“Blue Reverie” (1937-38) Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert

“Blue Reverie”

Composed by Duke Ellington and Harry Carney; arranged by Duke Ellington.

Recorded by Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters for Variety on March 8-9, 1937 in New York.

Edward K. “Duke” Ellington, piano, directing: Charles M. “Cootie” Williams, trumpet; Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombone; John C. “Johnny” Hodges, soprano and alto saxophones; Harry H. Carney, baritone saxophone and clarinet; Hayes Alvis, bass; William A. “Sonny” Greer, drums.

The story:

Throughout the 1930s, Duke Ellington recorded with small groups of musicians drawn from his big band. These groups were identified by various noms du disques including “Duke Ellington’s Sextet,” “Rex Stewart and His 52nd Street Stompers,” “The Gotham Stompers,” “Barney Bigard and His Jazzopaters,” “Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra,” and “Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters.” Ellington often used these small groups as testing laboratories for music he was thinking of recording with his big band.

Jam session at Master/Variety studio, NYC, March 14, 1937. Among those pictured: Chick Webb, drums; Artie Shaw, clarinet; Duke Ellington, piano. The woman in the light-colored dress, Helen Oakley, organized the event for Irving Mills, Ellington’s manager and owner of Master/Variety.

No discussion of Duke Ellington’s career in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s can be complete without mentioning his manager and Svengali, Irving Mills. The entire story of Ellington and Mills has yet to be told, though a good summary can be found in Terry Teachout’s biography of Ellington entitled: Duke…A Life of Duke Ellington, (2013) Gotham Books. For purposes of this post, I will say that in late 1936, Mills decided to expand his business enterprises to include making phonograph records.(He was already in the talent management and music publishing businesses.) This effort was coincident with the conclusion of Ellington’s contract with American Record Corporation (ARC)/Brunswick on November 30, 1936. In the early months of 1937, Mills built-out a new recording studio for his new record labels, Variety and Master, at 1780 Broadway in Manhattan, adjacent to the ARC studios at 1776 Broadway, at 57th. Clearly, Mills wanted to record Ellington, and the many other artists he managed, on his own labels, presumably to increase his profits. This gambit was fraught with risks and problems, many of them apparently unappreciated by Mills initially. Within a short time, he recognized with alarm the folly of his plan, and quickly folded the Variety and Master labels.

Irving Mills – at the March 14, 1937 jam session organized by Helen Oakley. Among those shown, L-R: Duke Ellington, Adrian Rollini, Chick Webb, Billy Kyle, and to Mills’s left, Cab Calloway, his largest earner.

But in the early months of 1937, Mills was full of enthusiasm for the Variety/Master enterprise. He had retained the services of the Canadian debutante, Helen Oakley, who was making a name for herself as a first-rate publicist of jazz artists, to assist him in publicizing the new labels. She organized a mammoth jam session/party to open the new Variety/Master recording studio, which took place on March 14, 1937 inside that recording space. Many musicians attended, played and were photographed at the bash.

A few days prior to that party, Duke Ellington was in the Variety/Master recording studio recording, among other tunes, “Blue Reverie.”

The music:

Despite Duke’s brilliant piano playing throughout this performance, there is nothing particularly startling or unusual about the Ellington recording of “Blue Reverie.” It is a 12-bar blues in the key of F with simple but affecting introductory and closing ensemble sequences which bookend fine solos by Johnny Hodges on soprano saxophone; Ellington on piano; co-composer Harry Carney, on baritone saxophone; and Cootie Williams on plunger-muted trumpet. It is beautifully played by the small band Ellington had gathered to record it. In short, it is similar to dozens of other Ellington tunes and performances that unfortunately have slipped into obscurity. What is fascinating however, and somewhat mysterious, is how “Blue Reverie” came to be included in the Famous Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. (Above left: Cootie Williams, Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges – in the CBS radio studio – 1937.)

The first question I have is how did Benny Goodman even become aware of the existence of “Blue Reverie?” It is extremely unlikely that Goodman on his own would have known of this Ellington small group recording. It was issued in the spring of 1937, a time when Goodman was extremely busy performing weekly on his own network radio show (the Camel Caravan), playing various residencies, and touring with his band.(They went across the nation to Hollywood in the summer of 1937, and made a film while there, Hollywood Hotel, for Warner Brothers.) He returned east via another long tour, opened at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York in the fall, and made records for Victor whenever he had time, which was rarely. Few people in Goodman’s orbit then had any direct connection with Ellington, though it is beyond question that BG was generally aware of Ellington’s current activities and music, and admired Duke’s music.

The only person close to Benny then who had also been involved with Ellington was sometimes jazz journalist, sometimes jazz record producer, and full-time jazz maven John Hammond. Hammond had worked for Irving Mills in the mid-1930s, and got to know Ellington fairly well as a result. (They came to a permanent parting of the ways when Hammond criticized in writing Ellington’s music and his perceived lack of involvement in matters Hammond thought were important to fighting for racial justice.)

Hammond was an early and influential crusader for racial integration and economic parity. He was also a somewhat spoiled heir of the Vanderbilt family, and all too often was arrogant in his dealings with the very people, black and white, he was trying to help. Hammond undoubtedly helped Goodman at several critical stages of his career. However, Hammond’s meddling in Benny’s music at a Goodman recording session in late 1941 ultimately led to BG angrily smashing a chair against a wall in the recording studio, causing a breach in their relationship. Then only a few months later, Benny married Hammond’s sister Alice, of whom John was very fond, and the two protagonists were thrown together again. For the next four decades they uneasily navigated rocky familial situations, and a few professional ventures. (Above right: Musical and social gadfly John Hammond – 1937.)

Although I suspect that John Hammond may have played a role in directing Benny Goodman toward Ellington’s “Blue Reverie,” I have found nothing that is authoritative enough to support this thesis. Beyond the selection of that piece of music, it was also decided (by Goodman) that Ellington sidemen Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Cootie Williams should perform “Blue Reverie.” Duke himself was also invited to perform, but he declined for a number of valid reasons that had to do with his ongoing career as a composer, bandleader and musical star attraction in his own right. He did attend the concert however.

Whatever backstage machinations were required to set up this performance, they were worth it. “Blue Reverie” as played at the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert was simply superb, perfect in every respect.

“Blue Reverie”

Performed at Carnegie Hall on January 16, 1938.

Benny Goodman, clarinet; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Johnny Hodges, soprano saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Vernon Brown, trombone; Jess Stacy, piano; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.

The music:

At Carnegie Hall January 16, 1938 – L-R: Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams,Vernon Brown,Johnny Hodges. Appreciative BG sideman in the background L-R: Babe Russin, Allan Reuss, George Koenig,and Arthur Rollini.

The small group that performed “Blue Reverie” at the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert consisted of eight musicians: three Ellingtonians, and four of Benny Goodman’s sidemen, plus BG himself in the opening and closing ensembles. Even though these two groups of musicians had rehearsed this piece only once before, largely for purposes of a sound-check, they nevertheless played it with great feeling and skill. It appears that some minimal notation was created and rehearsed for the opening and closing ensembles to keep the performers together. Johnny Hodges was a master of the blues, as he demonstrates here on his soprano saxophone, to Benny’s delight. (The vocal appreciations of Hodges’s playing are BG’s.) Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney also plays very well, as does Cootie Williams, who expertly manipulates the plunger in front of his pixie straight-muted trumpet. The one soloist in this performance who was not on the original Ellington recording was pianist Jess Stacy. His playing, both as soloist, and as accompanist (with a pianistic tip of the hat to Duke at the end of his solo), is sublime.

The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Here is a link to another performance from Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.


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  1. Great piece. Only surprised that you think it unlikely that BG knew the Ellington small-group recording. Musicians listen to everything all the time and I’m sure that was the case back in the Swing Era too. All best.

  2. Perhaps Quentin you are right. But we must remember that between his weekly radio show, his band’s live appearances in and around NYC and on the road, and making records, Benny was a very busy guy. Moreover, Benny was, shall we say, self-absorbed. Thanks for your interest and comment.

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