Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.
Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra in concert on November 25-26, 1969 in Manchester, England.
Duke Ellington, piano, directing: William “Cat” Anderson, Charles M. “Cootie” Williams, Rolf Ericson and Mercer Ellington, trumpets; Lawrence Brown and Chuck Connors, trombones; Russell Procope, clarinet; Norris Turney and Johnny Hodges, alto saxophones; Paul Gonsalves, tenor saxophone; and Harold Ashby, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Victor Gaskin, bass; Rufus “Speedy” Jones, drums.
The story: I’ve always enjoyed rainy summer evenings in New York City.The gigantic landmarks are partially shrouded in clouds and fog and rain.This particular night, in the late 1970s, a friend and I had decided to go and hear a trio led by the blind pianist Brooks Kerr. (Pictured at right.) Kerr had received a lot of publicity after Duke Ellington s death in 1974.He had graduated from the Julliard School of Music, studied with Willie “The Lion” Smith, and had gotten to know Ellington. He had assisted the maestro in various ways, and like so many others before him, he had become unable to resist the gravitational pull of Eilington’s music and personality. His entire life became a study and expression of all that was Ellington. He got to know seemingly everything about Duke, and never hesitated to expound on his favorite subject on the bandstand between numbers.
As interesting as Kerr seemed, what caught my attention was the fact that in his band were two gilt-edge Ellingtonians: the drummer Sonny Greer; and the alto saxophonist/ clarinetist Russell Procope, Together, these two had witnessed the entirety of Ellington’s career. (At left: L-R: Brooks Kerr, Russell Procope, Sonny Greer at Gregory’s NYC, 1979.) Greer had been with Duke long before the formation of the Cotton Club band. He had met and began to work with Ellington in Washington D.C. in 1920, and remained Duke’s drummer until 1951. He was approximately four years older than Duke (no one ever knew Greer’s age, and he guarded the secret), so in 1920 he would have been about 25. Now he was past eighty.
Russell Procope, born in 1908 in New York City, had gone to school there with Benny Carter. He later worked with a succession of top-grade bands including Carter’s, Fletcher Henderson’s, Tiny Bradshaw’s, Teddy Hill’s, and most notably, with John Kirby’s sextet from 1937 to 1943, when he entered military service. He joined Duke’s band in 1946, and remained until Ellington’s death. Now, he was about seventy.
As our taxi wended its way toward the First Avenue club, we passed near the ornate metalwork of the Queensboro or 59th Street bridge. The bridge itself was illuminated by floodlights and street lamps, but only partially visible through the falling evening mist. The club, then called Gregory’s, was situated on the southwest corner of First Avenue and East Sixty-Third Street. It seemed like most of the club occupied the sidewalk, with a sloping roof extending out from the brick facade on the First Avenue side of the building around the ninety degree bend along the Sixty-Third Street side. As we entered, we went around a corner, then back onto the sidewalk, but under a roof with windows extending all the way down. The three musicians were placed against the building’s brick exterior wall facing out toward the windows. That night there were maybe fifteen or twenty people in the place, mostly casually dressed upper east-siders, who seemed unaware of the fact that the two elderly men sitting before them had been witnesses to and participants in the entirety of one of the greatest musical careers in American history.
It was Greer who first caught my attention. He sat ramrod straight on his drummer’s stool, high above his tiny drum set. He played with his arms almost straight down from his shoulders. He was nattily dressed, and always had a smile on his face. As played, he spoke to each patron who entered, the length of his remarks varying from a cheerful “good evening” to me, to a full-blown conversation with someone he evidently knew.
None of this affected Russell Procope who sat serenely with his horns on their stand at the ready. Kerr was doing all the work, playing some obscure Ellington opus in stride style piano. We listened to two sets each night, which ran the gamut from “Soda Fountain Rag” to “Creole Love Call” to “Solitude” to “Come Sunday” and beyond.
(We actually went to Gregory’s twice, on successive nights. The first night, I spoke with Sonny Greer, the second night with Russel Procope. Since the music presented in this post features Russell Procope on clarinet, I will focus on him in this post. The conversation I had with Sonny Greer will be used in a future post.)
The next day was sunny, hot, and humid. By the time we got to the club that evening, it was still steamy. The coziness of the club the night before had turned into closeness. Nevertheless, the trio performed in much the same manner as on the previous night though I recognized some different tunes. After the first set, Russell Procope left the bandstand and went out to the sidewalk for a breath of air. I joined him. To break the ice, I told him how much I liked the sound of his clarinet. I mentioned the recording of ‘4:30 Blues’ that had been made during Ellington’s seventieth birthday celebration in England. He didn’t recall it. “The blues is the blues. Just name a key.” I quickly sensed that Procope was not an extrovert like Sonny Greer.
I then asked Procope about the circumstances surrounding his joining the Ellington orchestra. “Duke started trying me out in the fall of 1945, right after I got out of the service. Toby Hardwick would not show up from time to time. For me, it was like being a baseball player getting a tryout with the Yankees. In my eyes, Duke Ellington was the very top of the world of music. I felt that way then, and still feel that way. But, I didn’t get hired right away. In April of 1946, I finally got the call. I was told to meet the band on its way from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Massachusetts. Hardwick had walked off the stage at the Howard Theater in Washington. Nobody knew if he was coming back. He never did.” (Russell Procope and Sonny Greer – late 1970s, at right. Photo by Brooks Kerr with the assistance of Art Zimmerman.)
“My job was to play first alto. Duke had a good clarinet soloist in Jimmy Hamilton, and of course a great alto soloist in Johnny Hodges. But gradually, Duke started giving me solos on clarinet because my sound on clarinet was so different from Jimmy’s. And my whole approach to the clarinet was different from his. He was a great technician who had a sound almost like a symphony man. My playing was more gutbucket. (1) I never did play many alto solos because Johnny took care of that, and when he wasn’t there for a while, there were (at different times) Willie Smith and Hilton Jefferson, both of whom were excellent soloists.”
“The first crisis in the band after I joined was when Joseph Nanton died in his bed in San Francisco. We were on tour in California when it happened. It was very disturbing, like losing a brother. To work with a man every day, and to see him playing on the bandstand one night then for him to be dead the next, well it was a shock.”
“Shortly after that, we made a movie of Duke’s Perfume Suite with some puppets. It seems strange now, but at the time, I thought the movie – it was really a short subject – was pretty good.”
“Throughout the rest of the 1940s, we did mostly one-nighters, with some theaters too. The theaters were for a week at a time usually, though I remember working for a month at a time at the Paramount Theater here once or twice. We played Carnegie Hall three times in the 1940s after I joined the band, and made another movie short called Symphony in Swing.”
“My first big European tour with Duke came in 1950 when we went there for over two months. This was the first of many tours that took me all over the world with him.”
“After Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, and Sonny Greer left, Duke had to scramble to get replacements. Eventually Juan Tizol came back on trombone, and Willie Smith came in on alto and Louis Bellson on drums. By that time, we had Clark Terry, Cat Anderson, Ray Nance, and Willie Cook on trumpets, and Paul Gonsalves on tenor. The band was crackling but business was going down.”
“We got involved in some of those package tours about then. I think we did a couple for Norman Granz, who was responsible for Johnny Hodges leaving Duke’s band. Duke held a grudge over that for many years, and finally he and Norman Granz had a blowup in the 1960s.”
“Probably the low point was when we played out in Flushing behind ice skaters. Duke had to lay off some of our guys and hire musicians out of Local 802. And there were strings and a harp. It was pretty bad. Things got better after we played at the jazz festival in Newport, Rhode Island in 1956. Somehow, parts of that concert were recorded by Columbia. We were not recording for Columbia, or anyone at that time, but eventually part of our concert there came out on Columbia records. Then Duke got his picture on the cover of Time magazine, and good things started to happen again. He was on the Edward R. Murrow TV show, which also was a big deal. In short, Duke started to get a lot of attention again, so the band got busier, and we made more money.
Johnny Hodges also came back, and I can’t tell you what a joy it was to hear him again. But after he came back, he would do strange little things on the bandstand, like pretend to count money when Duke was playing a tune Johnny thought he had written but Duke ended up the composer of. He was putting Duke on and I think Duke enjoyed it because he loved to put people on.”
“We did A Drum Is A Woman on network TV, and that was very unusual for a black band then. We also did about two months in Europe at that time. After that, the overseas tours started to run together because there were so many of them. We edged out of show business a little, and into politics a little. Duke wasn’t too happy about it because he wasn’t a politician. But he figured that it gave us good visibility, so when we would get back to the old grind of one-nighters, we could get even more money. He was right about that, but he did get caught up in the political games just the same. When he didn’t get the Pulitzer Prize, he was upset and hurt. AII of us in the band knew that Duke Ellington the musician didn’t need the Pulitzer Prize. Everybody in the music business knew that he didn’t need the Pulitzer Prize. But Duke Ellington, the human being, needed the Pulitzer Prize. And he was hurt when he didn’t get it.”
“Still, Duke made the most of all that. He had more diplomatic skills than most of the diplomats we worked with on those State Department tours. We often succeeded in projecting a good image in spite of some of those people. But if we were handled badly, Duke would get revenge by putting these people on. They took everything he said at face value so it was pretty easy. We all used to laugh about it.”
Procope looked through the windows of the club and Greer began gesturing him to come in. He excused himself with the promise he’d finish the conversation after the next set. When he and I resumed our places out on the sidewalk, I asked him about the film Anatomy of a Murder. “Yes, I remember doing the sound track for that. I enjoyed the experience because that was the first time I did what so-called studio musicians did. But that little taste was enough to tell me I would not have enjoyed doing that sort of thing day to day.”
“Even though we were very busy in the later 1960s, we could see that Duke was slowing down, especially after Billy Strayhorn passed. Billy had done a lot of writing for us, and many times, his work would go uncredited. When he was gone, Duke tried to do his work and Billy’s. That was too much even for Duke Ellington. Then, when we lost Johnny, we all realized that it would only be a short time until there wouldn’t be an Ellington band anymore.”
“But we underestimated Duke. He had the strongest willpower of any human being I have ever known. He just kept going until he went to the hospital for the last time. We were in England and Scotland at the end of 1973. He would go backstage during our concerts and rest. He was sick, sicker than we realized. Then at the same time, Duke’s doctor, Arthur Logan, died. I think Duke was closer to Arthur Logan than to just about anyone else on earth. Arthur’s death broke Duke’s spirit.”
“We came back here and played some one-nighters then went into the Rainbow Grill (in Manhattan) over the holidays. While we were there, Duke went to the hospital to have some tests done. It was clear that he was sick, but nobody told us what his illness was. After the Rainbow Grill, we went back out on the road again. As incredible as it now seems, Duke came back on the road with us. He collapsed at a concert in Washington, D.C., but kept on. Finally, after he insisted on playing two concerts in one day in Michigan he could no longer go on.That was in March 1974.” (Duke Ellington died in New York on May 24, 1974.)
“I enjoyed every day I was a member of the Ellington band even though it was grueling trying to keep up with Duke. I knew I was a part of something that was very special, something that would never die. But the biggest joy I had, and I think the other musicians had too was the music. Duke constantly surprised me. Musically, I could never predict what was going on in Duke’s head.”
After the gig was over, Greer and Procope left the club quickly. Procope carried his clarinet and alto saxophone in separate cases. Greer left his drums in place at the club, but carried his cymbals out in a case made of some sort of soft material. I encountered them both on the sidewalk outside of the club in conversation, but left them alone as they talked. Then a large car drew up to the curb, driven by a lovely young woman. Procope opened the back door and put his instruments on the floor behind the front seat and closed that door. He then opened the passenger side door and got in the car. It sped off. I watched all of this intently.
While I was watching Procope get picked up, Greer was watching me, and reading my mind. As I looked at Greer, he focused his protuberant eyes on me, and said with just the right twist of ironic sarcasm, “that was his daughter, man!”
The music: I have often noted on this blog that Duke Ellington was a master of the blues. This is hardly a startling revelation for those who have studied and enjoyed Ellington’s music.The blues runs like a current through Ellington’s music from the 1920s until his last compositions from the early 1970s. What is astonishing is how many different settings for the blues Ellington fashioned over those five-plus decades.
Also noteworthy were Ellington’s masterful and richly evocative use of the bass and the clarinet in his music throughout the entirety of his career. Duke took great pains to make sure that when his band made recordings, the bass and clarinet were well recorded. Indeed, even in his 1920s and 1930s recordings, one can clearly hear Wellman Braud’s bass (or tuba), and Barney Bigard’s clarinet.
Albany Leon “Barney” Bigard (1906-1980), one of the most celebrated and brilliant clarinetists to come out of the long and illustrious New Orleans clarinet tradition, was a member of Duke Ellington’s band from late 1927 to 1942. In that span, Bigard made dozens of recordings with Ellington, and was well featured as a soloist. Ellington fans have long savored Bigard’s woody, resonant clarinet sound. When Bigard left Ellington to live and work in Los Angeles, Duke cast about for a time, but eventually hired a young clarinetist whose sound and approach to clarinet playing were seemingly in direct opposition to Bigard’s. This was Jimmy Hamilton. Despite Hamilton’s brilliance as a clarinetist, it is obvious that Ellington missed the elusive sound quality that existed in Barney Bigard’s playing but was absent from Hamilton’s playing. I think that Ellington heard some of the Bigard sound quality in the clarinet playing of Russell Procope, and being the sonic painter par excellence that he was, Duke gradually created various showcases for Procope’s clarinet. “4:30 Blues” is one of the most moving of these.
This performance begins, as so many Ellington performances began, with Duke establishing the tempo and the mood from the keyboard. Duke’s playing here is quintessential: richly harmonic with colorful runs that betray his long fascination (initiated by Billy Strayhorn) with Debussy’s piano music. Bassist Victor Gaskin joins Duke’s ruminations as they set the stage for the arrival of the trio of clarinets: Russell Procope, Harold Ashby, and Harry Carney on bass clarinet. (2)
The clarinet solo played by Russell Procope (four blues choruses) is marvelously evocative, indeed it is stirring. The somber backgrounds he plays against in the reeds and brass, fashioned by Ellington the arranger, are supremely supportive and inspirational. Notice Duke’s use of the brass behind Procope: open and smoldering in choruses 1, and 4, muted in chorus 3. Duke uses the reeds to provide the background in the second chorus. In addition, Duke and bassist Victor Gaskin provide a constant source of harmonic ideas for Procope to work with. The music is simple, elemental and affecting. Ellington tradition is being followed, with a few new twists.
Listen to how Ellington carries on a conversation with Procope’s clarinet in the second and third choruses of his solo. This is not a musical conversation, but an oral one on Duke’s side that expresses his appreciation of Procope’s deeply felt blues playing.
I read somewhere that the inspiration for this piece came as a result of Duke spending hundreds if not thousands of nights on the road over five decades of bandleading, many of them alone, at that most lonely of hours, 4:30 a.m.
I am hardly an expert on clarinet technique and mechanics, but to my ear, the clarinetists in jazz history who used an Albert system clarinet (including Russell Procope, pictured below left), drew a distinctly more woody, mellow sound from their instruments than clarinetists who used the more common Boehm system. Procope himself was undecided on this issue:
“I learned to play on an Albert system clarinet, and continued to play it throughout my career. People have told me that they thought that an Albert clarinet was more adaptable to jazz than a Boehm. I don’t know about this because I’ve heard some pretty good people play Boehm, like Albert Nicholas and Buster Bailey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Do you think that if Barney Bigard played a Boehm he would sound different? After all, it’s just a fingering system. Simeon Bellson, one of the greatest legitimate clarinet players in symphony, played an Albert. Boehm offers the most technically because you have more keys and more ways of making any given passage.The only reason I prefer Albert system is because it’s the only one I’ve ever known. I’m pretty sure the Albert system existed before the Boehm, and today it has been much improved. Frankly, if I were to recommend a clarinet to a youngster, I’d recommend Boehm. Alberts are very hard to find.” (3)
(1) Jimmy Hamilton left the Ellington band at the beginning of July 1968. He was replaced by Harold Ashby, who was mainly a tenor saxophonist, not a clarinetist. Consequently, Ellington created several compositions that featured Russell Procope’s clarinet playing.
(2) I think I hear three clarinets in this passage. Carney is definitely playing a bass clarinet. I am also reasonably certain that Procope is a part of this trio, on his richly resonant Albert system clarinet. The third instrument is either Ashby playing a B-flat Boehm system clarinet in its chalumeau or lowest register, or possibly Ashby playing a second bass clarinet. With Ellington, one never knows for sure what instruments are doing what.
(3) The World of Duke Ellington, by Stanley Dance (1970), 154-155.
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
At left is the photo referred to in the comments below made by Michael House. I thank Michael for sending me this unique snapshot of the Ellington band in action. For an explanation of what you see in this photo, scroll down to Michael’s comment.