“Harlem Air Shaft” (1940) Duke Ellington – live version

With this post, swingandbeyond.com celebrates two milestones: our 100th post, and our 30,000th viewer. I am delighted that so many people are interested in this thing called swing. I have quite a few new ideas up my sleeve for future posts, so keep visiting swingandbeyond.com. And thanks for all of your comments, input and help. Mike Zirpolo

“Harlem Air Shaft”

Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington

Recorded live from an NBC radio broadcast from Eastwood Gardens, Detroit, Michigan on July 29, 1940. (*)

Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Cootie Williams and Wallace Jones, trumpets; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto Hardwick, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Ben Webster tenor saxophone; Barney Bigard, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Jimmie Blanton, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.

The story:

It has frequently been noted by commentators that the year 1940 saw an “explosion of genius” from Duke Ellington. This is undoubtedly true. Seldom however, has anyone offered any detailed explanations as to why that might have happened at that particular time. I will take a crack at it.

Several liberating events occurred in Duke Ellington’s professional life in 1939. The largest of these on the business side of the Ellington operation was Duke’s separation from his long-time manager Irving Mills. Mills had been a pervasive presence in Ellington’s career from the late 1920s until they went their separate ways in 1939. He was Ellington’s personal manager, booking agent, music publisher, and guru. During the years Mills was calling the shots in Duke Ellington’s career, Duke looked upon him as a white man in a racially segregated society who could do things for him that he couldn’t do himself. Mills was an aggressive force (sometimes quite crudely so) that pushed Ellington ahead in what was all too often a vicious Jim Crow America in the late 1920s and 1930s. It was Mills’s idea, for example, that Duke should be presented as not just another bandleader, but as a “genius of syncopation,” an “American Delius,” a composer of concert works who should be taken seriously, indeed as “Royalty of Rhythm.” Mills very much believed that Duke Ellington belonged in Carnegie Hall because of the prestige that venue conferred, as well as in any other venue where he could command top-dollar. Although Ellington did in the 1940s achieve Mills’s (and Duke’s) dream of performing in Carnegie Hall, he did it without Mills. (At right: Duke Ellington in the 1930s. He was no ordinary bandleader.)

1940 saw Ellington move to new personal management by the William Morris Agency, which also booked the Ellington band. This was clearly an extension of the Mills plan to present Duke as someone who was a cut above all other bandleaders, no matter how successful they were. The Morris Agency represented artists who were famous show business personalities, not bandleaders. (Bandleaders were largely represented by Music Corporation of America [MCA], and General Amusement Corporation [GAC].) Nevertheless, the Morris Agency (at least in 1940), adhered rather strictly to the practices developed and perfected by MCA and GAC that kept their bandleader clients on the road as much as possible, generating commissions for the agency. The Ellington band spent almost the entire first seven months of 1940 on the road. Although some theater dates where the band could sit down for several days at one location were scattered in, most of the schedule was filed with weeks on end of back-breaking one-nighters. In reviewing the itinerary of the Ellington band for this time, one finds the band in Seattle, Washington on April 1; in Emporia, Kansas on May 9; in Lawrence, Massachusetts on June 27; in Atlanta, Georgia on July 17. Literally dozens of other play dates are sandwiched in between.

Another reason why Duke Ellington was feeling liberated in 1940 was that his long-time relationship with Columbia Records, including its corporate predecessor American Record Corporation (ARC), and (in 1937) its affiliates, Irving Mills’s Master and Variety labels, terminated in February 1940. (Mills recorded Ellington’s music and issued the records on his labels, ARC and later Columbia distributed those records.) Starting on March 6, 1940, Ellington began recording for Victor Records, where he was given a good bit more freedom to record his original compositions. He was also the only leader of a black big band at Victor to have his records issued on the prestigious Victor label. (This label sold for 75 cents a disk throughout the Depression ravaged 1930s. Victor cut the price of its Victor label releases in 1940 to 50 cents a disk.) All other black big bands in the Victor stable had their records issued on the 35 cent Bluebird label.(Above left: Dance night at Eastwood Gardens in Detroit.)

Through 1939 and 1940, Duke had been delegating much of the routine arranging work on current pop tunes, vocals, and preparing music for the small groups drawn from the Ellington big band to his newly-arrived (in early 1939) musical associate, Billy Strayhorn. This freed-up a good bit of time for Duke to compose and arrange his newest opuses. He made good use of that time.


At New York World’s Fair “Dancing Campus” – August 1, 1940. L-R: Fred Guy, Ellington, Sonny Greer, Jimmie Blanton.

The Ellington band settled in for a stand at Eastwood Gardens outside Detroit on July 26. They would remain there until July 30. While at Eastwood Gardens, they broadcast over the NBC Red network nightly, with WWJ-Detroit providing the local radio hook-up and announcers. The broadcasts aired from 11:30 p.m. to midnight (eastern time).The classic Victor recording of Ellington’s “Harlem Air Shaft” was made in New York on July 22, 1940, only seven days before this performance. It is clear from the vigor and passion we hear in this live recording, that the Ellingtonians were still very much engaged in the process of joyously animating this composition.

The music:

As is so very often the case in trying to describe Duke Ellington’s music, there are challenges. To help a bit, I will cite to the brilliant and comprehensive analysis of “Harlem Air Shaft” done by Edward Green, a professor at the Manhattan School of Music: “Harlem Air Shaft” has an abstract design analogous to a concrete experience: namely, reading a book. First, we meet a “Table of Contents,” a series of chapter titles. These are exceedingly short. Then, the chapters arrive, fleshing out and developing the hints provided in the titles. Here is how these parallels work. First we hear a 12-bar Intro divided into three 4-bar segments—respectively in A-flat, C, and E major. The sudden shifts of key place these short segments in sharp relief, highlighting how different they are in terms of timbre, rhythm, and melodic contour.

Ellington’s saxophones – 1940: L-R: Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwick, Harry Carney.

Then, a series of 32-bar choruses follows. They are all in A-flat, and take up—now without modulation—the musical ideas presented earlier. Chorus I develops the first segment of the Intro; Chorus II, the second; Chorus III, the third; and—to round it off—Chorus IV (the “shout chorus”) develops the opening four measures of Chorus I. Thus, the opening 16 measures of the composition, considered as four separate 4-bar units, are the “titles,” and foreshadow the main “chapters” of the work as a whole. Nothing in all of previous jazz composition compares to this audacious structural plan.” (1)

I have been trying to hear and understand as much as possible what is going on musically in “Harlem Air Shaft” for decades. In that time, I sought out guidance in the writings of various musical experts. I am sorry to say that more than one of those experts wrote dismissively of this composition as in essence a jumble. (I will not name them to protect the guilty.) I have found that it is usually a mistake to underestimate Duke Ellington in musical matters. Professor Edward Green’s article, which demonstrates that “Harlem Air Shaft” is anything but jumbled, is scholarly, readable, and wonderfully informative. It is essential reading for anyone who really wants to know about “Harlem Air Shaft.” I have provided a link to it at the end of this post.

When I listen to the first chorus, I hear a classic AABA thirty-two bar format: (four eight-bar sections with the first two being one melody repeated twice, the third section [bridge] being another, and the last eight bars being a reprise of the main [A] melody. The first and second eight bars (section A, the main melody) has the cup-muted brass (carrying Duke’s jaunty opening vamp figure into the first chorus), playing against the five saxophones, at first in unison, then harmonized.Trombonist Joseph Nanton plays characteristically using a plunger mute in the B-section bridge, backed by surging saxophones. The final eight bars of the first chorus return to the A section melody, played as before in the first sixteen bars. (Above right: Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton.)

Cootie Williams.

The second chorus contains the rhythmic “breaks,” set-up by the saxophone section, which acts as a launching pad for Cootie Williams’s fiery open trumpet. Note how his playing is catapaulted upward in the four AABA eight-bar sequences of this chorus. (At left: trumpeter Cootie Williams.)

The third chorus has the swaggering trombone trio (with dovetailing reeds in the background), sparring with Barney Bigard’s agile clarinet. This is yet another set of contrasting musical sounds.

The fourth chorus presents the climax of “Harlem Air Shaft.” Williams’s plunger muted trumpet, played a low dynamic level against a syncopated cushion of brass and reeds. Listen for the power and thrust of Jimmie Blanton’s bass in this passage. The relatively quiet playing is then contrasted with Bigard’s oscillating clarinet arcing upward, supported by drummer Sonny Greer’s rocking back-beat, as the entire ensemble blasts through the fortissimo finale. (Above right: Clarinetist Barney Bigard.)

In “Harlem Air Shaft,” Ellington demonstrates that he was a master at creating music for and with his 15 piece band and highly individual soloists that is vividly colorful, with many contrasting sonorities, that swings mightily. An explosion of genius, indeed! (2)

Is “Harlem Air Shaft” Program Music?

The central inquiry addressed by Professor Green’s article is this very question, and he answers it comprehensively. (“Program Music” is defined as: music that is intended to evoke images or convey the impression of events.) 

The WWJ announcer introduced “Harlem Air Shaft” as reflecting “the themes and sounds of the Harlem courthouse,” which is a hilarious error. Ellington avoided courthouses, lawsuits, and other legal activities like the plague — often to his economic detriment.

Here is Duke’s picturesque explanation (provided to a journalist in 1944, see below), of what inspired him to compose “Harlem Air Shaft”: “So much goes on in a Harlem air shaft. You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker. You see your neighbor’s laundry. You hear the janitor’s dogs. The man upstairs’ aerial falls down and breaks your window. You smell coffee. A wonderful thing is that smell. An air shaft has got every contrast. One guy is cooking dried fish with rice and another guy’s got a great big turkey. Guy-with-fish’s wife is a terrific cooker but the guy’s wife with the turkey is doing a sad job.” Duke laughed. “You hear people praying, fighting, snoring. Jitterbugs are jumping up and down always over you, never below you. That’s a funny thing about jitterbugs. They’re always over you. I tried to put all that in ‘Harlem Air Shaft.’”(3) 

When I asked Duke Ellington’s drummer Sonny Greer about this in 1979, he laughed and said: “That was just Duke’s jive. He was always his best public relations spokesman.” But there is more to this, and you will learn about it if you read Professor Green’s article.

The recording posted here has been digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) The date of this broadcast has been ascertained as explained in Edward Green’s article on “Harlem Air Shaft,” page 32, see below.

(1) “Harlem Air Shaft”: A True Programmatic Composition?” by Edward Green, Journal of Jazz Studies vol. 7, no.1, pp.28-46 (Spring 2011), at page 28. Among many other aspects of “Harlem Air Shaft,” Green explores whether the “programmatic statement” Ellington made about what inspired him to write this composition four years after the composition was composed was invalid, simply because it was made after the composition already existed.

(2) One question that was unasked in the analysis above is: Is “Harlem Air Shaft” a blues? Perhaps a better way to inquire would be: What is “Harlem Air Shaft’s” relationship to the blues?

(3) Ibid. 29. This explanation by Ellington first appeared in the second in a series of three articles profiling him in The New Yorker on July 1, 1944. Those articles were written by Richard O. Boyer, and were entitled: “The Hot Bach.”

NOTE: The initial title of “Harlem Air Shaft” was “Once Over Lightly.” That title appears on the score that Ellington prepared for the tune.

Here is a link to Edward Green’s article: https://jjs.libraries.rutgers.edu/index.php/jjs/article/view/9/18

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  1. “He [Duke Ellington] was also the only black artist at Victor to have his records issued on the prestigious Victor label.” Ummmm, what about Lionel Hampton? He was on Victor from 1937 to 1941. And there was the great “Fats” Waller, whose Rhythm appeared on Victor from 1934 to 1938 (then was moved to Bluebird). Jimmy Yancey had an album issued on Victor in 1940, and the following year a similar album by Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson came out. Also in 1941, the “Hot Piano” album was issued featuring Ellington, Waller, Earl Hines and “Jelly-Roll” Morton.

  2. Joe, you have raised a good point. I have sharpened my language above to clarify that Duke was to be the only leader of a black big band to appear on the Victor label during the term of his 1940 Victor contract. Erskine Hawkins and Earl Hines, both of whom were signed to Victor contracts in 1940 and led big bands, had their records issued on Victor’s Bluebird label. Lionel Hampton, who signed a succession of Victor contracts starting in 1937, never recorded with a big band on Victor. The classic sides he made for Victor were with small and medium sized groups. When Lionel debuted a big band on records at the end of 1941, it was on the Decca label. I am looking for a copy of Duke’s 1940 Victor contract. A friend of mine whom I will not identify without permission, has one. If I get it, I will post the relevant part of it here so that the historical record is made a bit clearer.

    Thanks as always for your insights and knowledge about what happened historically on the Victor label.

  3. Thanks for this great article. Is there an available cd that collects some, or all, of these 1940 radio broadcasts, *apart* from the Fargo, ND, show that is commonly available?

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