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Duke's Men: Ellington's Loyal Improvisers

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Duke Ellington (left of center) poses with some of his sidemen in 1946, including Junior Raglin, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Sonny Greer, Fred Guy and Harry Carney. i i

Duke Ellington (left of center) poses with some of his sidemen in 1946, including Junior Raglin, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Sonny Greer, Fred Guy and Harry Carney. William Gottlieb/Library of Congress via Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption William Gottlieb/Library of Congress via Flickr
Duke Ellington (left of center) poses with some of his sidemen in 1946, including Junior Raglin, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Sonny Greer, Fred Guy and Harry Carney.

Duke Ellington (left of center) poses with some of his sidemen in 1946, including Junior Raglin, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Sonny Greer, Fred Guy and Harry Carney.

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

Cover for Essential Duke Ellington [Sony]

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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Song
Mooche
Album
Essential Duke Ellington [Sony]
Artist
Duke Ellington
Label
Sony
Released
2005

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Cover for Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band

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.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Jack the Bear
Album
Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band
Artist
Duke Ellington
Label
Bluebird RCA
Released
2003

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Cover for Great Paris Concert [Atlantic]

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.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Echoes of Harlem [Live][*]
Album
Great Paris Concert [Atlantic]
Artist
Duke Ellington
Label
Atlantic
Released
1963

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Cover for Ellington at Newport

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.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Jeep's Blues
Album
Ellington at Newport
Artist
Duke Ellington
Label
Columbia
Released
1956

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Cover for Duke Ellington at the Alhambra

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.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Frustration
Album
Duke Ellington at the Alhambra
Artist
Duke Ellington
Label
Pablo Records
Released
2002

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

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