“Drop Me Off in Harlem”
Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.
Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Brunswick on February 16, 1933 in New York.
Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Arthur Whetsel, first trumpet; Cootie Williams and Freddie Jenkins, trumpets; Lawrence Brown, Joseph Nanton, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto Hardwick, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Barney Bigard, tenor saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy. guitar; Wellman Braud, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.
I have always loved autumn in New York. This particular October morning a few years ago was cool and somewhat overcast. Since I have two adult children living in Manhattan, I visit New York twice a year—in the spring and in the fall. And since they both work during the day, I have taken to setting up appointments and visits with people I have come to know in the music and/or history business to occupy my days. Those visits have taken me into many parts of the city that I would not have otherwise visited. (At right: Duke Ellington in the 1930s. – He was no ordinary bandleader.)
I had made an appointment to visit Loren Schoenberg, senior scholar of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem at the Museum, which was then located at 104 East 126th Street. (The Museum has since moved to 58 West 129th Street.) I had visited Loren at the Museum previously, and on that occasion had taken the Lexington Avenue subway north from Grand Central Terminal to East 125th Street. From there it was a short walk to where the Museum was then located.
This time I wanted to approach the Museum from the west, and walk through Harlem a bit. After some high-level subway consultation with my son, who lives on the west side of midtown, I had my subway itinerary organized, and set off from a subway station near his apartment to catch a train heading uptown. After one transfer and about twenty minutes, I emerged from the ground at Seventh Avenue and West 126th Street.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was 10:15. My appointment with Loren was at 11:00, so I began to stroll the streets of Harlem. Every way I turned, it seemed that I encountered some street or place that has been a part of the rich history of jazz and Afro-American music. Seventh Avenue in Harlem is also known as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard. 125th Street is also known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Setting on the southwest corner of the intersection of those two streets is a building that once housed Hotel Theresa. It is now occupied by offices. In this beautiful white terra cotta building Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, and Ray Charles, among many other notables (including Fidel Castro, who was visited there in 1960 by Nikita Khrushchev), lived or stayed. Malcolm X, who maintained an office in the building in the early 1960s, frequently met Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, there. It was also the site where Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph and others organized the 1963 March on Washington. (Above left: Hotel Theresa – 1930s.)
From Seventh Avenue, I walked west on the north side of 125th Street. (Although 125th was alive with activity, I did not encounter “The Prophet of 125th Street.”) Soon I passed the Apollo Theater, which is between Seventh and Eighth, and still very much in operation. The list of great American musicians who have appeared at the Apollo is both long and illustrious.
I turned left and began walking south on Eighth Avenue, also known as Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and came to St. Nicholas Avenue, a diagonal street running southeast and northwest. As I walked down St. Nicholas, I soon encountered Lenox Avenue, which lies between Seventh and Fifth, and is also called Malcolm X Boulevard. It was after Lenox Avenue that William Grant Still named an imaginative suite of music in 1937. Its full title is: “Lenox Avenue Suite for Radio Announcer, Chorus and Orchestra.” Artie Shaw recorded the blues segment from that suite in 1940, in an arrangement by William Grant Still. I then walked up Lenox to 120th and east a bit to lovely Marcus Garvey Park. When I reached Madison Avenue, I turned left and walked north to 126th Street, and was virtually at the Museum.
My morning constitutional through Harlem had been very interesting. It revealed a vital community renewing itself, and also revealed that Harlemites are both aware and proud of their heritage, something I found stimulating. I have since taking that stroll had positive memories of Harlem.
Harlem was home to Duke Ellington through the 1930s. He lived in a palatial penthouse apartment in a lovely building located at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, which was about thirty short blocks north of 125th Street. (The photo above shows 409 Edgecombe Avenue today, looking south.The green space to the left of the building is Jackie Robinson Park; the green space in the upper left part of the picture is Central Park. beyond that are the towers of midtown Manhattan.) Among his neighbors were: Aaron Douglas, a painter of the Harlem Renaissance; Roy Wilkins, a civil rights leader; W.E.B. DuBois, a sociologist and author; and Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who argued the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, and later served as the first black justice on that court. (Pictured below against the facade of 409 Edgecomb, L-R: Marshall, Wilkins, DuBois and Douglas.)
We tend to think of Duke Ellington as only a smiling, flashy bandleader and entertainer, which of course he was. But he was also an extraordinary human being in many respects that have nothing to do with music or bandleading. From the days of his earliest success in the 1920s, Ellington’s magnetic presence drew to him other extraordinary people of all races, creeds, colors and ethnicities. Among those people were civic leaders, clergymen, artists of all sorts, intellectuals, members of royalty, in addition to the cream of show business, including actors, directors, writers, and most certainly musicians.
Steven Lasker, who is the preeminent Ellington historian and expert, provided this explanation of how the song “Drop Me Off in Harlem” came to be. “In his liner notes to a 1963 Ellington album (Columbia C3L-27), Stanley Dance (*) wrote that ‘Drop Me Off at Harlem,’ as the title appeared on the label of the original Brunswick release, ‘originated as Duke and Nick Kenny rode in a cab across the George Washington Bridge after a benefit. ‘Where you going, Duke?’ Kenny asked. ‘Drop Me Off in Harlem’ was the answer. Later, Kenny came up with the lyric. (The sheet music and copyright application both show ‘Drop Me Off IN Harlem,’ and this phrase is also used in the song’s lyric.” (1)
“Drop Me Off in Harlem” includes two of Ellington’s most beguiling melodies as the tune’s main theme and bridge/secondary theme. The instrumental solos played by Ellington’s sidemen are basically paraphrases of those melodies. The relaxed mood and tempo of the piece suggest an unhurried stroll on a quiet Harlem street on a balmy afternoon. The solo sequence is as follows: Ellington plays the intro on piano; then Lawrence Brown appears on trombone. Then there is a sequence of trumpet solos as follows: Arthur Whetsel, Freddie Jenkins, Whetsel again; Cootie Williams (fills), Williams; Barney Bigard on clarinet.
“Drop Me Off in Harlem”
Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington; original Ellington arrangement reconstructed by Bob Wilber.
Recorded in 1984 by a studio orchestra in New York led by Bob Wilber, released on the Geffen LP film soundtrack recording The Cotton Club.
Bob Wilber, alto saxophone and clarinet, directing: Dave Brown, Marky Markowitz, Randy Sandke and Lew Soloff, trumpets; Joel Helleny, and Britt Woodman, trombones; Dan Barrett, valve trombone; Chuck Wilson, first alto saxophone; Frank Wess, alto saxophone; Lawrence Feldman, tenor saxophone; Joe Temperley, baritone saxophone; Mark Shane, piano; Mike Peters, guitar; John Goldsby, bass; Chuck Riggs, drums.
I have recounted elsewhere on this blog the wonderful jazz events produced by the late Joe Boughton, starting in the mid-1980s into the 2000s.(2) In addition to hearing and seeing many great musicians perform at close range at those events, I was able to meet and talk with many musicians. Some of the musicians I spoke with were older men and women who had made their reputations during the swing era. But one of the truly great features of Joe Boughton’s jazz parties was that he always made sure to mix in with these veterans skilled younger performers who were musically compatible. Many of these younger musicians were younger than me. Almost all of them, in addition to being masters of their instrument(s), were remarkably conversant with the history of jazz.
One such musician was and is the trombonist/cornetist/arranger Dan Barrett. At one of Joe’s events, Dan and the fine group he co-led then with the gifted guitarist Howard Alden, performed a sublime refashioning of the John Kirby Sextet’s “Dawn on the Desert,” which impressed me deeply.(3) I have been in contact with Dan over the years, and he patiently continues to answer the musical and historical questions I ask him from time to time. (Above right: Dan Barrett looking back.)
As I began to prepare this post, and I reviewed the liner notes for The Cotton Club soundtrack LP, I was reminded that Dan Barrett participated in all of the recording sessions for the Ellington music that was featured in that film. I sent Dan an email asking him if he had any recollections of that particular project, and if he did, would he like to share any of them with the visitors to swingandbeyond.com. He said he had a number of memories from that experience, and graciously agreed to write them down and share them. What you will read below are excerpts from what Dan sent to me. I am most grateful to him for taking the time to recount his experiences and share them with us. (Above left: A copy of a French 1930s vintage folio of Ellington music, courtesy of Dan Barrett.)
“I could not have been more pleased when Mike Zirpolo contacted me, and asked me to share my memories about having played for the soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Cotton Club. I was able to tell Mike that I happily recall many of the details about that special episode in my life. I am glad to share some of them with you here.
It was the virtuoso guitarist Howard Alden who encouraged me to follow his lead and move from southern California to New York City. I got to the Big Apple in February of 1983, about a year after Howard. I had the good fortune to have a steady gig already waiting for me, as I’d agreed to join the Widespread Depression Orchestra before I left California. If anything, that band was ahead of its time, and presaged the “Swing Era” revival that occurred about fifteen years later. (On the advice of management, the band changed its name to the Widespread Jazz Orchestra. I’ve always preferred the original name.)
It was during a gig at the Maryland Inn in Annapolis with the Widespreaders that I received a phone call at my hotel (before cell phones) from my wife, Laura. I was to call Bob Wilber; something about a new movie to be filmed about the 1930s nightclub called the Cotton Club.
Well, that sounded intriguing. I had met Bob a few years before at the Breda Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, and we played a few sets together. I must have played with him a few times after that. The musical circle of jazz musicians who believe that jazz existed before the 1960s is a small one, and we all find out about each other. After those early encounters, I guess Bob had heard from friends in the circle that I was living in New York.
I called Bob back, and he got right to the point: “Francis Ford Coppola is directing a movie about the Cotton Club,” he said. “He wants us to re-create the Duke Ellington band of about 1935…” “Good luck with that,” I said. Bob ignored me and went on. “Can you play valve trombone?”
Now, I hadn’t touched one since high school band when I briefly fooled around with another student’s horn. However, I had been playing cornet off and on, and the fingerings are the same on cornet as for valve trombone. So I said, “Sure!” Bob then asked, “OK, good. Now, can you play valve trombone exactly like Juan Tizol?” (At left: Bob Wilber on clarinet.)
Well, with all due respect to Bob, that was certainly a ridiculous question. I thought for a second and replied, “Probably not, but I look something like him!” (This is years ago, folks). Bob at least chuckled at that. He told me that an experienced Broadway arranger had written a whole score for the film. It was all recorded at considerable expense, and Coppola threw it all out. It was good, professional orchestrating, but was completely anachronistic; it bore no resemblance to how Ellington’s band sounded during the Cotton Club years.
Bob said, “Francis has hired me to transcribe various Ellington recordings note-for-note. We’re going to record them for a whole new soundtrack for the movie. We’ll have at least two weeks of double sessions.” Bob gave me the dates, and I called Laura back with the good news. Two weeks of double sessions at Musician’s Union scale would add up to some fairly serious money…for a jazz trombone player. “There’s one hitch,” Laura said. “What’s that?” “You don’t have a valve trombone.”
“Oh. Well, Bob needed a good deal of time to do the transcriptions, and the first date of recording was about two months off. No sweat. I had two months in which to buy a valve trombone and figure out how to play it like Juan Tizol. Ha, ha.
Laura and I started going around to the various music stores in Manhattan and New Jersey. I tried brand new trombones. I wanted to be at my best for these sessions, and even deducting the cost of a new horn, I’d still make money.
Now, a valve trombone is notorious for not responding like its cousin, the slide trombone. The word often used is “stuffy.” They don’t have a ringing, “open” quality like the slide version, and are tricky to play in tune with themselves. (A trombonist has the slide to help him or her control the pitch. A valve trombonist can only use his/her lips to shade the pitch sharper or flatter, as needed). Still, in the hands of a master like Tizol or Bob Brookmeyer, the sound of a valve trombone can be a beautiful thing; very different than its sliding cousin. But first, you have to find a good one!” (At right: Juan Tizol.)
Dan and Laura eventually did find a very special valve trombone, which Dan says he played exclusively on all of the recordings that were made by Bob Wilber’s band for the soundtrack of The Cotton Club film. In fact, Dan revealed that he recorded a solo on the Juan Tizol tune “Pyramid,” that was used behind a rather steamy scene in the film, but for whatever reason did not make it onto The Cotton Club soundtrack LP. Dan does not have a dub of that recording, but I would certainly love to find one. It would make a wonderful musical point of departure for a story about the mysterious Mr. Tizol, his unique sound on valve trombone, and the tune “Pyramid,” and Dan Barrett’s story about how he recorded that marvelous melody for the Cotton Club soundtrack.
This recording of “Drop Me Off in Harlem” was meticulously reconstructed from the Ellington original by Bob Wilber, and performed with spot-on accuracy and authenticity of spirit by the band of musicians whom Wilber had assembled and conducted. One of the joys of listening to a recording like this, which was made more than 50 years after the original, is that one can hear so many more details in the music than on 1930s vintage recordings. Nevertheless, there are slight differences between the Ellington original and this recording, which if anything, heighten the inherent quality in the music itself. The soloists on this recording are: Mark Shane, piano; Britt Woodman (a latter-day Ellingtonian) on trombone; first and third trumpet solos, Randy Sandke; second trumpet solo, Dave Brown; fourth trumpet solo, Lew Soloff (formerly with Blood, Sweat and Tears); Bob Wilber, clarinet solo.
Dan Barrett’s story continues:
“Well, I played it for a few weeks, liking the instrument more and more. I listened again to the sublime valve trombone playing of the great Juan Tizol, and showed up for the first day of recording. I think we were at Clinton Studios in Manhattan, but I’m not sure after so many years. Clinton (or wherever we were) was a spacious facility, with a very large recording room; suitable for a full symphony orchestra.
At the first session, we got into our places. Our parts—heavy-stock paper music, prepared for each individual instrument in the band–were already on our music stands, professionally and laboriously hand-copied by pro copyists at one of the many offices (or “houses”) in Manhattan devoted to the profession. Like everyone else, I immediately began thumbing through the parts on my stand, searching for difficult passages, and anxiously trying to see what I’d gotten myself into.
Bob called everyone to order, and after a few welcoming remarks we were suddenly playing the first chart. A lot of worry fell away immediately, as I was reminded how easy this all can be when one is surrounded by great players. It seemed as though I could feel everyone helping each other through the arrangement.
We reached the ending, and Bob seemed happy. I think we may have gotten a “well done,” or some kind of encouragement from the booth. The “booth” was the smaller, sound-proof room adjacent to the huge room where we were set up. The booth contains all the recording equipment, and monitor speakers so the engineers (and occasionally the musicians, between takes) can hear the band, and hear back what was just recorded. The engineer sits in front of a low, flat panel of electronic switches and sliders that often stretches wall-to-wall, making the cockpit of a 747 look like an arcade game. He’s usually flanked by the session’s producer or producers, and an assistant or two. There might be a couple of VIPs who have been invited to the session relaxing on the ubiquitous leather couch that can usually be found against the wall of any studio’s booth, behind the recording engineer. There’s always coffee, and often a vending machine offering soft drinks and snacks.
We were also excited about the presence of the legendary John Barry, who had been brought in to help produce the sessions. Mr. Barry composed the iconic theme songs for the James Bond films Goldfinger and From Russia, With Love. He did not actually compose the James Bond Theme, but it’s his suspenseful orchestration that has seeped into the public consciousness. During one of the breaks, I had occasion to shake hands with him and introduce myself. I said what one always says to such a person: it’s an honor, sir, blah, blah. He was polite if reserved, but then he had a lot on his mind! I do remember—and have thought often over the years—about how Mr. Barry said nothing when nothing was needed said; he let Bob have full rein. Once in a great while, though, between takes, we would hear the electronic “pop” of the studio speakers being engaged, and then Mr. Barry’s voice would be in the room with us. He had a pronounced, aristocratic English accent. (Above left: John Barry.)
“Uh, Bobby, excuse me,” he would say. “Yes, John?” “I just referenced Duke’s recording. It would seem the brass have a more ‘pungent’ quality behind Johnny Hodges’s solo at letter D. I think they might be using straight mutes instead of cups. What do you think?” And Bob would say, “Brass! Please mark your parts to say, ‘straights’ at letter D instead of ‘cups,’ Thanks, John.” “No problem Bobby. Another take, then?”
I remember every time Mr. Barry interjected himself, it always improved things. He might make a comment to the rhythm section. Whatever was said caused that section to play even more “together” than before. During the two weeks we were with him, he had adroit comments about: intonation; our collective rhythm; our overall balance; and various other musical elements. Whatever he said always somehow helped us in our Fool’s Errand of imitating the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It always improved things, and I came away with a good deal of respect for the man.
Much of what we played had to be timed exactly to action that had already been filmed. Bob would watch a large TV monitor, turned to face him. John Barry would set the tempo to something called a “click-track.” This device is like an electronic metronome, which is played—always too loudly—into your headphones. It “keeps you honest,” and prevents a band or an individual from speeding up or slowing down. If not too drastic, these human foibles are almost acceptable in live performance. In a film, however, when the music is often supposed to coincide with a certain moment of action on the screen, there can be no inaccuracy at all. Just to make things interesting, a musician is often asked to ignore the loud clicking at a certain spot in the music, and play a little faster than the click…or a little slower. This again is to match the speed of specific action on the screen which cannot be easily translated to the click. The first thing musicians do after a take is rip off the damned headphones! No one likes click-tracks.”
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(*) Stanley Dance (1910-1999) was an English writer, historian and record producer. He met Helen Oakley in 1937 on a visit to New York. At that time, she was working for Irving Mills in a number of capacities, including as a public relations person. Dance and Oakley married in January of 1947. From the 1960s until his death, Dance was considered an expert on Duke Ellington. Nick Kenny (1895-1975) was a newspaper columnist who dabbled in writing poetry (in the Edgar Guest tradition), and song lyrics in the 1920s and 1930s. Later, Kenny worked in radio.
(1) Liner notes by Steven Lasker for the Mosaic set of CDs entitled: The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia and Master recordings of Duke Ellington and His famous Orchestra, (2010), 14.
(2) Here is a link to the post where I fondly recall Mr. Boughton: https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/04/26/happiness-was-a-guy-called-joe/
(3) Here is a link to the Alden-Barrett recording of “Dawn on the Desert,” alongside of the Kirby band original: https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/11/23/swing-and-swing-redux-dawn-on-the-desert/
Here are some links to other Ellington music from the 1930s:
Here is a link to a cornucopia of images that have appeared here at swingandbeyond.com:https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&authuser=0&tbm=isch&sxsrf=ALeKk01ab_wdLaoks3KOWDJDefbCPAyiBA%3A1590068824821&source=hp&biw=1600&bih=757&ei=WIbGXuzcL9uQtAaelbXQAg&q=swingandbeyond.com&oq=swingandbeyond.com&gs_lcp=CgNpbWcQAzoHCCMQ6gIQJzoECCMQJzoFCAAQgwE6AggAOgQIABAeOgQIABAYOgYIABAKEBhQrBZY_1tgl2hoAXAAeACAAd8BiAHtDZIBBjE0LjMuMZgBAKABAaoBC2d3cy13aXotaW1nsAEK&sclient=img&ved=0ahUKEwjs6OD7i8XpAhVbCM0KHZ5KDSoQ4dUDCAc&uact=5