Some things stand alone. Some things you can't compare to anything else. Some things are just plain brilliant and in a league all themselves. One such thing is the Duke Ellington Orchestra of the late '30's/early '40s. This group is best known for the pioneering work of bassist Jimmy Blanton and the great tenor sax of Ben Webster, hence it's often referred to as "The Blanton/Webster Band". But there are also major contributions by Duke's right-hand man Billy Strayhorn (they should really call it the "Blanton/Webster/Strayhorn Band!"), and we can't overlook the exceptional efforts of well-known Ellingtonians like Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Juan Tizol, Ray Nance... hell, how can I stop there?! EVERYBODY in this band was exceptional, and it is probably the best crew that Duke ever assembled during his long career. For those of you who haven't listened to much Ellington before, the complilation The Blanton/Webster Years is a great place to start. Ultimately, you should investigate the many decades and periods of Duke's music (spanning 5 decades - from the '20s to the '70s!), but if you want to hear what Duke was all about in one shot, this is the collection for you. It is a reasonably-priced 3 CD set (I paid $22 for mine), contains over 3 hours of music, and comes with an informative booklet with a fine essay by the late great jazz scholar Mark Tucker that will provide you with some good historical perspective and track by track analysis. He sums up what makes Duke and his band so special when he writes:
"By the late 1930s, Duke Ellington had carved out a unique position in American musical life. He was well-known and respected as the leader of a big band... Like other famous bandleaders, he played in his own orchestra, traveled widely with it and appeared often before the public in person, over the radio and on records. But unlike these other leaders, Ellington wrote (or arranged) nearly all the music his orchestra played. Many bands had staff arrangers who performed the time-consuming task of keeping libraries filled with new music. Ellington, however, undertook much of this work himself."
Indeed, he undertook it with passion, enlisting the help of the man who became one of the most important person in Duke's life - Billy Strayhorn. Best known for his classic compositions like "Take the A Train", "Lush Life" and "Satin Doll," Strayhorn not only created brilliant original pieces for the band but also was one of the best arrangers who ever lived. When you couple his skills with those of Duke, you end up with an unbeatable team of two great pianists, composers, and arrangers who knew how to utilize every part of the orchestra to create every imaginable type of texture and groove. For this alone, the Ellington orchestra should be and is revered as the premier and most influential jazz orchestra. And we haven't even considered Blanton and Webster yet!
Bassist Jimmy Blanton joined the band at the age of 21 and played with Duke for barely two years before leaving the band because of illness and tragically dying of tuberculosis at the age of 23. But in that short time he changed not only the role of the bass in Jazz but how Jazz was played. Duke himself put it best when he said:
"Jimmy Blanton revolutionized bass playing, and it has not been the same since. No one had played from the same perspective before. He played melodies that belonged to the bass and always had a foundation quality. Rhythmically he supported and drove at the same time. He was just too much. We were doing wonderfully with him. He had given us something new, a new beat and new sounds."
As for Ben Webster, suffice it to say that he is one of the all-time great tenor saxophonists, and would be considered so even if he hadn't have played with Duke. Fortunately, he did play with Duke, and he brought with him an influence and inspiration that spurred an already-great band on to even more greatness. Many of the band members had been with Duke for years by the time Webster signed on, and his fresh ideas and energy were just what they needed to spur them on to new and greater things. Even when he's not a featured soloist, Webster's participation as a ensemble player helped fuel a new fire within the band.
Though the contributions of Strayhorn, Blanton and Webster are at the forefront, the other musicians involved all play vital roles, and what Duke and his crew created stands as a pivotal bridge between "Swing" and "Bebop" or "Modern Jazz". The influence of thisgroup can't be underestimated. Just listen to Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey or John Coltrane after you've listened to Duke and the boys, and you'll hear what I mean!
It's hard to believe that this band accomplished so much in just a couple of years. Clearly, it was always a challenge for Duke to keep a band going, especially with all the constant touring they had to do just to earn a living. Of course, the beautiful irony is that because they played so much and in so many different situtations and venues, this made them an incredibly tight unit. Even though all the travel took it's toll, it did result in the creation of masterful music. It's almost as if they were destined to be together for a short intense time. Just like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's group of 1945, Hank Williams' Driftin' Cowboys, Miles Davis' early '60s Quintet, or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Duke's Blanton/Webster band burned hard, fast and bright. Fortunately for us, they made these wonderful recordings, and we can still hear their magic. Do yourself a favor and check it out!
Catch you on the flip side -