(During the 2020 pandemic I had time to organize my library and listen to things I hadn’t taken off the shelf in years.)
Stanley Dance was born in England in 1910 and went on to be one of the most important writers and advocates for American music. Dance’s name turns up frequently in the literature about Duke Ellington and Earl Hines, for Dance traveled with the Elllington band, organized Ellington’s memoir Music is My Mistress, and started managing and promoting Hines in 1964.
His wife, Helen Oakely Dance, was a similarly-minded jazz fan and critic. She introduced Teddy Wilson to Benny Goodman and produced recordings of small-band Ellingtonia before she met her future husband, and eventually wrote the biography of T-Bone Walker.
There’s an interesting bit from The Ellington Web about Music is My Mistress:
STANLEY DANCE SPEAKS:
…He had arrived at a public position where it would have been very damaging for any other artist in the field, for instance, if Duke truly said what he thought about them. And, although that is something that we would all like to know – what Duke truly thought of his competitors, et cetera, the only thing I know about is that he had me prepare some lists of musicians in different areas and we’d go through them and he’d say “We don’t have to have him, do we?” I said, “No, ” and when we came to write Music Is My Mistress – despite an inference at last year’s Conference that I wrote it – he wrote it on, I think it’s been said, on hotel stationery, napkins, toilet rolls – and all sorts of things – and what I had to do: I learned to read his handwriting better than he could read it himself; and I had to sort of get it typed up, and then he would go through it and correct it.
There was very little typing done in that book at all; and as – I think Carter was quite right in emphasizing the fact that Duke’s speech, manner of speaking, tone of voice – was so important that you can’t really capture that in print. Nobody could say the word jazz with more contempt and scorn than Duke did, as you heard.
Now, going back to telling the truth in Music Is My Mistress: I think Duke told the truth but when we first got the finished copies, he looked at it – and he was well content with the fatness of it – and he said, “Well, now we’ve got the good book; now we’ll write the bad book.”
Well, of course, he had no intention of doing that, but Music Is My Mistress doesn’t really say any old word of anyone and so some people – many people with evil minds will regret that, but there is one thing what I would say about that: some of the people that were left out or underemphasized – that was done deliberately and you couldn’t draw certain evaluations from that, I think, but my part in that was really quite accidental.
We were at the Rainbow Grill and the Reverend Weicker, the brother of the senator or congressman from Connecticut was there, and he had brought Mr. Doubleday, and Doubleday said to Duke, “Well, when are we going to have your autobiography?”
And Duke said, “Well, what’s it worth, Mr. Doubleday?”
He said, “Fifty thousand,” which at that time was quite a group of cash, you see. I was there and Duke said, “And that’s conditional on Stanley having five thousand to write it with me.”
Among Stanley Dance’s other books are The World of Earl Hines and The World of Duke Ellington. From a 2020 point of view, I occasionally regret that Dance wasn’t a musician. On the other hand, if Dance had been full of DTM-style inquiry, Ellington and Hines might have kept him at arm’s length.
To his credit, Dance never says anything incorrect, he gets it all right, including some fairly technical details. Thanks to Dance we know that Ellington would frequently quote the comment of a prospective sideman at an audition: “Yeah, I can read, but I don’t let it interfere with my blowing.” (This quote is actually is from the Hines book.)
Both The World of Earl Hines and The World of Duke Ellington are romantic. Ellington and Hines were conquering heroes, men who beat the odds and touched people all over the globe forevermore.
That’s Stanley Dance’s point.
It’s a good point.
As the titles suggest, the books are not just about the stars but also the associates. In the Hines book there are 19 detailed interviews with prominent figures like Dizzy Gillespie and Teddy Wilson and — perhaps even more important since their bibliography is smaller — less famous but still key personalities like Cliff Smalls and Jimmy Mundy.
In the Ellington book there are 29 interview/profiles with varied personalities ranging from the first drummer, Sonny Greer, to the last singer, Alice Babs. Ellington jokes in the forward that, “I am sure that he has not revealed more than he ought,” but, even so, Dance left us with some profound wisdom from some of the greatest musicians.
Dance had a reputation for not liking modern jazz, but that didn’t stop him from doing what was right. When assigned McCoy Tyner for a DownBeat feature, Dance typed up interview verbatim, which remains the only Tyner interview from the time when Tyner was working with John Coltrane. (It’s reprinted in the DTM essay “McCoy Tyner’s Revolution.”)
One of my very first Duke Ellington records was the 1978 Time-Life Giants of Jazz anthology put together by Stanley Dance and Dan Morgenstern. This 3-LP set is still a good listen. Dance and Morgenstern focus on the early years, perhaps because in 1978, music from the LP era would be easier to find. All but two tracks are from 1942 or earlier.
The Ellington discography is vast. It’s like Bach: There’s so much there, it’s impossible to learn it all. A fan almost needs another lifetime of listening and study dedicated to one topic, either Bach or Ellington. (I seriously doubt one person could command both.)
Dance and Morgenstern really knew their Ellington. They started collecting when the 78s were new and paid attention to each later reissue. Therefore, their ruling on what constitutes the best of the first 16 years of Ellington has weight.
In the booklet, Dance gives a long overview of Ellington and Morgenstern handles the track-by-track commentary.
My own casual observations while listening to this utterly essential music:
— East St. Louis Toodle-oo (1926). Bubber Miley’s plunger trumpet was a crucial voice for the early band. Amusing to hear the loud tuba and banjo. The woodwind trio is thrilling. Mystery, the evocation of the unknown.
— Creole Love Call (1927). An early example of Duke changing one bar of harmony in the 12 bar form to unforgettable effect. In those days the straight triad was crucial to the blues. A wordless vocal by Adelaide Hall is immortal, and this must be one of Bubber Miley’s finest choruses on open horn.
— Black And Tan Fantasie (1927). More blues, but in minor. After a transition passage, we are home for several straight choruses. Miley is supreme, but Duke gets a valuable solo passage as well.
— Black And Tan Fantasy (1927). The hand of the curators is evident in two different “Black and Tans” back to back, this one a shade slower, and featuring the great Jabbo Smith instead of Miley. Tricky Sam Nanton is another name that evokes a whole way of viewing music.
— Black Beauty (1928). A really good tune played by Arthur Whetsol. These are the first notes from Barney Bigard on record. Bassist Wellman Braud has a few bars of double-time. (I also admire the early Ellington solo piano performance of “Black Beauty.”)
— Jubilee Stomp (1928). Uptempo and exciting, this minor-key novelty number is perhaps hampered by Otto Hardwick’s outdated saxophone. The unison ensemble passages really stomp.
— Yellow Dog Blues (1928). Now this is what I’m talking about: A reimagining of a W.C. Handy classic that still sounds fresh today. Timeless music. Johnny Hodges makes a debut on soprano saxophone, Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam are there too. Beautiful. My favorite of 1920’s Ellington.
— Hot And Bothered (1928). After the complex intro, Duke writes advances variations on “Tiger Rag.” The fast ensemble figures prefigure bebop. Bigard’s feature is strikingly virtuosic.
— The Mooche (1928). “Jungle music.” A gorgeous opening theme dissolves into the grimmest blues, where the choruses alternate major and minor. Braud bows his bass in a kind of lurching gait. This is already a masterpiece, but later versions with a more modern feel in the rhythm section are even more compelling.
— Shout Em, Aunt Tillie (1930). Further minor key strains in a somewhat “jungle” vein. The blues choruses have unusual piano comping.
— Ring Dem Bells (1930). The chimes are rung by 16-year old Charlie Barnet. Harry Carney gets a short solo, somewhat herky-jerky in style. Morgenstern says this track is very swinging. He’s right, but it’s also obvious that these cats haven’t heard the Kansas City music of Count Basie, Lester Young, and Jo Jones yet.
— Mood Indigo (1930). A familiar tune, still fresh in its first iteration.
— Rockin’ In Rhythm (1930). Duke just sits in C major. Perfect. Cootie Williams on trumpet sounds a bit more modern than most of the other soloists yet so far. Nanton blows so high on his horn that I don’t always instantly know if it’s him or a trumpeter at the start of his plunger passages.
— It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) (1932). The first recording of this anthem is a bit diffuse. Nice Ivie Anderson vocal but the arrangement goes a few needlessly complex places. I couldn’t recognize Hodges on alto here, the feel is so “early jazz.” The ending is pure genius.
— Baby, When You Ain’t There (1932). A spectacular blues with fabulous solos and truly astonishing instrumental colors in the accompaniment.
— Bugle Call Rag (1933). A trad jazz standard gets some modernist touches. Wellman Braud and Sonny Greer make a real impact.
— Merry Go Round (1933). Uptempo feel good music. The scroll just unrolls. On so many of these early Ellington pieces, the first sections have 8-bar phrases before the band settles into the 12-bar blues for solos. Towards the end there are some avant garde harmonies.
— Harlem Speaks (1933). Recorded in England, the band cooks away on a C major riff piece. The Duke Ellington band is starting to loosen up and swing even more.
— In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree (1933). Morgenstern writes that this old chestnut was the earliest tune Ellington could remember hearing. One for Tricky Sam Nanton fans. The last chorus of written variation is stunning; the whole track is amusing.
— Merry Go Round (1935). Another version of the chart already heard above. The ten years so far chart the evolution of rhythmic feel. At this point the parts are played in a more relaxed fashion and the phrasing takes more risks overall. Rex Stewart makes his first appearance.
— Truckin’ (1935). The introduction to this novelty number has two bassists slapping up a storm, Hayes Alvis and Billy Taylor. Ben Webster appears and plays a memorable chorus. Morgenstern writes that Dexter Gordon took up the tenor sax thanks to this wonderful track.
— Clarinet Lament (Barney’s Concerto) (1936). In 1936 the band’s individual personalities are going to become even more central to the sound, and the undisputed masterpieces are going to start coming in bunches. Barney Bigard’s NOLA clarinet is perfectly framed in this luxuriant “concerto.”
— Echoes Of Harlem (Cootie’s Concerto) (1936). Cootie Williams tells his noir story over an ominous vamp. The chorale in the sax section has some truly mysterious movements.
— Caravan (1937). Juan Tizol’s famous tune got better in time, but this early performance is still entrancing, with Sonny Greer using mallets and woodblocks. The surreal ending is perfect.
— I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart (1938). Ellington’s swinging piano intro is worth the price of admission. This is the first track on this set with the kind of surreal keyboard interjections that would be so important to the band’s identity in later years.
— Sophisticated Lady (1940). Not the first recording of this tune, but a good one, at a medium dance tempo and Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges as featured soloists. Hodges has grown into his thing. Lawrence Brown gives a long sustained note at the end, a special effect that will go permanently into the book.
— Jack The Bear (1940). And here is Jimmie Blanton. Unbelievable. The magician of the bass. Thelonious Monk surely paid attention to Ellington’s dissonant piano on this impossibly swinging chart. By this time these cats were able to study the Kansas City musicians, and the overall Ellington groove had deepened considerably.
— Ko-Ko (1940). Side five was what I listened to most, all tracks from 1940, and you can hardly blame me. Much future jazz is foreshadowed by “Ko-Ko”: Art Blakey, Horace Silver, John Coltrane, Eddie Harris, etc. etc. Ellington’s out-of-key piano punctuations are still avant-garde 80 years later.
— Concerto For Cootie (1940). Another surprise is how different “Concerto For Cootie” is from the later hit song “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me.” The connection is just one curlicue of melody, everything else is unique to the “Concerto.”
— Cotton Tail (1940). Amazing this is before bebop. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were certainly paying attention, not to mention transitional figures like Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. The Ben Webster solo is famous, but the horn solis are even more shocking.
— Never No Lament (1940). When we learn the “easy” versions of Ellington’s music, so much gets left out. “Never No Lament” is way more subtle and idiosyncratic than almost anyone covering “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” since. At the moment, “Never No Lament” might be my favorite 1940 Ellington chart…
— Harlem Air Shaft (1940) …but as a kid, “Harlem Air Shaft” was my favorite Ellington track, I loved Sonny Greer’s audible drum breaks. Whole chart is a masterpiece, of course.
— In A Mellotone (1940). Duke’s opening quartal piano voicings became one of the most important strands of DNA in all jazz piano since. In the improvisations there’s an astonishing amount double-time: surely not too many others were going for pure speed like this in 1940. The call and response with Cootie versus the saxes is pretty surreal, and Hodges plays many, many notes. It’s not totally comfortable from the horns, hardly a “mellow” vibe, although the rhythm section is appropriately relaxed.
— Warm Valley (1940). An erotic masterpiece, with Hodges in his proper role as grand seducer. The harmonic sequences are far flung and the last piano chord is mysterious.
–– Take The “A” Train (1941) All aboard with new faces Billy Strayhorn and Ray Nance. So great. Again, little of the original complexity is common practice.
— I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good (1941). Ivie Anderson sings the famous ballad (with famously awkward leaps) beautifully. Duke tinkles on celeste behind the rich woodwind chords.
— Perdido (1942). Look out for that piano intro! Total Thelonious Monk! As is so often the case, the wonderful members take turns with short features over varied backgrounds (a strange set of unison half-notes in the background is also quite Monkish). Morgenstern’s notes are very helpful when giving the solo order, but nobody need guess whenever Ben Webster appears.
— C Jam Blues (1942). The four bar break attached to the blues form is pure Duke. One last time, a roll call of soloist from these glory years: Ray Nance, Rex Stewart, Ben Webster, Tricky Sam Nanton, Barney Bigard. Credit also to Jimmie Blanton and two professionals of swing that had been there a long time, Sonny Greer and guitarist Freddie Guy.
— Rockabye River (1946.) A “jungle” piece like “The Mooche” with great Hodges and a 1946 band that is even more indomitable in rhythmic authority. In general, the Ellington band swung harder down through the years; those that declare the “Blanton-Webster” band to be Duke’s best music are missing out.
— Jeep’s Blues (1956) Duke shows he’s been listening to Horace Silver as he joins Sam Woodyard and Jimmy Woode in surreal blues at Newport. Hodges played better all the time, too: This is peerless alto saxophone by any standard. It ends on F dominant, but Duke chimes repeated B-flats, an unanswered question and a good conclusion to set.
Of the older jazz pianists, Earl Hines had the longest and most productive career as a soloist. Hines was a naturally avant-garde player to begin with, and didn’t need to change anything in his concept to stay relevant. Andrew Hill credited Hines for giving him a basic direction in music.
My first Earl Hines record was the 1970 collaboration with Paul Gonsalves, It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing. In the first paragraph of the liner notes, Stanley Dance is credited for arranging the session. Gonsalves was a key Ellington musician and much of the repertoire for the date is Ellingtonia, with the notable exception of “Moten Swing.” That Basie-related piece is surely a tip of the hat to the honored drummer present, Papa Jo Jones. Bassist Al Hall — who was reportedly the first African-American musician allowed into the pit of white Broadway shows in the late 1940s — completes the ensemble.
Apparently Stanley Dance coined the term “mainstream” for this kind of music. Fine. On the surface, this music is simply mainstream swinging jazz….but under the hood, it actually seriously strange. Hines is goofy player, intentionally so, and Gonsalves is nothing if not surreal.
— It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing). Almost 11 minutes of pure madness in F Minor. The time almost derails as Hines grabs for anything and everything, but Jo Jones keeps the band in check with a smile. They clearly didn’t rehearse. Perhaps Hines gives a few cues. The ending is disaster until it’s not. Gonsalves is such an angel, playing a motivic solo with soul, completely unexpected notes, and the most warm sonority imaginable. Dewey Redman doesn’t sound like this in the slightest, but somehow Gonsalves and Redman are in the same family.
— Over the Rainbow. A Gonsalves cadenza sets up one perfect chorus of wistful stargazing.
— What Am I Here For? This kind of basic Ellington tune fares best when the interpreters can jump in and personalize the material from the git-go. Not a problem with this band! A few times the saxophonist holds a low note and the pianist deliberately plays the most dissonant stuff against it.
— Moten Swing. Jo Jones sets it up, soft sticks on a muted tom, then to high hat for scattershot piano ruminations, before a solo on the rims. Tune starts again with sax, Papa Jo is back to the toms. Damn, does Jones sound great on this date. This LP is must for Jo Jones fans. Gonsalves nods at bebop during his brilliant improvisation. Behind him, Hines is a rambunctious big band, amazing. What a vibe! It’s too good, I can’t stand it. Again, Hines totally derails the ending.
— Blue Sands. A Hines original, solo, borrowed from a 1972 session. Sounds like a much earlier tune, but this is the only recording. Gorgeous. Hines stays close to the theme throughout but colors the music in a variety of ways.
— I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good. First chorus looks tentatively around in F major with basement rumbles, second chorus moves to G and Hines doubles down on wild virtuoso flourishes. A final bump up to A-flat and it’s time for Gonsalves to make our dreams come true.