“The Sergeant Was Shy” (1939) Duke Ellington; and Charlie Barnet/Billy May (1940)

“The Sergeant Was Shy”

Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on August 28, 1939 for Columbia in New York. (# See note below.)

Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Wallace Jones and Cootie Williams, trumpets; Rex Stewart, cornet; Otto “Toby” Hardwick first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Barney Bigard, tenor saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; (All saxophonists double on B-Flat clarinet.) Lawrence Brown, first trombone; Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombone; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Fred Guy, guitar; Billy Taylor, bass; William “Sonny” Greer, drums.

The story:

Much of the history of the Duke Ellington band through the 1930s was played out in ballrooms, theaters and other venues in the United States. Although Duke did make one now legendary trip to Great Britain in that decade (June 2, 1933 – August 3, 1933), shortly after that, the British Musicians Union issued an edict that no foreign band could perform on British soil. The justification for this ban that British Musicians Union had arrived at, after the great success of Ellington’s 1933 tour through Britain, was that Duke’s success somehow deprived British musicians of work, therefore, no non-British bands would be allowed to perform in Britain. While I could argue the validity of the stance taken by the British Musicians Union (which was not changed for over 20 years) both pro and con, I will report that the ban on foreign musicians performing in Great Britain did not increase work opportunities for British musicians in any appreciable way.

Barriers of this kind were not erected by other authorities having control over who could perform elsewhere in Europe. Consequently, the success of Ellington’s 1933 tour of Britain(*) and Duke’s continuing series of excellent recordings through the 1930s, created a strong demand for personal appearances by Duke and his band throughout Europe during this time. Ellington’s manager/record producer/booking agent and overall guru, Irving Mills, slowly began to assess the possibilities of Duke and his band touring other countries in Europe. Eventually he put together a 34-day 26 concert tour, at $1,000.00 each (multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars). The tour included stops in Belgium, Holland, many dates in Sweden, and two concerts in Denmark. Mills coordinated this tour with the Reuter and Reuter Agency in London, and A & M Dandelot in Paris.(1) Thus commissions from the Ellington tour flowed into the coffers of booking agents in both London and Paris, but not a note of Duke’s music was heard in either city.

For reasons that are discussed elsewhere on this blog (2), soon upon returning from Europe in 1939, Ellington severed all of his his business relationships with Irving Mills and signed with the William Morris Agency as his booking agent. This and other smart business moves by Ellington (he received and followed the advice given to him by the people at the Morris Agency) enabled Duke’s career to flourish throughout the 1940s.

The Music:

“The Sergeant Was Shy” is Duke Ellington’s overhaul of the venerable jazz tune “Bugle Call Rag,” also known in the 1920s as “Bugle Call Blues.” It was written by Jack Pettis, Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, and was first recorded by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1922 as “Bugle Call Blues.” Later renditions, of which there were many, as well as the published sheet music and the song’s copyright information, used the title “Bugle Call Rag.”

Duke being Duke probably played “Bugle Call Rag” until he saw the possibilities for a romping new tune inherent in its bluesy character, faux military bugle call, and breaks.(3) While no one could ever justifiably criticize Duke Ellington’s music for being derivative, Duke nevertheless was very aware of what was going on in the world of swing at any given time. His bracing introduction for “The Sergeant Was Shy” suggests the kind of writing Larry Clinton was doing in the middle 1930s for the Casa Loma band and Tommy Dorsey, and then did for his own band starting in 1938, albeit supercharged by Ellington. Hear how Duke starts by using the four clarinets in unison, accompanied only by Billy Taylor’s bass, then adding the syncopated open trombones and Sonny Greer’s brushed snare drum, then the cup-muted trumpets playing in another rhythmic pattern, then dividing the clarinets, constantly building intensity. This is how the Clinton band would have sounded on an LSD trip – if that substance had existed in the 1930s. (Above right – L-R: Otto Hardwick, Barney Bigard and Johnny Hodges playing their clarinets, late 1930s. The bell in the upper right corner is a part of Harry Carney’s clarinet.)

The ensemble then falls silent, and we hear Fred Guy playing a few bars on his guitar, surely a rarity in Ellington’s music, which leads into the tune’s first chorus. This is the first of many contrasts Ellington presents in “The Sergeant Was Shy.” The cup-muted trumpets return with a jaunty melody, with the open trombones in the background. Then the four saxophones, sounding very 1930s-ish, parry and thrust with the muted trumpets, which then take up an intensely rhythmic figure played against the smooth bluesy unison saxophones.

Sonny Greer’s drum burst springs clarinetist Barney Bigard into a swooping break, followed by a joyous solo, played against a busy background of bouncing open trombones and saxophones. Cornetist Rex Stewart also enters his solo by way of a break. The first part of his solo is in his lower middle register. After a bit of rhythm from the saxophones, Stewart returns, pounding away at a high note. (Above right: Ellington presents Rex Stewart to a dance audience.) This is followed by a sequence featuring Duke’s trombone trio, one of many glories in Ellington’s music through the 1930s. The brass return with a jazzy bugle call of Ellington’s creation. Notice how muscular the Ellington brass sounds when the trombones join the trumpets in this passage. Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton then pops into the sonic mix for a few bars of his singular plunger-muted trombone. A romping finale features the brass and reeds, along with a couple of parting thoughts from Nanton.


“The Sergeant Was Shy”

Composed by Duke Ellington; arranged by Billy May.

Recorded by Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra for RCA/Bluebird on July 19, 1940 in New York.

Charlie Barnet, soprano and tenor saxophones, directing: Sam Skolnick, first trumpet; Lyman Vunk, Billy May and Bernie Privin, trumpets; Claude Murphy, Bill Robertson and Don Ruppersberg, trombones; Gene Kinsey, first alto saxophone; Leo White, alto saxophone; Kurt Bloom, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Lamare, tenor and baritone saxophones; Bill Miller, piano; Anthony “Bus” Etri, guitar; Phil Stephens, bass; Cliff Leeman, drums.

The story continues: 

Duke Ellington’s “The Sergeant Was Shy” is a reimagining of “Bugle Call Rag.” Charlie Barnet’s “The Sergeant Was Shy” is a reimagining of Duke’s version by the brilliant 23 year-old arranger Billy May. Here is some background on the Ellington/Barnet/May musical troika:

Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra played an engagement at the New Penn Club, a roadhouse in Liberty, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh on June 10 to 23, 1938. At that time, Billy May was working around the Pittsburgh area (Pittsburgh was his home town), with the Baron Elliot Orchestra, playing mainly trombone, some trumpet, and writing three or four arrangements a week (at $3.00 each) for the band. Although the Elliot band was a local band that played music in the Guy Lombardo-Sammy Kaye style (rather staid, stylized dance music), it was successful in the Pittsburgh territory. Billy was making between $70-80 a week working with this band, very good money in 1938.

“While working with Baron (Elliot), (May) was driving home to Pittsburgh from an amusement park gig, and he heard the Charlie Barnet band on the air. Billy then aimed his car at the New Penn Club, where Charlie was playing. ‘He had a remarkably wild band, really Ellington-oriented, but more junglized.’ Their seemingly relaxed, effortless swing and feeling for jazz made a tremendous and lasting impression on Billy, who often cited Barnet’s preoccupation with Ellington’s band and music as a basic musical necessity. (At left: Charlie Barnet  and Duke Ellington – early 1940s.)

Billy had gained enough local fame as an arranger to give him the courage to …introduce himself to (Barnet),” (1) and ask Barnet if he would want to try out one of Billy’s arrangements.

” ‘Fine,’ said Barnet. ‘Bring it around tomorrow.’ Always a rapid writer, Billy had the arrangement ready by four o’clock the next afternoon.” (2) Barnet later recalled, “We were having a rehearsal, and here was this guy waiting there, and his shoes were cut out at the sides to make them more comfortable. I told him ‘As soon as we finish what we’re doing here, we’ll try it.’ So we passed the arrangement out, and the guys in the band, it was afternoon and they wanted to get out. They started grumbling and I said, ‘Well, let’s try this arrangement.’  And they were real drug and bored, and they leaned back and got through about the first eight bars …and they all came up in their seats, and they were looking at the music.” (1) ” It was wow! We all knew that it was the best arrangement in our book.” 

That night, Charlie gave Billy ten tunes to arrange. ‘When these were done, we got down to the mundane matter of money.’ said May later. “I’d been getting $3 an arrangement, and asked if $5 was too much. (Charlie) said that was fine and left, taking all ten arrangements with him.” 

Weeks then months went by and Billy’s $50 failed to appear. He heard that Barnet had broken up his band and was about to write the whole thing off as a failure. Then, one February night in 1939, he flipped on his car radio and picked up the Charlie Barnet band, together again, broadcasting from 52nd Street’s Famous Door. Billy fired off a letter to Barnet asking what had happened to his $50. Barnet’s answer: ‘Come and get it.’ Billy went, collected the $50, and signed on with Barnet: four arrangements a week for $70. (2) (Above right: Charlie Barnet with Billy May – 1939.)

Billy May’s always colorful and swinging arranging elevated the music of the Barnet band almost immediately. May provided Barnet with hit recordings on “Cherokee” in the summer of 1939, and “Pompton Turnpkie” in 1940, and equally importantly, was able to reinvent classic Ellington recordings Barnet loved in a way that fit the musical personality of Charlie Barnet and his band perfectly.

The music: The Barnet’s band became better through 1939 because its successes were by then beginning to have a cumulative effect. Charlie himself was playing very well, with his tenor and alto saxophones being his main feature. In 1939, he also began to feature his soprano saxophone. And despite Barnet’s long-standing dedication to partying, he was a remarkably focused leader who was able to get the music out of his sidemen at a high level of excellence. With the success of his Bluebird recording of “Cherokee” in the fall of 1939, Barnet began getting better paying gigs. Throughout 1939, he had been strengthening his band. In addition to Billy May, who arrived in February, Charlie added pianist Bill Miller in March, saxophonist/arranger Skip Martin in August, and drummer Cliff Leeman in November. May and Skip Martin began producing excellent arrangements on pop tunes and jazz originals. It was May however who had a knack for translating the musical language of Duke Ellington into something that was more understandable to fans of the Barnet band. Billy refashioned a number of Ellington tunes for Barnet including, “At a Dixie Roadside Diner,” “Ring Dem Bells,” “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” and “The Sergeant Was Shy.”

Charlie Barnet and his band at the Panther Room of Hotel Sherman in Chicago – May 2-13, 1941. L-R back: Cliff Leeman, Lyman Vunk, Charlie Zimmerman, Bob Price and Bernie Privin. Front: Bill Miller, Phil Stephens, Bus Etri, Barnet, Kurt Bloom, Conn Humphries, Leo White, Jimmy Lamare. The trombonists are: Claude Murphy, Tommy Reo, Bill Robertson and Ford Leary. By the time this photo was taken, Billy May had been lured away from the Barnet band by Glenn Miller.

The romping Barnet recording of “The Sergeant Was Shy” begins with arranger May focusing on only one of the multiple melodic fragments in the Ellington original, a thirteen note bit of melodic minimalism that he uses as a riffing recurring theme to build rhythmic intensity, first in the saxophones and then in the trombones. The bright trumpets then add their own little riff, with the recurring saxophone riff catapulting Barnet into his jazz solo on tenor saxophone. May then employs a break to spring trumpeter Bernie Privin into his jazz solo. Notice how Billy uses the saxophones and trombones as shifting background for Privin’s solo trumpet. (Jazz trumpet soloist Bernie Privin, pictured below left, had joined the Barnet band around July 1, replacing the talented Bob Burnet, who flirted with becoming a bandleader in the summer of 1940.)

Another break highlights the trumpet section’s arrival, as they move the music forward in a three-way interaction with the saxophones and trombones.

Yet another break provides an opening for drummer Cliff Leeman to keep the rhythm going before the roaring ensemble returns, at first without rhythm and then with, to swing its way through the exuberant finale. Notice how May has the trumpets use glissandi in this climactic sequence.

This superb performance showcases a great arrangement played with gusto by the Barnet band.

Notes Ellington:

(#) Ellington’s recording of “The Sergeant Was Shy” was made at the World Recording Studio, 711 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where a great many historic recordings were made during the swing era. This was the NBC studio before the advent of the complex of studios in Radio City in the middle 1930s. Within the last few years, I entered the lobby of this building and walked to the place where there was a security checkpoint manned by two no-nonsense guards. I asked the guards if they knew where the recording space had been in this building. They looked at each other, rolled their eyes, and gestured for me to leave.

(*) The Ellington band also played one concert in the Netherlands and three concerts in Paris in 1933.

(1) Duke Ellington Day by Day, by Klaus Stratemann (1992), 158.

(2) Ellington would soon also start his own music publishing enterprise, Tempo Music, Inc., and moved his recording activities away from Columbia Records to Victor Records. Much more information about the Ellington-Mills divorce can be found here:


(3) A “break” in jazz occurs when all playing stops, and then an instrumentalist plays alone in the temporary silence.

Links Ellington:

Here is a link that Ellington fans will find interesting. It contains a wealth of information:


Here are links to some other music made by the Ellington band in the 1930s:





Notes Barnet:

(1) The Music of Billy May (1998), by Jack Mirtle, 4.

(2) The Swing Era – One More Time – Billy May  (1972), 49.

Links Barnet:




For a panorama of images that appear here at swingandbeyond.com, click on this link:



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  1. This article is jam packed with great information. The custom of musicians firing the manager that built them into stars for a “Career Move” strikes close to home for me and should be a warning to anyone thinking about engaging in the thankless job of a music manager. Without Irving Mills would Duke Ellington have been able to move to William Morris? I think not.

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