shown us that Ellington, like any bandleader, would bring in new players to replace those who had departed. In Duke’s case, he’d figure out what the new man brought to the table and would then write to that man’s best qualities. Williams himself came to the band as a replacement for Bubber Miley, one of the first great growl trumpet players. Miley was featured extensively on early Ellington classics like “The Mooche” and “Black and Tan Fantasy”. Ellington credited Miley with a large part in creating what would become known as the Ellington sound. Cootie Williams became a master of the mute, but he started using it because he had to fill the role Bubber Miley had previously played in the band.

The replacement for Cootie Williams was Ray Nance. Nance wasn’t to my mind anything like the equal of Cootie Williams as a trumpet player, though he certainly wasn’t a bad player. But Nance did other things that Ellington could make use of. He was a good violinist, which naturally gave Ellington a new colour to work with. Nance was also an entertainer, someone who could go down front and entertain the fans with a vocal and a little dancing. In fact, his nickname in the band was “Floorshow”. We should keep in mind that it was Ray Nance who originated the classic trumpet solo on the Ellington recording of “Take The ‘A’ Train” …. which Cootie Williams would replicate when he rejoined the band years later!

As time went on, other key players would leave the orchestra. Blanton took sick. Ben Webster went out as a single. Barney Bigard decided to stay in California. Joe Nanton died. Johnny Hodges left to start his own band, taking trombonist Lawrence Brown with him. And on it went. But Ellington persevered. The band might slump for a time, but Duke would find other unique voices to feature and inevitably things would pick up again. Many of the men who’d left would ultimately return, so that Hodges, Brown and even Cootie Williams would one day be back in the Ellington band.

CM: The Winnipeg Tribune referred to the band as, “the first nationally famous colored band to appear here.” and the Free Press called it, “the most original negro dance band in the states.” Can you talk a bit about how Ellington dealt with the bewildering complexities of race in the music business?

BC: If we go back to the early years of the band, Ellington achieved some of his first great success at the Cotton Club in New York. The Cotton Club featured a southern motif. The floor shows at this whites-only establishment played up the “savagery” of the Negro race, often with a jungle setting. It was all designed to titillate the well-healed customers who journeyed to Harlem, playing to the racial stereotypes of the time. But this milieu was important to the sound of the Ellington band. Duke arranged much of his music to fit into this setting, featuring growling brass and moody saxophones. It gave the band an identity, as Ellington became known for this so-called “jungle music”. He’d go on to feature plunger trombone and trumpet for the rest of the band’s existence, though naturally the players changed over the years. Bubber Miley was his first great growl trumpet star, and the wondrous Cootie Williams was with Ellington for many years. Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton was the all-time master of the plunger trombone. So, we see the Ellington band in what was basically a racist setting, but Ellington managing to turn this into a positive.

Life on the road for a black band was, shall we say, not fun. The day-to-day indignities must have been crushing, but that was the reality of the time and one had to find a way to function. Ellington was not a confrontational man. He was able to use his status as a star to isolate himself and his musicians to some degree from the travails of the road. Before the war, the Ellington band traveled from city to city in its own personal train cars. The cars would be left in a rail yard in each new city the band appeared in and the men lived in them. They were thus assured of decent accommodation and good food, two things that black men traveling through America could seldom count on in the 1930’s. This luxury made a tremendous impression on other musicians. Ellington was fascinated by trains and composed some remarkable “train pieces” over the years, like “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” (later ripped off by the saxophonist Jimmy Forrest and made into a hit under the title “Night Train”). Again we see Ellington taking the racial restrictions of the time and turning them to his advantage.

Ellington was indeed very conscious of race. He certainly knew that he was a black man moving through a largely unfriendly America. As many black musicians said, the fans would cheer you while you were on the stand but many of them wouldn’t dream of shaking hands or associating with you socially. Ellington celebrated his race in his music. He composed an extensive series of tributes to black performers over the years; eg. “Black Beauty”, “Bojangles”, “Portrait of Bert Williams” and many others. In 1943 he made perhaps his first major musical statement on race with the debut of “Black, Brown and Beige – A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America” at Carnegie Hall. Decades later he wrote a revue called “My People” in which he addressed the positive contributions Black culture had made to society. Ellington stated repeatedly to other musicians that he considered this Black culture to be the inspiration behind everything he played and wrote. But of course Ellington was an entertainer, one who came of age at a time when “rocking the boat” could not only end your career but potentially your life. While his heritage was of paramount importance to him, Duke largely refrained from making overt political statements. But it was all there in his music.

CM: We only know a few of the tunes the band played at the Winnipeg date. But happily we have access to almost the whole concert in Fargo the next night. What strikes you about the Ellington “book” as it was on display at these two concerts?

BC: To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything especially remarkable about what the band played. It’s primarily a selection of pieces recently recorded for Victor along with older Ellington hits that had already become staples of his book. There are also a few current pops scattered into the Fargo set list (eg. “Ferryboat Serenade,” “Call of the Canyon”), the kind of things all bands played to satisfy the dancers. A number of the pieces on the Fargo recording are extended beyond what could fit into the limits of the 78 rpm records of the day, but again many bands, certainly the jazz oriented outfits, would do the same thing. One thing that’s of some note is that Ellington wasn’t afraid to program something like “Ko-Ko” into his dance sets. This minor key blues has become a favorite of jazz scholars. There certainly weren’t many other bands playing pieces like that in 1940!

CM: The local Tribune reviewer commented that, “no band ever was so much the voice of one man.” How did Ellington mould the band into a tight unit that expressed the sound he wanted?

BC: Excellent question Catherine! But I’m not sure that “tight unit” is exactly the right phrase! The Ellington band was long known as one of the loosest bands around. Cootie Williams in later years said that one of the things he enjoyed about playing with Benny Goodman is that the band was disciplined and well-organized. He contrasted that with the Ellington band, which could be remarkably sloppy at times. Critic George Simon also remarked on the fact that the Ellington band could be wildly inconsistent … terrific one night and disinterested the next. But there was method to Ellington’s seeming lack of discipline. He wanted the band to be relaxed and loose, feeling that this was the best way to get the kind of results he was looking for. Clearly it worked for him. The result was a virtually uncontrollable band of prima donnas, but you can hardly say it was a mistake considering the decades’ worth of classic recordings Ellington produced.

This isn’t addressing the real point of your question though, which is why did the Ellington band reflect Duke’s own personality so thoroughly. I think the answer is fairly obvious … Ellington composed much of the music his band played and arranged a great deal of it himself. There weren’t many other bandleaders at that time who could make that claim. As a result Ellington had unparalleled control over the sound of his orchestra. Of course Ellington did use outside arrangers from time to time, but he certainly had long since established the sound and style of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

CM: Ellington’s long musical partnership with composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn was still in its infancy when the band played Winnipeg in 1940. Looking at the tunes played in Fargo, and the few we know they played in Winnipeg, do you see Strayhorn’s influence at work? 

BC: The answer is…. not really. But that’s part of what made Strayhorn such a good collaborator for Ellington … he was willing and able to submerge his own musical personality in order to keep the Ellington sound uppermost. And we shouldn’t forget that it WAS the Ellington sound! There are times when I read about the Strayhorn/Ellington partnership and am astonished that the author makes it sound as though Strayhorn was somehow carrying Ellington; that Strays was the guy with all the talent and Duke was riding on his coattails. By the time Strayhorn joined the organization, Ellington had long since established his own unique world of sound. Strayhorn no doubt studied Duke’s work and absorbed his methods before making his own contributions. Of course I don’t want to minimize Strayhorn either. No question he had better training than Ellington, who was self-taught as an arranger/composer, and I’m sure he was able to show Duke a few things of his own. But by and large Strayhorn seems to have been content to fit into the established Ellington style without calling attention to himself. Some of the guys in the band used to say that they could tell Strayhorn’s work apart from Ellington’s. Perhaps Strayhorn was using some different harmonic ideas or voicing the sections differently. But you’d have to be pretty intimate with that music in order to tell the two men’s work apart. By 1940 Strayhorn hadn’t had a lot of time to start making his own contributions, and even if he had one would be hard-pressed to figure out exactly what they were. So no, I don’t hear Strayhorn’s influence in the 1940 Fargo recordings … but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there to some degree!

CM: It’s clear from the local reporting of the Winnipeg date that the Ellington band was still very much regarded as a dance band, though the crowd that just wanted to listen was increasing. How did the necessity of playing for dancers affect Ellington’s writing and the band’s style?

BC: Playing for dancing was the primary job of all big bands in 1940. Though there had been occasional jazz concerts since about 1936, big bands on one-nighters like the ones Ellington played in Winnipeg and Fargo in 1940 were mostly concerned with pleasing the dancers. There were occasions when bands would take part in stage shows in theaters, at which time they could trot out certain material that might not be suitable for terpsichorean interpretation. But the bread-and-butter of the big bands was and would remain the dancing crowd.

One of the primary impacts this made on all big bands was in the area of tempo. One had to keep the music danceable, and that meant staying mostly within a certain range of tempos. Some bandleaders made use of this limitation to create certain effects. For example, Tommy Dorsey was well known for playing a flag-waver during a dance set, an up-tempo piece that was too fast for all but the most determined jitterbugs. This would cause the dancers to stop twirling and crowd around the bandstand. Dorsey would then follow this up with a slow romantic ballad or two. The contrast would always have the desired effect of getting the kids (much of the audience for the big bands consisted of young people; this was after all the pop music of the day) snuggling happily away. No doubt many bandleaders engaged in similar practices. Certainly when programming a set any good leader would have to include a range of tempos, as well as perhaps remembering to throw in a Latin number or two (eg. “Caravan” or “Pyramid”) so that dancers could show off some of their fancier steps.

It’s interesting to see how tempos changed over the years. When Bix Beiderbecke recorded “I’m Coming, Virginia” in 1927 with the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer it was considered a ballad. Listened to today, the performance is a rather jaunty medium tempo. Ballads did get slower over the years, though when we listen today to bands playing their slower numbers for dancers they don’t seem all that slow. Again, one had to keep it danceable. If you didn’t, chances are the public wouldn’t come out to your dance dates. We sometimes like to think of Ellington creating great art for its own sake, but if you wanted to keep your band going you had to please the people. Particularly during the heyday of the big bands, that meant pleasing the dancers… playing tempos people could dance to, playing a selection of current popular hits, featuring a vocalist because people would rather hear the words instead of listening to abstract “jam sessions”. All bands were subject to these limitations. The amazing thing is that so much music of lasting worth was created, sometimes because musicians like Ellington would push the boundaries from time to time, respecting their audiences enough to challenge them occasionally instead of keeping the music simple.

One might get the impression that playing for dancers was an imposition on the bands. I’m sure it was at times (Artie Shaw for one hated it), but many of the great bandleaders preferred playing for dancing to playing concerts. There was feedback from the dancers, an energy that the musicians picked up on. As the bands would dig in and start swinging, so would the dancers. This often had the effect of inspiring the players. It was a synergy, something that simply didn’t exist in the same way with an audience seated in a concert hall. Much of the music Ellington created was written with the dancers in mind.

One limitation that playing for dancing imposed on Ellington and others was the need to keep a constant tempo going. One could sometimes play games with the dancers by going fast/slow or slow/fast within a song in the same way that Dorsey did it within a set, but in the main once you started a given tune the idea was to keep the tempo settled from start to finish. When Ellington began writing extended concert pieces he was able to make use of more variety in this area.

An interesting aspect was the way Ellington began writing these extended pieces so early, even at a time when playing for dancing was still the primary function of the band. In 1940 it was still a three-minute world, the approximate length of one side of a 78 rpm record. In 1931 Duke recorded his “Creole Rhapsody”, a piece that extended over both sides of a 78. Shaken by the death of his mother in 1935, Ellington recorded “Reminiscing in Tempo”, a twelve minute piece which covered four sides. It’s a mark of the respect Ellington enjoyed that he was permitted to record something so personal and outside the mainstream. A piece taking up two sides of a record was still a great rarity; a four-sided composition by a so-called “popular performer” may well have been unprecedented. By 1943 Duke was well and truly embarked on his extended pieces, premiering “Black, Brown and Beige” at the first of his annual Carnegie Hall concerts. It’s disappointing but instructive to note that critical reaction to each of these early extended compositions was less than positive. Even respected writers fell into the “it isn’t jazz” trap. Perhaps it wasn’t, but then who said it had to be? And how did they define what jazz was? I suppose anything so different from Ellington’s standard output invited these puzzled reactions. Success can be a prison, as the public and the critics bridle when a performer explores new directions. Often, once you’ve done something people like, they’d prefer that you simply give them more of the same…. until they tire of it and tune you out. Having an extended career in show business is always a tricky balancing act, keeping the public happy while at the same time exploring one’s creative urges. Duke Ellington was continually creative right up to end of his life while carving out a legendary career. He was truly one of the towering figures in the history of music.

Here are links to two 1940 performances by the Duke Ellington Orchestra

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDtBsBX7KoY Ellington in Fargo featuring Ben Webster on “Stardust”. Four minutes of inspired improvisation. The debt to Coleman Hawkins is obvious, but we all have to start somewhere! Webster was also learning a lot by listening to his Ellington section-mate Johnny Hodges. By 1940 Webster was well on his way to synthesizing his various models and becoming one of the great tenor saxophone voices of all time. Webster especially liked this recording from the famous Fargo date and got a copy on an acetate disc from Jack Towers, one of the men who recorded the dance. He’d play it for friends for the rest of his life. Whenever a copy of the acetate wore out, Ben would contact Towers and get a new one!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7onbib31S0 “In A Mellotone”. Ellington live in Chicago a few months before playing Fargo. Cootie Williams was still in the band and is featured to advantage here along with Johnny Hodges on alto. This shows off the kind of casual virtuosity that was everywhere in the big band era. And what a wonderful loping tempo! This must have been a real pleasure to dance to. And yet it’s a great piece of music that stands on its own merits, an example of how the need to create music for dancing was no hindrance to creative minds like Duke Ellington’s.