Composed by Billy Strayhorn; arranged by Clare Fischer.
Recorded by Dizzy Gillespie on April 27-28, 1960 for Verve in New York City.
John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, trumpet, directing: Ray Alonge, Richard Berg, Joe Singer, French horns; Benny Green, trombone; Jay McAlister, tuba; Robert Di Domenica, flute; Ernest Bright, John Murtaugh, Paul Ritchie, Stan Webb, woodwinds; George Devens, vibraharp; Hank Jones, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Charli Persip, drums. Clare Fischer, arranger.
This wonderful performance by Dizzy Gillespie of a fine jazz composition by Billy Strayhorn is a salute to the masterful trumpeter recognizing the 100th anniversary of his birth. (*)
The Story: One is immediately struck by the oddity of the title for this piece. Why would Billy Strayhorn name one of his musical compositions using this rather strange series of letters? The first question everyone who has ever heard this composition for the first time asks is: what does U.M.M.G. stand for? The answer is: “Upper Manhattan Medical Group.” Why would Billy Strayhorn name one of his compositions after a medical group? The answer is a bit complicated.
Duke Ellington’s personal physician for many years (whom Duke would call from around the globe at all hours of the day and night), was Arthur Logan, M.D. Duke had many eccentricities, including hypochondria. One of Duke’s most famous and characteristic sayings was: “One does not know how one feels until one consults one’s physician.” Even though Arthur Logan was not a psychiatrist, he probably read many books on psychiatry in order to deal with Duke Ellington.
Billy Strayhorn, who was 16 years younger than Duke, looked upon Ellington as a father-figure/mentor in many ways. How they interacted musically over the twenty-seven years they were associated is at once magical and rather confusing for historians who try to understand that complicated yet most productive relationship. Essentially, in music, Duke was Duke, and Strayhorn was Strayhorn. They were separate musical identities whose work, nevertheless, sometimes intersected. But in a number of non-musical matters, Strayhorn followed Ellington’s lead. In the matter of choosing a personal physician, Strayhorn gradually came to know Arthur Logan and his wife Marian socially and politically. (The three of them were associates and supporters of Dr. Martin Luther King throughout the 1950s and 1960s.) Eventually, when Strayhorn felt he needed medical care, he consulted Logan as his physician. “U.M.M.G” therefore is an oblique dedication to Arthur Logan.
Like many people in the 1940s and 1950s in the U.S.A., Strayhorn smoked and drank too much. The cumulative effects of these unhealthy habits eventually, in the mid-1960s created major health challenges for Strayhorn, and led directly to his premature death in 1967 at age 51.
The music: Starting in the mid-1950s, Billy Strayhorn began to compose music that reflected bebop and cool jazz influences then much in the air. The tonally ambiguous, harmonically ambitious, and rhythmically varied “U.M.M.G” (composed in 1956) is a prime example of this. Although Duke Ellington’s band made a number of excellent recordings of this piece, this performance, featuring the provocative trumpet playing of Dizzy Gillespie, is one of the best extant. The musical fare here is like a steak dinner with all the trimmings for Gillespie, who had been working with musical materials like these for the previous fifteen years. He digs in and extracts all of the music from Strayhorn’s composition, adding his unique flourishes along the way. The arrangement, by Clare Fischer, which fits Strayhorn’s composition perfectly, is also superb. The band is comprised of classical and jazz musicians, and they work together beautifully to bring Fischer’s colorful, modernistic arrangement vividly to life. Also, don’t overlook the tasty, swinging piano solo and comping by Hank Jones.
Strayhorn wrote another piece that directly referred to the medical treatment he was receiving while he was dying, the searingly emotional “Blood Count,” which was his final composition. It will be presented here at swingandbeyond.com in the near future.
(*) John Birks Gillespie was born on October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
It is interesting to compare Dizzy’s performance on this recording with his U.M.M.G. performance the year before with Ellington on the “Jazz Party” album. Both performances are noteworthy, but I think his playing is more focused and better integrated with the Fischer chart. It is also interesting to compare this recording with Fischer’s 1969 Atlantic recording of U.M.M.G. with full big band instrumentation (and without Gillespie) on the “Thesaurus” album. In that recording, Fischer further develops the arranging concepts he used on the earlier chart and the results are truly outstanding! That being said, I still prefer Ellington’s 1956 Bethlehem recording with Willie Cook and his 1967 RCA recording with Clark Terry. I just don’t think you can top the Ellington band playing Strayhorn’s arrangements of his own compositions.