Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington, with probable revisions in Duke’s original arrangement by Mercer Ellington.
Recorded by Mercer Ellington with The Duke Ellington Orchestra for Fantasy on May 12, 1975 in New York City.
Mercer Ellington, directing: James “Buddy” Bolden, Barry Lee Hall, Willie Singleton and Charles Melvin “Cootie” Williams, trumpets; Chuck Connors, Vincent Prudente and Art Baron, trombones; Harold Minerve and Maurice Simon, alto saxophones; Bill Easley and Ricky Ford, tenor saxophones; Percy Marion, baritone saxophone; Lloyd Mayers, piano; Edward Ellington, II, guitar; J.J.Wiggins, bass; Quinten “Rocky” White, drums.
The story: My admiration for the music of Duke Ellington is boundless. Many people know only of Duke as the composer of “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and other fine melodies that have entered the mainstream of great American Popular Song. Duke was a great composer, and very many of his greatest compositions, though they are not widely known by mainstream audiences, are well-known to jazz fans and aficionados of Duke’s music. Included in this category are: “Cotton Tail,” Duke’s refashioning of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” which was originally a showcase for the robust tenor saxophone playing of Ben Webster; “Concerto for Cootie,” a miniature concerto written for trumpeter Cootie Williams; the romping, earthy “Harlem Airshaft,” which celebrates the human condition as played out in countless Harlem apartment buildings in the late 1930s, and on and on. Ellington’s ouevre is enormous and varied. But what I discovered long ago is that no matter how brilliant many of Duke’s compositions and/or arrangements were (he was also a founding father of a school of swing arrangers), the very center of his brilliance lay in his mastery of the blues idiom. The number of Ducal blues masterworks is staggering: “Creole Love Call,” “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” “Ko-Ko,” “Across the Tracks Blues,” and “Rocks in My Bed,” are only a few among many of his most prominent blues triumphs. Perhaps the most emblematic of all Ellington blues successes, “Mood Indigo,” which he co-composed with the clarinetist Barney Bigard, caught the fancy of listeners with Duke’s haunting blend of instruments as much as with the melody itself. (See the links below for access to a number of Duke’s greatest performances and compositions.)
What makes Duke’s creativity in the blues idiom even more remarkable is that from a musical standpoint, the blues provides a composer (and an improvising musician), with what is actually a rather limited set of possibilities within which to work. Paradoxically (and delightfully!), the blues has inspired and continues to inspire seemingly inexhaustible opportunities for heartfelt expression for all who work within its confines.
Another of Duke’s blues successes was “Time’s-a-Wastin’,” which is presented elsewhere on this blog. (To find it, simply type “Time’s-a-Wastin'” in the search box at the upper right.)The definitive story of how “Time’s-a-Wastin” came into existence has not been told. At least if it has been, I am unaware of it. What I am aware of however, is that a recording was made on July 3, 1941 by Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra (really a small group of musicians drawn from the Ellington big band, featuring the alto sax playing of Johnny Hodges, an incandescent blues player), that was called “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” that is essentially the same tune as “Time’s-a-Wastin.” Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son, who in the late 1930s and early 1940s was learning about music (at Juilliard) and about Ellington music (from Duke), later reported: “My father called me at about three in the morning and said ‘give me a blues for the last tune'” (to be recorded the following afternoon at the Hodges recording session.) Mercer showed up at the recording session “…with a little piece of paper with a few notes scratched on it for Johnny Hodges. I guess Duke was pleased with it. He didn’t say anything, and when he says nothing that means it’s OK.”(1) (Johnny Hodges is shown above right.)
The dynamic between Duke and the musicians in his band was complicated. Suffice it to say that when he and they performed together for 50 or more weeks a year, year after year, a good bit of musical cross-pollination usually occurred. Duke, like many great composers before him (including J.S.Bach and W.A.Mozart), was a master musical recycler. Snippets of composition A (or of an improvisation by an Ellington sideman) often reappeared in a different context in Ellington compositions B, C, or D. By the mid-1940s, Duke had made an arrangement of “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” for his big band, which he called “Time’s-a-Wastin.” To make this even more confusing, when Duke finally recorded his big band arrangement of this tune (for Victor on July 30 1945), he called it…”Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Whatever it was called, it sounded very much like that small group recording made by Johnny Hodges in 1941.
Time passed. The Ellington band had a hit with “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” They played it constantly. Audiences loved it. Knowing that he had a crowd-pleasing piece of music on his hands, and being a master musical recycler, Duke created a new piece of music out of an old one. By moving pieces of “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” around, and adding new opportunities for the jazz soloists in his band, he came up with a segment (or movement) of music within his Deep South Suite, presented at Carnegie Hall on November 23,1946, which he called “Happy-Go-Lucky Local.”(2) (This was the latest in Duke’s series of pieces evoking the joys of train travel, something he dearly loved.) In a sense, “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” is program music, with the chugging shuffle rhythm and screaming brass suggesting the music made by railroad steam engines of the first half of twentieth century.
By late fall 1946, Ellington now contracted with a new recording company, the upstart and sadly short-lived Musicraft label, was looking for a new twist on the blues to record. He lifted “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” out of the score for his Deep South Suite, and recorded it as a free-standing composition (on two sides of a ten-inch 78 rpm record) for Musicraft on November 26, 1946. Unfortunately, due to various problems with the manufacture and distribution of Musicraft records, Ellington’s “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” did not sell that well.
Time passed. Ellington found that audiences continued to love “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” but were less enthusiastic about “Happy-Go-Lucky Local.” Duke continued to play “Things Ain’t” for the rest of his life. He quietly retired “Happy-Go-Lucky Local”. Then in the early 1950s, Duke was shocked to hear his “Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” slightly revised, being played everywhere as a juke box hit called “Night Train.” Duke being Duke, did nothing about it until the statute of limitations for copyright infringement passed. Then he got mad once and for all, got over it, and went on composing new music and leading his band around the world.
Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974. After his death, his son Mercer confronted how best to deal with the Ellington legacy. Fortunately for Ellington fans, he decided to revitalize the Ellington orchestra, and make some recordings. Not surprisingly, one of those recordings was the blues his father asked him to put together only a few hours before a 1941 recording session. (Mercer Ellington is shown above right.)
The music: Pianist Lloyd Mayers plays the band on with two choruses of blues: the first has some churchy block chords. Notice how bassist J.J.Wiggins (now Hasan Shakur) falls in behind Mayers toward the end of chorus one. Drummer Rocky White gets the shuffle rhythm going nicely to support the piano and bass. As Mayers works his way through his second twelve-bar chorus, swing abounds. The saxophones pick up the chugging theme, with brass bursts suggesting the whistle of Duke’s feisty little train. Mayers has fun teasing the band along with funky piano tremolos. Then the saxes do the whistling, with lead trumpeter James Bolden’s providing the sparks flying out of the steam engine’s smoke stack.
The centerpiece of this performance is tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford’s romping and shouting six chorus solo, capped by a sensational cadenza at the end. Young Mr. Ford’s wonderful jazz solo demonstrates that in addition to his talent, he descended musically from the great big-toned, blues-saturated tenor saxophonists in jazz history, starting with Herschel Evans, through Buddy Tate and Illinois Jacquet. As demonstrated here beyond doubt, that tradition was obviously in good hands.
This recording was digitally transferred and remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) The Swing Era Postwar Years, Time-Life Books (1972), notes on the music by Joseph Kastner, page 60.
(2) The Deep South Suite” was presented at Carnegie Hall by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on November 23, 1946. It was the fifth annual Carnegie Hall concert presented by Ellington. The music presented was composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Although there has been considerable confusion over the years as to who wrote what as between Ellington and Strayhorn, I am confident that Ellington wrote “Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” which is the fourth and final movement of The Deep South Suite. (The seminal work Something to Live For..The Music of Billy Strayhorn, by Walter van de Leur, does a masterful job of untangling the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.)
Here are links to a number of Ellington’s greatest performances: