“Concerto for Cootie”
Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.
Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on March 15,1940 in Chicago.
Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Wallace Jones, first trumpet; Rex Stewart, cornet; Cootie Williams, solo trumpet; Juan Tizol, first (valve) trombone; Joseph Nanton and Lawrence Brown, trombones; Otto Hardwick, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Ben Webster and Barney Bigard, tenor saxophones; (Bigard doubles on B-flat clarinet); Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Jimmy Blanton, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.
The story and music: There has been quite a large amount of critical, indeed scholarly, commentary and analysis done of Duke Ellington’s “Concerto for Cootie” over the years.The first large-scale analysis was done by the French jazz critic Andre’ Hodeir in his book Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence (1956). This early critical work certainly has value, but it has also come in for its share of negative comment. The American jazz historian Gunther Schuller, in his massive book The Swing Era -The Development of Jazz 1930-1945 (1989), made the following comments about Hodeir’s analysis of not only “Concerto for Cootie,” but Ellington’s work in general (to the mid-1950s): “Although Hodeir’s laudatory view of ‘Concerto’ represents for its time (1956) a considerable breakthrough in the state of jazz criticism, some of his argumentation was colored by casuistry and lack of perspective typical of a certain brand of French intellectualism. It reads as if the very fact that Hodeir considered ‘Concerto’ worthy of praise and extensive analysis made it a unique masterpiece to the exclusion (one is led to feel) of almost anything else in jazz, including dozens of other Ellington works.” (1) In the decades since 1956, we saw the continuation and end of Ellington’s orchestra and work. (Duke died in 1974.) Indeed, those years were filled with music-making on many different levels and for many different projects. Some of that music is brilliant and memorable. This (among other factors) now points up the validity of Schuller’s comment about Hodeir’s lack of perspective.
Of course, the criticism of lack of perspective can also be leveled at Schuller’s opinions as they pertain to Ellington’s work, because by the time his book on the Swing Era appeared, a new generation of critics and scholars had begun the work of analyzing the original music manuscripts written by Ellington himself, and, those (starting in 1939), written by his musical collaborator Billy Strayhorn. This important scholarly work has resulted in largely disentangling what Ellington wrote (and how he wrote) from what Strayhorn wrote (and how he wrote it). Schuller lived for many years after this new scholarly work had begun, and its fruits savored by fans of Ellington’s (and Strayhorn’s) music. Unfortunately, his commentary in The Swing Era did not have the benefit of that later critical analysis.
The point I’m trying to make is that the work of the historian is by its very nature cumulative, and in a very real way, collaborative, even if the collaborators are separated by time and space. The writing of history is an ongoing process participated in by different people with different perspectives at different times on the continuum of history. No one person has ever had, nor will he or she ever have, all of the facts, or the wisdom to interpret the facts he/she does have with total accuracy or matchless insight. Instead, we must look at the writing of history as an ongoing communal activity in the sense that everyone who is serious about understanding history and then adding to the historical record has to first look carefully at what has been written before, and then start his or her own work. That process, in turn, will be continued, extended and perfected further by those who follow.
Here is a concise background and explanation for this great Ellington recording, which is a splendid showcase for the trumpet artistry of Charles Melvin “Cootie” Williams (1908-1985), written in 1986 by Mark Tucker: “Ellington’s earlier ‘concerto’ for Cootie Williams, recorded in 1935 as “Cootie’s Concerto,” and later known as “Echoes of Harlem,” emphasized the trumpeter’s distinctive style of “growling” with a plunger mute. (This technique was a specialty of James “Bubber” Miley, whose place Williams assumed in the Ellington band in 1929.) While this effect turns up again in Ellington’s 1940 concerto, …in this performance Williams shows a wider range of style and expression. “Concerto for Cootie” is the best single introduction to the trumpeter’s warm musical personality. It is based on three contrasting themes. The first, heard at both the beginning and end of this performance, later became the basis for one of Ellington’s popular songs, “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” with a lyric by Bob Russell. The second, a brief bluesy episode wedged between statements of the first theme, may well have been invented by Williams. At least it turns up in the unaccompanied introduction to “Mobile Blues,” recorded at a small group date (Williams) led in 1938. But this concerto reaches its peak with the third theme, midway through the piece. After the narrow intervals of the first two themes, this one leaps upward, as Williams opens his horn (removes the pixie straight mute from the bell and puts down the plunger cup), to tell a story.” (2)
I will add my observations about what one hears when listening to this performance:
“Concerto for Cootie” begins with an eight bar introduction that consists of Williams, unaccompanied, playing the eight note melodic fragment on his plunger-muted trumpet that serves as a recurring motive throughout the performance. The band then picks him up on the first repetition of that motive, with the singing saxophones coming in high, then descending, then Juan Tizol’s valve trombone alone, coming in low and ascending. This is followed the other two trombones, and finally Wallace Jones’s trumpet and Rex Stewart’s cornet adding to the sonic mix. As these instruments gradually mass, their harmony becomes thicker and more dissonant. Finally, there is a complete stop to mark the end of the introduction. Although it lasts only seventeen seconds, this introduction contains a cornucopia of musical ideas, instrumental sounds and dynamics. Such was the genius of Ellington. (Above left L-R: Joseph Nanton, Juan Tizol and Lawrence Brown – early 1940s.)
The unconventional first chorus of “Concerto for Cootie” contains essentially four ten bar segments. The first of these can be identified as the “A” melody that was heard in the introduction. A reprise of that melody occurs in the next ten bar segment. The “B” melody (a bridge), appears in the third ten bars, and then there is a return of the main melody in the fourth ten bars. To attempt to simplify my explanation of what is happening as this performance unfolds, I will refer to the four segments of the first chorus as A1, A2, B, and A3.
A1 begins as the introduction did, with an unaccompanied Williams still on plunger muted trumpet, playing the eight note melodic fragment. Notice his use of a lip trill at the end of his phrases here. In this A1 sequence however, Cootie’s instrumental backing arrives in the form of the trombone trio (with Jimmy Blanton’s bass underlining them), answering Williams with droll, soft harmonies. Notice how Blanton’s bass starts its walking rhythm, along with Sonny Greer’s whispering brushed snare drum, as Williams ends his solo in this A1 melody exposition, and the five reeds finish the A1 sequence. Ellington’s reed voicing here is quintessentially Dukish. Each of the four ten bar segments in this first chorus follows a similar pattern: Williams playing solo first, followed by various instrumental blends.
A2 begins with Williams repeating the main melodic fragment yet again, but this time with minimal ornamentation. The reeds provide a quiet cushion of sound here at first. Then Blanton’s walking bass returns and is joined by the descending reeds, now harmonized more densely, and then the gently rhythmic open brass.
B starts with Williams growling on his still plunger-muted trumpet. Notice how Ellington has fashioned an uncluttered call and response background for Cootie here with the reeds playing tag with the open brass. A short upward phrase ends the B segment quickly.
A3 is substantially the same as A2, except that Williams’s solo is followed by the reeds, then three descending bold notes from the trombones, which are followed by a the entire band playing a passage that is actually the beginning of a four bar modulation from the key of F into D-flat.
The second “chorus” is yet another deviation by Ellington from standard song form. It consists of a sixteen bar sequence, plus a two-bar modulation. In this chorus, we hear Williams’s brilliant yet dense open trumpet sound, ornamented with lip trills and glissandi. Ellington provides Cootie with a rich and varied instrumental tapestry to use as his background.
Ellington’s use of his three man trombone section as an independent musical sound in this sequence, and indeed throughout this performance, is noteworthy. The slow emergence of trombone sections as discrete choirs in swing era bands had begun at the end of the 1930s and continued into the 1940s. Eventually, arrangers discovered the potential for trombone sections to deliver sumptuous musical sounds, and they were employed as yet another vivid instrumental color in big bands.
Williams resumes his use of the plunger mute in the next sequence, which is ten bars in length. Here he plays a paraphrase of the main melodic motive of “Concerto for Cootie,” with the both the dynamic level and register of the music now reduced to sotto voce. Both the band and Cootie move the music up and intensify it as a musical tip of the hat this classic performance ends.
If one wants to read a much deeper and far more technical analysis of Duke Ellington’s “Concerto for Cootie,” (and indeed for many other of Ellington’s recorded performances), consult: Duke Ellington-Jazz Composer, by Ken Attenbury (1990). His analysis of “Concerto for Cootie,” including much musical notation, covers pages 164-199. The material in those pages aided me in lifting the veils of mystery that surround Ellington’s music in this performance.
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) The Swing Era – The Development of Jazz 1930-1945 (1989), by Gunther Schuller, 119.
(2) Duke Ellington – The Blanton-Webster Band, RCA-Bluebird 5659-I-RB (1986), notes on the music by Mark Tucker, 5.
Links: For more of Duke’s music from the early 1940s, check out these links:
And for the most iconic of all Ellington recordings, which was composed by Duke’s musical collaborator Billy Strayhorn, click on the link below: