WBGO Blog
  • Duke's Men: Ellington's Loyal Improvisers

    April 12, 2011. Posted by Simon Rentner.

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    Cootie Williams of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. (Image Credit: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress via Flickr)

    Every successful big band leader featured brilliant soloists: Count Basie had Lester Young, Fletcher Henderson had Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman had Gene Krupa. But the Maestro, Duke Ellington, spotlighted his men apart from the rest.

    Ellington's soloists captured the spirit of his music. He wrote concertos, short- and long-form tunes, with his musicians in mind, allowing for their personality to shape the structure of the music. He specifically targeted his musicians' strengths — Johnny Hodges' seductiveness, Cootie Williams' bravado, Tricky Sam Nanton's humor — and accentuated those attributes. That's why musicians remained so loyal to him over the years, even at the expense of their own fame. He understood them and brought the best out of their playing. These tunes remind us why.

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  • At The Portland Jazz Festival, Delicate Issues And Joyful Audiences

    March 4, 2011. Posted by WBGO.

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    Clarinetist Don Byron leads his The Music of Mickey Katz project, with vocalist Jack Falk, at the Portland Jazz Festival in 2011. (Image Credit: Fran Kaufman/Courtesy of the Portland Jazz Festival)

    After 10 days of world-class performers, the 2011 Portland Jazz Festival wrapped up last weekend. WBGO blogger and production assistant Alex Rodriguez, a Portland, Ore. native, recently returned to his hometown for the event. He helps us make sense of this year's incarnation, themed "Bridges and Boundaries: Jewish and African Americans Playing Jazz Together."

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  • Choo Choo Boogaloo: Jazz For Trains

    March 1, 2011. Posted by Simon Rentner.

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    Panel No. 1 from Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series. The panel is titled: "During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans." (Image Credit: Courtesy of The Phillips Collection)

    Locomotives churning across America's vast open landscape provided plenty of fuel for jazz composers in the early 20th century. Railroads symbolized freedom, escape and opportunity for countless musicians, many of whom lived a vagabond lifestyle, always in pursuit of the next gig.

    During the Great Migration, millions of African-Americans packed their belongings and moved north by train in hopes of finding work. So it's only natural that train travel has historically occupied many black artists' imagination, perhaps most vividly in painter Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, pieces of which can be seen at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

    Over the years, hundreds of blues, folk and jazz songs have been dedicated to the allegory of the locomotive. Here are some of my favorites.

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