“Gypsy Without a Song” (1938) Duke Ellington; (1993) Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra

“Gypsy Without a Song”

Composed by Duke Ellington, Juan Tizol and Lou Singer; arranged by Lou Singer.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Master/Brunswick on June 20, 1938 in New York.

Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Wallace Jones, first trumpet; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, first trombone; Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombone; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto “Toby” Hardwick, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Barney Bigard, tenor saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Billy Taylor, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.

The Duke Ellington band in the recording studio – mid 1930s: L-R: back: Sonny Greer, Rex Stewart, Arthur Whetsel, Cootie Williams; middle: Ellington, Fred Guy, Joseph Nanton, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol; front: Billy Taylor, Harry Carney, Otto Hardwick, Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard.

The story: As someone who has sought out and read as much historical writing and criticism about the music of the swing era as I have been able to reasonably access over the last five decades, I have learned a number of things. First and foremost: that anyone who aspires to write about the music itself and the people who made it must understand that he/she is a part of a continuum of scholarship that began contemporaneously with the creation of the music, and continues. In other words, the process never ends. No one person is capable of writing the definitive history of anything. The interconnection of computers in the age of the Internet has made it more possible for scholars to come closer to the definitive “truth” of various subjects simply because they now have access to vastly more information about any subject than pre-Internet scholars. Of course, that is a double-edged sword because as we have learned, and continuously are reminded of, not everything that is posted on the Internet is factual. So, good old-fashioned scholarship, by which I mean rooting out assertions about a given subject, and then cross-checking those assertions using as many other sources as possible, is still necessary before those assertions are made public.

Exploring the mysterious world and music of Duke Ellington is endlessly fascinating because Duke rarely operated in a way that has allowed scholars to quickly and easily arrive at firm conclusions about his life or his music. Elsewhere on this blog, I have explored the decades long collaboration between Ellington and his frequent collaborator Billy Strayhorn.(1-1a) The bottom line on that analysis, which rests largely on the seminal work done by rigorous scholars other than myself, is that Duke was often credited for Strayhorn’s work. But as scholars continue to dig and cross-check assertions that have taken on the patina of truth often simply because they have been repeated so often, or in some instances because they were made by a renowned scholar, errors continue to be discovered.

There is no doubt that Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), was an excellent musician and musical scholar. I have often cited his analyses of music of the swing era on this blog. His monumental and invaluable study of the music of the swing era, “The Swing Era …The Development of Jazz – 1930-1945,” published in 1989, is indispensable for anyone who is serious about understanding the music of the swing era. But Mr. Schuller could be wrong on occasion about the history of the swing era. Nowhere was he more wrong than in his repeated attributions of the superb arrangement on “Gypsy Without a Song” recorded by the Ellington band to Duke himself. In his book (pages 96-99), he does this while engaging in an otherwise excellent musical analysis of “Gypsy Without a Song.” We now know, as a result of the scholarship of Ellington expert Steven Lasker, that the arrangement in question was not written by Ellington, but by Lou Singer.(2)

Who, you ask, was Lou Singer? Louis C. Singer (1912-1966, pictured at right in the 1950s) was a musical prodigy who attended the Juilliard School of Music, and floated around the commercial music business in New York in the mid to late 1930s. His first job was to work for W.C.Handy’s music publishing company, then for Irving Mills’s music publishing company. It was at Mills Music that Singer came into contact with Duke Ellington. His first collaboration with Ellington and Ellington’s musical assistant Juan Tizol, came in early 1938, when they co-composed “Lost in Meditation,” which was recorded by Duke’s big band on February 2, 1938. (It had been previously recorded by a Cootie Williams small group on January 19, 1937.) Their next successful collaboration was “Gypsy Without a Song,” which was recorded by Ellington’s big band on June 20, 1938.(3)

The music: This performance starts with a brief piano introduction by Ellington. Then Lawrence Brown (shown at left) states the first eight bars of melody on his cup-muted trombone. A brief burst of Cootie Williams’s open trumpet separates Brown’s solo from Juan Tizol’s eight bar recapitulation of the melody, which is done with him playing his open valve trombone. Once again Williams’s open trumpet provides a brief contrast. The entry of the saxophones after this sequence playing the bridge melody in their high singing register contrasts, startlingly so, from what has gone before. The first chorus is completed by Brown returning with eight more bars of cup-muted melody. Johnny Hodges (shown below left) then plays his robust and singing alto saxophone, improvising soulfully. Notice how he builds intensity from the first eight bars through the last eight. This is masterful playing. Williams then returns on his open trumpet for eight bars, followed by eight bars of Brown again playing the melody on his cup-muted trombone.

Aside from the fundamental error of attributing the arrangement of “Gypsy Without a Song” to Ellington, Gunther Schuller’s musical analysis of the classic Ellington recording is illuminating. Indeed, his misattribution of the arrangement provided quite unintended insights into how other talented arrangers could absorb and employ Duke’s methods to strikingly effective and remarkably Ducal musical ends. So when you read Schuller’s following analysis, substitute “Lou Singer” for “Ellington.“…(I)t is finally Ellington and the players’ contribution that makes ‘Gypsy’ a masterpiece of period nostalgia. The fascination begins almost immediately, when in the first chorus Ellington, like a master illusionist, extracts subtleties of color from his orchestral palette that very few (if any other) musical imaginations have envisioned. The melody in the first sixteen bars is split between the two trombonists: Tizol on valve, Brown on slide – but so similarly muted that on a perfunctory listening one would assume the presence of only one player. This sleight of hand trick is managed by interpolating two bars of open-horn trumpet by Cootie Williams (in a decidedly un-balladic mood – pictured below at right) between the two trombonists, thus neatly disguising the seam where Tizol’s and Brown’s eight bar phrases join. Further, the subtle intensification of melancholia that Brown achieves by his refined use of the slide (over Tizol’s ‘straight’ version) not only exploits in a most disarming way the basic idiomatic difference between these two types of trombones…,but uses this physical difference as a subtle variance of expression. It also seems to me that Ellington creates the illusion of having extended his instrumental resources by conjuring up a muter French horn (Tizol) and the soulful portamenti of a cello (Brown), even though obviously neither of those instruments was present in Duke’s orchestra.” (4)

The salient point that emerges from this analysis is that the performers in the Ellington band, Duke included, whose personal instrumental identities were so strong, constituted as a group a remarkable and unique band. Consequently, whatever music they played would sound “Ellingtonian.” Of course young Mr. Singer was also a fine musician who undoubtedly was fascinated by the Ellington band and how it worked, and watched and listened carefully to how Duke deployed his musicians in numerous of his (Duke’s) arrangements. His brilliant arrangement on “Gypsy Without a Song” indicates clearly that he had learned some of Duke’s arranging tricks.

 

“Gypsy Without a Song”

Composed by Duke Ellington, Juan Tizol and Lou Singer; arranged by Lou Singer. Transcription from the original Ellington recording by Mark Lopeman.

Recorded by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in Washington, D.C. on July 4, 1993.

Gunther Schuller, directing: Greg Gisbert, Tony Kadlek, Chris Royal, Virgil Jones and Mark Van Cleave, trumpets; Sam Burtis, Dave Steinmeyer, Brent Wallarab and Britt Woodman, trombones; Jim Carroll, Steve Wilson, Bill Easley, Loren Schoenberg and Gary Smulyan, saxophones; Michael Weiss, piano; James Chirillo, guitar; Ed Schuller, bass; Chuck Redd, drums.

The story continues: Gunther Schuller’s book The Swing Era …The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, was published in 1989. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra was founded in 1990. At that time, Schuller and David Baker were appointed as musical directors of the Orchestra. Throughout the 1990s, the Orchestra performed, and many of the selections from those performances have been recorded. Some have been issued on CD. The CD from which this marvelous performance was taken was issued in 1996, and is entitled: Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra – Big Band Treasures – Live.”

The music: This is a superlative reincarnation of the original Ellington classic performance in brilliantly recorded sound. The soloists in order are: Michael Weiss, piano; Sam Burtis, trombone; Virgil Jones, trumpet; Brent Wallarab on trombone; Burtis again on trombone; Steve Wilson on alto saxophone; Virgil Jones again on trumpet, and Wallarab again on trombone. All of the musicians who contributed to this performance, under the inspired direction of Gunther Schuller, give strong affirmation to my oft-proclaimed assertion that the great music of the swing era is timeless, and should be performed today. (Note: All of the soloists except for Michael Weiss are pictured in the video/audio above.) (5)

Here are some comments from a couple of the musicians who performed on this recording: Alto saxophonist Steve Wilson: “It is essential to the grandeur of this music to hear it live. Playing this music is humbling. It’s as difficult as anything I’ve ever had to do.” Trombonist Brent Wallarab: “There’s a lot more to it than just reading the notes. You have to understand what the musician was trying to get across emotionally and spiritually (in the original recording). You put yourself into their heads, but then play your interpretation.”

Both recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo. The 1938 Ellington recording also required some sonic restoration.

NOTE: Although somewhere along the line, the title of “Gypsy Without a Song” was occasionally preceded by the article “A,” both the copyright and the sheet music carry the title without the “A.”

(1) Here is a link to Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”.: https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/03/22/take-the-a-train-composed-and-arranged-by-billy-strayhorn/

(1-a) Here is a link to Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge”; https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/02/11/chelsea-bridge-billy-and-billy-strayhorn-and-may/

(2) In his notes for the booklet that accompanied the Mosaic CD set The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and His famous Orchestra, pages 28 and 29, Mr. Lasker cited Leonard Feather’s profile of Lou Singer, which appeared on the November 15, 1943 issue of Down Beat. In that piece was this bit of information: “During (the period when Singer worked for Irving Mills’s publishing house), Lou also made a number of arrangements for Duke Ellington, some of which have often been erroneously credited to Duke himself. One of the best was “(A) Gypsy Without a Song,” composed by Singer and Tizol, arranged by Singer.

(3) Singer went on to work in a number of other musical collaborations, including with John Kirby and Maxine Sullivan.That collaboration resulted in the wistfully delightful “If I Had a Ribbon Bow.” Later Singer wrote “Sleepy Serenade,” which was recorded by a number of top level big bands. Still later, Singer went on to success with his brother Al, who was a television producer, on the TV show Name That Tune.

(4) The Swing Era, page 97.

(5) Here is a link to information about the Smithsonian Jazz masterworks Orchestra: http://americanhistory.si.edu/smithsonian-jazz/smithsonian-jazz-masterworks-orchestra

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2 Comments

  1. Great essay – no one has all the answers. There are many errors in Schuller’s books – and he misses at least two masterpieces: Mary Lou William’s “Walkin’ and Swinging” and Paul Whiteman/Billie Holliday “Travellin’ Light”, brilliantly arranged by Jimmy Mundy.

    I believe you are not 100% correct when you say: “whatever music they played would sound “Ellingtonian.”
    There are a number of instances – mostly from Television – Where Ellington backs-up Ella Fitzgerald with arrangements by someone else. In these instances, the Ellington orchestra sounds like a generic studio band such as those employed by TV shows such as Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Jack Benny, et cetera. Would you agree?

  2. Thanks Andrew for your insights.

    Although what you say about the Ellington band playing generic arrangements is true to a degree, moreso in later years, I think that the Ellington band of the late 1930s and early 1940s had a strongly individual sound that derived from the blending together of the instrumental voices of its members. Consequently, the music they played sounded Ellingtonian, whereas the same or similar arrangements played by, say Charlie Barnet or Benny Goodman, sounded quite different.

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