“What Am I Here For?” (1942) Duke Ellington with Joseph Nanton, Rex Stewart and Ben Webster

“What Am I Here For”

Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on February 26,1942 in New York.

Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Wallace Jones, first trumpet; Ray Nance, trumpet; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, first trombone; Joseph Nanton, trombone; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto Hardwick, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Barney Bigard and Ben Webster, tenor saxophones; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Alvin “Junior” Raglin, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.

The story: The Duke Ellington band that made this recording was on the cusp of some major personnel changes. Duke’s long stay in southern California in 1941 caused three of his stalwart band members to decide to leave the road and settle down in Los Angeles in 1942. Those three, Juan Tizol, Barney Bigard and vocalist Ivie Anderson together had accrued over 35 years of experience in Duke’s band. Cootie Williams, Duke’s primary trumpet soloist through the 1930s and into 1940 had left Duke’s band in late 1940 to join Benny Goodman for a year. By 1942, he was leading his own band. Duke’s young bass wizard, Jimmie Blanton, had left the band in late 1941, suffering from tuberculosis. Tragically, he would succumb to that disease in 1942.

Of the performers who remained with Duke, Johnny Hodges, always Ellington’s most popular sideman, continued to be featured heavily. The replacement for Williams, Ray Nance, in addition to playing fine trumpet, also played the violin very well. He had become an Ellington star almost overnight as a result of his brilliant trumpet solos on the Ellington band’s recording of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which was a big hit. Ellington veteran, cornetist Rex Stewart, was getting his share of solos, both on up-tempo screamers and on introspective ballads.

But the Ellington soloist who blossomed most fully in the early 1940s was tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. Although Ben’s growing legion of fans steadily demanded that he play his romping up-tempo specialty “Cotton Tail,” Webster was evolving as a jazz soloist of uncommon expressiveness when playing ballads. Duke, whose creative antennae were always super-sensitive when it came to how his musicians were expressing themselves, noticed. He and Billy Strayhorn began to write more music that would feature Webster in a contemplative mode. Among the compositions written with Ben in mind were: “Blue Serge,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “I Don’t Know What Kind of Blues I Got,” “Just a-Settin’ and a-Rockin,” and “What Am I Here For?” (Above right: Ben Webster around 1940.)

Ben Webster was a man who felt things deeply. Despite his sometimes volcanic temper, especially when he was drinking, he had a sensitive side to his personality. One of the most musically influential experiences he ever had was sitting with Johnny Hodges night-after-night in the Ellington saxophone section, listening to Hodges play ballads. He would later say that that experience shaped his approach to ballad playing.

A very famous picture of a very famous band at a gig that has become legendary – Crystal Ballroom Fargo, North Dakota, November 7, 1940. Those who are visible L-R are front: Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwick, Ben Webster, Harry Carney; middle: Rex Stewart, Ray Nance, Wallace Jones, Joseph Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown; back: Sonny Greer.(*)

Few people have ever recalled Webster more interestingly and amusingly than his fellow Ellingtonian, Rex Stewart. His essay on Ben, which is contained in his marvelous book Jazz Masters of the 30’s, contains a vivid picture of Webster (who was nick-named “Frog” by Jimmie Blanton because of his protuberant eyes). It first appeared in Down Beat on June 1, 1967, and is is entitled “The Frog and Me (Ben Webster).” Here are a few snippets from that essay:

“Ben Webster is not only one of the greatest exponents of the tenor saxophone, but he is also a talented arranger, composer, billiard player and photographer. Each of these things Ben does well enough to be considered a professional if he decided to work at any one of them. Still, throughout his career, he has followed a destiny as a communicator on his instrument. Everything else has been relegated to a hobby.”

“Lester Young’s father engaged Ben to play with the Young family band. Were it not for this, Ben might never have learned the tenor saxophone. (He’d started on alto.) Lester introduced him to the tenor saxophone, and tutored him. The two of them would go down by the river and blow by the hour. One day, the lessons were almost broken off for good when Lester decided to dive into the river, even though he was not a good swimmer. I have never been able to find out the exact facts – whether Lester got beyond his depth, had a cramp, or what – but Ben had to jump in and save his life. This feat was to repeat years later, by Ben rescuing someone he did not know. These acts are unknown to most people, and Webster makes no attempt to show the better side of himself.”

The beating heart of Duke Ellington’s band – 1940 – the rhythm section of L-R: Fred Guy, guitar; Ellington, piano; Sonny Greer, drums and Jimmie Blanton, bass.

“The person Ben was most devoted to outside of his mother and grandmother, was Jimmie Blanton. It was Ben who first heard the young bass player, and hounded Duke Ellington until he went to hear this phenomenal musician.(1) After that, history was made. …Ben was a different man as he watched over Blanton like a mother hen. For the first time since I’d known Ben, he cut way down on his whiskey, and would sit by the hour counseling young Jimmie on the facts of life.”

“A humorous bit of association between Blanton and Webster comes to mind. The Ellington band was up in the far northern part of the country. playing a theater, and just as we finished our last show, we noticed that it had begun to snow like mad. Everybody decided to head home immediately, instead of making one of the jam sessions that was our customary after-work amusement. I recall going to bed without stopping to eat, only to be awakened by hunger pangs a few hours later. I got up and stumbled to a nearby restaurant. As I drew near, I saw a strange sight. At first, there appeared to be a group of primitive monsters trudging through the snow. But it was Ben carrying Blanton piggy-back, with Jimmie’s bass fiddle under one arm. Jimmie was doggedly hanging on to Ben’s neck with one arm, while the other clutched Ben’s saxophone case.”

The music: To comment on the music, I will cite to Mark Tucker’s liner notes from the Original LP issue Duke Ellington …The Blanton-Webster Band, RCA-Bluebird 5659-RB (1986), which provide a good start, and then add my own impressions. “Ellington’s peerless saxophone quintet (Bigard is on tenor here) carries the theme, and the bottom-heavy scoring lends depth to the melody, as though it were produced by a majestic reed organ. Note the care Ellington lavishes on his ‘backgrounds’ — it is hardly fair to term them thus, so important are they to establishing the specific identity of (this) piece. A striking textural shift occurs during Nanton’s eight-bar solo, as he is at first accompanied by ghostly muted trumpets, then by low, sustained saxophone chords. In the second chorus, Ellington and Rex Stewart make brief appearances before leaving the stage to Webster. Ben’s solo is full of rhythmic invention; he uses double-time phrasing through much of it, slows down in the last four bars, then makes his exit with ascending triplets that take him to the top of his range and prepare for the full band’s reprise of the theme.”

Ellington was a master setter of moods. Here in the first four bars, he immediately evokes the thoughtful reflection suggested by this tune’s title with his other-worldly, floating muted brass introduction. The trumpets are predominant in this, but I think I also hear at least one trombone in Duke’s gossamer-like brass blend. Bassist Junior Raglin, Jimmie Blanton’s successor, then starts the rhythmic undercurrent, followed by Sonny Greer adding a marvelous cymbal swish. In ten seconds, Ellington has transported the listener to a never-never land of beauty and warmth. The saxophones then appear with the main melody for sixteen bars.

Mr. Tucker commented on “the bottom-heavy scoring” in this sequence. Yes, that is true, but we must remember that one of the unique features of the Ellington saxophone section was the presence at the bottom of its sound of Harry Carney’s massive-toned baritone. Duke well understood how to use Carney’s sonority to enrich the sound of his saxophone quintet. At the same time, he balanced that sound with the singing sound of Otto Hardwick’s lead alto saxophone. The voices in the middle of this sonic mix, Ben Webster’s husky tenor saxophone, and Johnny Hodges’s robust alto, and Barney Bigard’s tenor, were blended to perfection with those top and bottom sounds. The perfection we hear in this sixteen-bar melodic exposition is the result of Ellington’s brilliance as an arranger, and the fact that these five saxophonists had played together every day for the previous two years. (Above right – one of the great saxophone sections of the swing era: L-R: Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwick and Harry Carney.)

Joseph Nanton plays on the bridge, employing his pixie straight mute and plunger to create his signature sound, which of course contrasts with the saxophone sounds that preceded it. Muted trumpets provide the background for the first half of Nanton’s solo, with the rich reed chords supporting him in the second half. Then the saxophones reprise the main melody in the last eight bars of the first chorus, with a delightful bit of added scoring (those distant cup-muted trumpets, the robust trombone trio, and Carney’s massive baritone sound are all to be heard, capped by Hardwick’s singing alto sound on top of the saxophone blend) as a transition into the second chorus. (Above left: Joseph Nanton performs onstage.)

Having cast his spell and oriented the listener to this tune’s melody in the first chorus, Duke opens the second chorus in contrasting fashion with four bars of his aphoristic piano. Then Rex Stewart plays his cornet, his velvety sound being caressed by warm saxophone pads. Duke and Rex play hide-and-seek for a bit, and then Ben Webster takes the spotlight, at first assuming Duke’s role as Stewart’s musical conversation partner. (At right: Rex Stewart.)

Webster starts the main body of his solo against the background of those three open trombones, and whispering rhythm – the blend and balance of these instruments being sublime. Then, for the first time in this performance, we hear the open trumpets, adding a pointillistic but gentle glow, after which the wind instruments behind Webster are tacit. (At left: Ben Webster and Ellington’s trombones, L-R: Nanton, Tizol, Brown.)

The full ensemble then swells atop Greer’s crisp back-beats to take the listener to the bright finale.

This recording is a great example of Ellington, the master sonic painter, presenting a simple melody in an arrangement that at all times has warmth, subtlety, contrast, balance, and of course, gentle swing. Bravo Duke!

A bit more story: People often wonder about the circumstances which led to Ben Webster’s first departure from the Ellington band. As one can imagine, when personalities as strong as Ellington’s and Webster’s collide, the results will be interesting. Ducal observers know that Ellington had an almost superhuman ability to tolerate the misbehaviors and foibles of the musicians who worked with him. It is fair to say that few of Duke’s sidemen ever tested his equanimity more than Ben Webster did. Here is a summary of what happened before Ben finally left:

“In the spring of 1943, Ellington and Ben were growing tired of each other. Ben’s excessive drinking, his bragging, and occasional uncontrolled behavior had long irritated Ellington, who once felt Ben’s sudden temper himself. ‘He wasn’t always ‘Gentle Ben,’ recalled (trumpeter) Clark Terry. ‘He loses his temper sometimes and he slapped Duke one time on the spur of the moment.’ Another time, Ben arrived early for a concert and went into Ellington’s dressing room and began to try on some of Duke’s fancy clothing. While trying a jacket, he straightened up to look at himself, but he was too broad (across the shoulders), and he ripped the jacket all the way down the back. Naturally, Ellington, who happened to walk in right then, was furious. (Then) once Ben humiliated Ellington in front of an audience, which certainly did not help their tense relationship. Somewhat drunk after a break, Ben sat down at the piano and played ‘The Band Call,’ as he had done so often before, to rally the musicians for the next set. But on this occasion, Ben did not leave the piano bench when Ellington entered the stage. Ellington tried to push Ben away, but received such a heavy shove in return that he fell over on stage in front of the audience.” (2)

Despite this outrageous misbehavior by Webster, Duke would not fire him. Instead, Duke punished Ben in a way he knew would really hurt: he slowly took away all of his solos. Finally, after enduring this for a time, Webster went to Duke and said “Duke, why don’t you pay me more money? You’re working me to death.”  Ellington, sensing that he now had Webster right where he wanted him, said in return in his usual diplomatic fashion, ‘Ben, I can’t afford to pay you what you’re worth. Nobody can.'” (3) Whereupon, Webster quit.

But he would be back.

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

Notes and links:

(*) The Crystal Ballroom gig became legendary because of the recordings that were made of the Ellington band that night. Those recordings are now widely available and show the Ellington band in action on a typical 1940 dance date.

(1) I don’t know how this statement could be true inasmuch as Blanton joined the Ellington band in October of 1939, several months before Ben’s arrival. Nevertheless, Blanton and Webster were musically and personally simpatico.

(2) Someone to Watch Over Me ,,,The Life and Music of ben Webster, by Frank Buchmann-Moller (2006), 98.

(3) Ibid.

Here are some links to other quintessential Ellington recordings from the early 1940s:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/02/02/cotton-tail-1940-duke-ellington-and-ben-webster/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/10/25/concerto-for-cootie-1940-duke-ellington-and-cootie-williams/

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

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/04/11/harlem-air-shaft-1940-duke-ellington-live-version/

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

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

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/02/20/clementine-1941-duke-ellington-and-billy-strayhorn-with-johnny-hodges-and-rex-stewart/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/12/26/morning-glory-1940-duke-ellington-rex-stewart-and-1964-ted-heath-kenny-baker/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/08/11/bakiff-1941-duke-ellington-juan-tizol-ray-nance-and-1971-billy-may-lew-mccreary-marshall-sosson/

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1 Comment

  1. In November, 1966, Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra gave three concerts in Phoenix. On the 10th, they performed a concert of sacred music at the Trinity Cathedral. On the 11th, they appeared in concert at the Star Theatre. On the 13th, they played at a private event for a Jewish organization at Del Webb’s Townhouse. I attended all three events, but it was the last event that is relevant to this post. I knew it was a private event, but I was determined to attend anyway. I guess its what the attendees of the event might have called chutzpah! On the evening of the 13th, I went to the hotel and walked around the building until I found the unlocked door of the kitchen. I entered and walked through the kitchen like I knew where I was going and then entered the ballroom. I quickly surveyed the room until I spotted a table that had a chair that wasn’t being used. I walked up to the table and asked one of the guests if I could sit there. I’m sure he was startled by the request from a 19 year old who clearly didn’t belong there, but he graciously told me I could. During a break in the performance, I approached Duke and requested that he play “What Am I Here For.” Immediately after the break, the band played my request in a wonderful performance. Feeling emboldened, later in the evening I again approached Duke and requested that he “have Paul Gonzalves play ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’.” In what Duke referred to as a “subtle slough,” he let me know that would not be appropriate for the event. Of course, he was correct and ever since I have felt embarrassed not only for making the request but also for crashing the event! But, on the other hand, hearing the band play “What Am I Here For” at my request was certainly one of the highlights of my life!

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