“Solitude” (1934) Duke Ellington; and Maxwell Davis (1960)


Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on January 10, 1934 in Chicago.

Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Arthur Whetsel, Freddie Jenkins, Louis Bacon and Cootie Williams, trumpets; Lawrence Brown and Joseph Nanton, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto Hardwick and Johnny Hodges, alto saxophones; Barney Bigard, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Wellman Braud, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.

The story:

Legend, nurtured by Duke Ellington himself, has it that he composed “Solitude” in Victor’s Chicago recording studio on January 10, 1934 in ten or twenty minutes while leaning against a glass partition, then recorded it. After it was recorded, the producer of the session asked “What is the title”? Trumpeter Arthur Whetsel replied “Solitude.” (1)

The preliminary question is why was Duke Ellington in a Victor recording studio at that particular time? The answer involved the machinations of Ellington’s personal manager and business guru, Irving Mills. Throughout the 1930s, Ellington recorded for either Brunswick, or later Master, or later Columbia. There was one hiatus however, roughly from mid-August 1933 to mid-September 1934, when he recorded for Victor. “As John Hammond reported in Melody Maker (October 14, 1933, p.3) …’Irving Mills has switched all his artists from Brunswick to Victor. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and the Blue Rhythm Boys have already started making (recording) dates for this company and poor Brunswick has been left holding the bag. Financially, the deal was probably a good one for Irving. He has been placed in a position of great authority by the Victor Company, with supervision of all recording talent for the popular market. With his new (music) publishing concern, Exclusive Publications, he will have songs entirely restricted from broadcasting, which will be reserved for his own artists. In order to hear certain tunes, the populace will be obliged to buy Victor records.'” (2) (Above right: Irving Mills in the 1920s.)

Convulsive changes were occurring in the record-making business in the USA in the period from 1933 through September of 1934. “By 1933, Columbia Records, whose roots stretched back to 1886, was on the brink of ruin. The company had been sold in December of 1931 to the Grigsby-Grunow Company, a manufacturer of refrigerators, washing-machines and Majestic radios that was itself in dire financial straits. It would go bankrupt in November of 1933, then into receivership in February of 1934. In July of 1934, the assets of Columbia Records were finally sold off to the American Record Corporation (ARC) for at pittance: $75,000.00. Columbia’s total record sales in 1932 (according to Fortune Magazine September 1939, page 94), was only about 250,000 disks.” (3)

When the dust settled, Ellington left Victor, signing a one-year contract with ARC, which commenced on September 1, 1934.(4) Mills’s other bands, including Cab Calloway, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and Ina Ray Hutton, also signed on with ARC at about the same time. Also, Jack Kapp, who had been a producer at Brunswick then ARC, started the American Decca label in August-September of 1934. He pirated many Brunswick artists away from that label, including Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo, the Casa Loma band, and a host of African-American artists to fill-out Decca’s artist roster. In retrospect, it appears that Irving Mills was seeking a safe harbor at Victor for his recording artists during this upheaval.

The first tune he recorded for ARC under his new contract on September 13, 1934 was a remake of “Solitude.” Inexplicably, Victor had not issued the January 19, 1934 recording of “Solitude” that Ellington had made by that date, and would not do so until November 7, 1934. In the meantime, ARC issued the remake on October 13, 1934.(5) Although the US recording industry was a shambles in the early 1930s, it seems to me that they could have benefitted from some rather basic legal protection, like signing non-competition covenants with their executives and artists.

The music:

I am struck by how thoughtful and finished this performance sounds. Not only is the playing of the musicians impressive, but the organization and pacing of the arrangement is as well. If this recording was in fact made minutes after Ellington composed “Solitude,” the arrangement he and his band arrived at in impromptu fashion in the recording studio is astonishingly well put-together.

This performance opens with some Dukish piano chords and runs, which immediately set a contemplative mood, and then a quiet trio of lead trumpeter Arthur Whetsel, trombonist Joseph Nanton (whose horns are both muted), and clarinetist Barney Bigard, playing in the mode of Duke’s first big hit, “Mood Indigo.” The chugging rhythm in the background (also a feature of “Mood Indigo”), is largely the sound of Fred Guy strumming his guitar. The ethereal solo voice to emerge on the tune’s bridge is Harry Carney’s baritone saxophone, played in what can accurately be called a sub-tone manner. The whispering effect caused by this is quite different from many later solo Carney forays, on which the sound of his baritone saxophone shook the room. The last eight bars repeat what happened in the first sixteen, except trombonist Lawrence Brown plays a hushed and bluesy open horn solo in front of the trio.

The haunting sound one hears at the beginning of “Solitude” was created by these three musicians: Joseph Nanton playing plunger muted trombone; Arthur Whetsel playing plunger muted trumpet; and Barney Bigard playing sub-tone clarinet. In the bells of the trumpet and trombone under the plungers were pixie straight mutes.

The second half of this recording is given over to trumpeter Cootie Williams, who then improvises using an open horn. Even though his playing is muscular, it is nevertheless thoughtful and balladic. At first, the background he plays against is sparse, just hushed rhythm. But hear how Ellington the arranger changes the background to the four saxophones playing the melody. This is a small but effective contrast, which continues through the secondary bridge melody, and it marks an ever so subtle building of dynamic and emotional intensity in Williams’s playing. The last eight bars of this chorus convey a feeling of denouement in the trumpet solo.

Duke then returns to end the piece with more of the moody pianistics that he used to open it.


Composed by Duke Ellington; Ellington’s original arrangement revised by Maxwell Davis.

Recorded by Maxwell Davis and His Orchestra for Crown January 13-14, 1960 in Los Angeles.

Maxwell Davis, directing: (probable personnel) Al Porcino, first trumpet; Jake Porter, Ray Linn and Conte Candoli, trumpets; Lloyd Elliott (Ulyate), Dick Noel, Tommy Peterson, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Jewel Grant, first also saxophone; Mahlon Clark, alto saxophone and clarinet; Hubert “Bumps” Myers and Ben Webster, tenor saxophones; Bill Hood, baritone saxophone; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Al Hendrickson, guitar; Red Callender, bass; Mel Lewis, drums.

The story:

The name Maxwell Davis is little remembered today. But starting in the 1940s and continuing well into the 1960s, Davis was well-known throughout the music business in Los Angeles. A historical fact that is little-known is that Davis, who was African-American, was a pioneer in integrating many of the recording sessions he either produced starting in the very early 1950s, or worked on as an arranger or instrumentalist (he played tenor saxophone). In other words, he started integrating white musicians into his otherwise all-black bands long before the reverse was true in Los Angeles.

Thomas Maxwell Davis, Jr. (January 14, 1916 – September 18, 1970), was born in Independence, Kansas. In 1937, he moved to Los Angeles, where he would spend the rest of his career. After some years playing swing and jazz, he became more involved in the West Coast Rhythm and Blues scene in the mid-1940s, participating as a regular recording session musician and arranger. His work was centered at the numerous small independent record labels that were proliferating in Los Angeles then, such as Aladdin. During this period, he recorded with pianist Jay McShann featuring the blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon. He also recorded often with Big Joe Turner. By 1952, Davis had played on numerous R&B hit recordings by Percy Mayfield, Peppermint Harris, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn and others. 

Davis also recorded with Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five in 1953. He had been contacted by Jordan, who lost all of his band’s arrangements in a fire, to reconstruct his music library. Davis toured with Jordan for a period of time, reconstructed his music library, and played at the Apollo Theater with Jordan. He then returned to Los Angeles.

In 1955, he began recording with trumpeter Ray Anthony. In that same year he joined the Bihari Brothers at Modern Records as a musical director and producer. Its subsidiaries included the labels RPM, Kent and most notably, Crown. As the Bihari’s main band leader, Davis arranged the music and chose the musicians that were used on recording sessions. Although he had a number of Los Angeles African American free-lances whom he used often (like Jake Porter, Jewel Grant, Bumps Myers and Red Callender, among others), the color of their skin was irrelevant. He used them because they were excellent musicians and he liked the way they played. As a producer, he also developed ideas for concept album LPs. (6)

In 1958, Davis was the leader of the band that recorded (on the Crown label) an excellent LP dedicated to the music Henry Mancini composed, arranged and recorded for the popular TV series Peter Gunn. The other musicians involved in this project were all white, and many of them had worked or would work for many years with Mancini himself. That LP was successful. Davis followed-up this success at the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s by recording on the Crown label (later reissued on a number of other labels) a series of LP tributes to the music of numerous great bands of the swing era. The bands he led on those recordings were the most thoroughly integrated in Los Angeles. They also contained absolutely top-notch musicians. This is apparent by simply looking at the personnel for the recording session that produced his tribute to Duke Ellington’s great tune “Solitude.”

The music:

Maxwell Davis’s refashioning of Ellington’s 1934 arrangement of “Solitude” is rewarding for a number of reasons. First, the overall performance of the band is excellent. The revisions Davis made highlight the capabilities of the larger ensemble he used to make this recording. Davis also utilized the sound of Bill Hood’s baritone saxophone, in both solos and ensembles, in a manner consistent with Harry Carney’s use by Duke later, after he made his first recording of “Solitude,”  which is to say by highlighting its robust sonority. Finally, Davis allowed pianist Jimmy Rowles, an Ellington idolator since the early 1940s, to add the most piquant and provocative fills and accompaniments throughout this performance.

The trio in the first chorus was played by Mahlon Clark on clarinet, either Al Porcino or Jake Porter on trumpet, and one of the three tenor trombonists.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Liner notes for the Mosaic CD collection The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings by Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra (2010), 17. Notes by Steven Lasker.

(2) Ibid. 

(3) Ibid. 13.

(4) Ibid. 17.

(5) Ibid.

(6) The information on Maxwell Davis was derived from the Wikipedia post on him.

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1 Comment

  1. I recall reading a book on Ellington in which the author expressed the view essentially that Duke said more in roughly three minutes than he did in his extended works — and I heartily agree. Whether he was taking his audience to a physical location or the nebulous recesses of the mind (be it his or ours or both) through his standard 78 rpm records, he was able to provide a thorough and vivid tour with an economy of time.

    Though probably most of us are very familiar with Eddie DeLange’s lyric for “Solitude” and recognize the interpretive opportunity it affords the vocalist, I think we might agree that Duke’s premier recording is entirely sufficient and that Arthur Whetsol’s suggested title was most apt.

    The restraint employed by the Whetsol-Bigard-Nanton choir as well as soloists Carney, Brown and Williams is vital to the atmosphere of this performance. By the end, we can sense a release of tension, as conveyed by Duke’s drop from the Major 7th to 6th, but not a resolution. It could be said, then, that DeLange’s final “In my solitude/I’m praying/Dear Lord above/Send back my love” captures that absence of resolution — or answer. As a guitar player, it’s especially wonderful to hear Fred Guy’s beautiful rhythm so clearly, as it seems that when he switched to guitar he often wasn’t brought out as prominently by the engineers as we who love the acoustic archtop might like. The instrument both embodies and evokes the lonely room, with just a chair and memories. For the diminished chord on both Harry and Cootie’s bridges, he switches from fully strummed chords to an arpeggiated figure, which is a lovely effect in this context. Sonny Greer’s brushes, too, communicate the quiet of the setting.

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