“Clementine” (1941) Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with Johnny Hodges and Rex Stewart

“Clementine”

Composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on July 2, 1941 in Hollywood.

Duke Ellington, piano; directing: Wallace Jones and Ray Nance, trumpets; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown and Joseph Nanton, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto Hardwick and Johnny Hodges, alto saxophones; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; Barney Bigard, tenor saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Jimmie Blanton, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.

The story: 

“Clementine,” like “Chelsea Bridge,” “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” “After All,” “Love Like This Can’t Last,” and the most famous of all Strayhorn compositions, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” was a part of the initial batch of remarkable originals Billy Strayhorn composed in late 1940 and very early 1941 in response to Duke’s request for new material because of the problems he as a bandleader/composer was encountering then because of the ASCAP-radio dispute that prohibited broadcast of Duke’s own original compositions. The resulting infusion of Strayhorn’s music into the repertoire of the Ellington band changed it in a number of beneficial ways. Although Ellington fans among the general public then (and now) may not have noticed this, the members of the Ellington band certainly did in 1941, as did Duke himself. Almost immediately when Strayhorn’s music began to be noticed by critics and journalists, they began to create a narrative to the effect that Strayhorn was, musically speaking, Duke’s alter ego. The term “alter ego” means “a second self; another aspect of one’s self.” And of course the “self” in the context of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn relationship was always Duke Ellington. In essence, they were saying that Billy Strayhorn was a Duke Ellington clone.

For many reasons, Billy Strayhorn was not particularly troubled by the public perception that he was basically a second, subsidiary, Duke, at least not for a long time. Strayhorn had no desire to become a bandleader or public persona, and of course, these were things Duke reveled in and did very well. So the publicly accepted modus operandi as between Ellington and Strayhorn that Billy was Duke’s alter ego persisted through the 1940s and into the early 1950s. But as was mentioned above, those inside the world of Duke Ellington’s band were well aware of the differences between Strayhorn’s music and Ellington’s. Strayhorn himself explained his collaboration with Duke this way: “He is he and I am me.”

Walter Van de Leur, the most perceptive of all commentators on the Ellington/Strayhorn musical relationship, has said: “Strayhorn had started to use Ellington’s orchestra in a new way. In works such as ‘Chelsea Bridge.’ ‘Take the ‘A’ Train,’ and ‘Rain Check,’  as well as numerous unrecorded compositions and arrangements, his writing indicated new sonoric possibilities, while drawing on a compositional language unprecedented not only in Ellington’s repertory, but in the entire realm of jazz writing. Though he had certainly taken certain specific Ellington techniques as a point of departure (the famous cross-section writing and the reliance on the reed section), in works such as ‘Tonk,’ ‘Flamingo,’ and ‘Pentonsilic,’ Strayhorn had stretched and transformed these techniques, fusing them with his own idiosyncrasies into a clearly recognizable and highly individual style.”(1)

Perhaps the most significant factor in assessing the Ellington/Strayhorn collaboration is the fact that Duke was not only Billy’s musical collaborator, he was Strayhorn’s patron as well. In recent years, there has been much analysis of human relationships where one party possesses more power than the other party. Inevitably, the party who possesses superior power will use it in ways that are detrimental to the party with less power, especially if the relationship is one that continues for a long time. The Ellington/Strayhorn relationship lasted from 1939 until 1967. Duke clearly had more power in that relationship than Strayhorn. It can be argued that at times, Duke used that superior power in ways that were detrimental to Strayhorn. But at the same time, it can be argued that Duke was a most generous, kind, supportive and appreciative patron of Strayhorn’s work. The details of this can be found in other posts here at swingandbeyond.com about Billy Strayhorn. (See below links.)

The bottom line on the Ellington/Strayhorn musical partnership and collaboration is that it was unconventional and complicated, like the parties involved, but it was magical and it worked.

The music:

This Strayhorn original is not to be confused with the 1927 Harry Warren melody called “Clementine (from New Orleans),” made famous among jazz fans by a remarkable recording by Bix Beiderbecke (see link below).

Strayhorn and Ellington in the Victor recording studio – early 1940s. Identifiable heads from behind L-R: Harry Carney, Otto Hardwick, Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard. Immediately behind Bigard is Lawrence Brown, and behind him is Juan Tizol.

Strayhorn’s individuality as both a composer and arranger are on display in this jaunty performance in which the Ellington band plays with relaxed virtuosity, and great swing. Billy had Duke and his rhythm section mates vamp joyously for eight bars as the introduction to the first chorus, which has the reeds playing the first eight-bar melody segment, with Barney Bigard on clarinet leading. Behind this, Strayhorn had the three trombones using their plunger mutes to oo-ah, with the open trumpets and trombones playing soft harmonic pads in the last bar. The eight bar repeat of the main melody contains the same elements, except that Strayhorn holds back the softly played open trumpets, joined by the open trombones, until the eight bar bridge, which the reeds, sans Bigard’s clarinet, play in a gliding unison, with Harry Carney’s mammoth-toned baritone saxophone prominent. The final eight bar melodic fragment is played as the one immediately before the bridge.

Another photo from the same recording session as the photo above. L-R: Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwick, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.

There is a short, syncopated transition where the reeds and brass are delightfully entwined that leads to Johnny Hodges’s gliding alto saxophone solo. His playing here is quintessential: relaxed, swinging, and delivered with his big, singing sound. Notice the background Strayhorn gave him to play against: the six brass playing rich chords softly atop a propulsive yet unobtrusive rhythm.

The brass and reeds transition is then repeated, this time leading to an odd four-bar segment played by trumpeter Ray Nance as a prelude to, then conjoining seamlessly with Rex Stewart’s cornet solo. (Stewart shown at right.) Unlike the background against which Hodges played, here Strayhorn deploys the reeds in quiet bursts, with more aggressive playing by the rhythm section. Many trumpet players during the swing era liked a heavy back-beat to play against. This device in less skilled hands than Strayhorn’s (and Ellington drummer Sonny Greer’s) often devolved into cliche’. Not here however. Greer’s accompaniment of Stewart is perfection. Notice how Sonny deftly adds offbeats on his tom-tom on the transition into the bridge. The syncopation in the reeds balances the heavy rhythm, as do Duke’s cleverly placed piano chords. The open trombones further expand the instrumental textures we hear on the bridge. In the last eight bars of this chorus, the saxophones alone set off Stewart’s velvety cornet sound, and a couple of half-valve effects, a Stewart specialty.

The Bigard led-reeds and oo-ah trombones return to finish this delightful essay in swing.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Something to Live For …The Music of Billy Strayhorn (2002), by Walter van de Leur, 64.

Here are some links to other posts here at swingandbeyond.com which present and discuss the music of Billy Strayhorn:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/04/05/something-to-live-for-1965-ella-fitzgerald-with-duke-ellington-1939-duke-ellington-1975-tommy-flanagan/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/02/11/chelsea-bridge-billy-and-billy-strayhorn-and-may/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/11/17/u-m-m-g-1960-music-of-billy-strayhorn-dizzy-gillespie-with-clare-fischer/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/03/22/take-the-a-train-composed-and-arranged-by-billy-strayhorn/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/03/10/lush-life-1956-sarah-vaughan/

Here are links to some Strayhorn/Ellington collaborations:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/03/18/sepia-panorama-1940-duke-ellington/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/08/31/rocks-in-my-bed-1941-duke-ellington-and-ivie-anderson/

Here is a link to some of the earliest examples of swing, including Bix Beiderbecke’s timeless solo on “Clementine (from New Orleans)”:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/03/22/louis-armstrong-and-west-end-blues-bix-beiderbecke-and-clementine-and-the-birth-of-swing/

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