• 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.

    Duke's Men: Ellington's Loyal Improvisers

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      Bubber Miley And Tricky Sam Nanton

      Artist: Duke Ellington
      Album: Essential Duke Ellington [Sony]
      Song: Mooche

      Ellington's earliest brass players — trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton — innovated in the way they played their horns. The plunger mute allowed them to manipulate sound to mimic the human voice or create almost absurd, mocking tones. This worked in "The Mooche," which humorously depicted the racial drama at the legendary Cotton Club, where Ellington's "jungle sounds" entertained New York's elite audience of gangsters, whites and Negro celebrities. The horn and reed section, historian Marshall Stearns wrote, "growled, wheezed and snorted obscenely" during this sultry dance between a blonde woman and a muscular black man.

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      Jimmy Blanton

      Artist: Duke Ellington
      Album: Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band
      Song: Jack the Bear

      Before Jimmy Blanton, the bass merely provided pulse and texture to a large jazz ensemble's sound. Blanton, along with a few other bassists of his generation, boosted the profile and potential of his lowly string instrument. Ellington's decision to put the bass up front — in a featured soloist role — was radical for the time. Many say Blanton's running chromatic lines served as a precursor to bebop. Unfortunately, his legacy is mostly unknown; the bassist died from tuberculosis two years after this recording.

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      Cootie Williams

      Artist: Duke Ellington
      Album: Great Paris Concert [Atlantic]
      Song: Echoes of Harlem [Live][*]

      If you distinguished yourself enough in Ellington's orchestra, you may have gotten a tune (or two) named after you. Trumpeter Cootie Williams, who was the heir to Bubber Miley with the plunger, was so fortunate. He got two nods from The Maestro with "Tutti for Cootie" and, more famously, "Concerto for Cootie." "Concerto for Cootie" later evolved into another Williams showcase, "Echoes of Harlem." All three Williams features are on this recording, which demonstrate the perfect balance a jazz orchestra can have with an individual player.

      Hear "Echoes of Harlem" on Rhapsody.

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      Johnny Hodges

      Artist: Duke Ellington
      Album: Ellington at Newport
      Song: Jeep's Blues

      Duke Ellington was a genius of form, a master of composition in the 20th century, but how he elevated a simple blues to high art was mind-boggling. His treatment of "Jeep's Blues," named after one of his most important soloists of any era — Johnny Hodges — was deeply restrained. He left plenty of room for Hodges to bend notes to the heavens, allowing for the true gospel of the blues to shine down. The gods must have aligned at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, where Ellington professed his career "reborn." This best-selling record helped jump-start it again.

      Hear "Jeep's Blues" on Rhapsody.

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      Harry Carney

      Artist: Duke Ellington
      Album: Duke Ellington at the Alhambra
      Song: Frustration

      Harry Carney lived and died by Ellington. After turning 18, the baritone saxophonist joined Duke's band and stayed with him for 45 years until Ellington's death. On that day, Carney said, "This is the worst day of my life. Without Duke, I have nothing to live for." He died four months later. It's a shame Ellington's top confidante, even chauffeur at times, didn't get the royal treatment: a tune named in his honor. Nevertheless, he made the most of his opportunities.

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