“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (1940) Duke Ellington with Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams and Lawrence Brown

“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”*

(First known as “Never No Lament”)

Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on May 4, 1940 in Hollywood.

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

The story: 

The story of what was going on in the world of Duke Ellington in early 1940 is told in considerable detail in the posts here at swingandbeyond.com on “Harlem Air Shaft,” and “Morning Glory.” (Those posts can be accessed by clicking on links at the bottom of this post.)

Shortly before this recording was made, Ellington signed his first one-year renewal of the management contract he had entered into the previous year with the William Morris Agency. He also had, on February 22,1940, entered into a new contract to make recordings for Victor. His first two Victor recording sessions had taken place on March 6 and 15 in Chicago. Among the recordings made at those sessions: “Jack the Bear,” “Ko-Ko,” “Morning Glory”(1) and “Concerto for Cootie.”(3) In the spring of 1940, Billy Strayhorn was completing his first year as Duke’s musical assistant. Soon however, Strayhorn’s role would become much larger. He would act as Duke’s musical collaborator. Nevertheless, as Duke’s musical assistant, Strayhorn had helped Ellington with many musical chores that had the net effect of allowing Duke more time to work on original compositions.(4) After several months of touring, Ellington found himself in Los Angeles for a few days before being dispatched into the Midwest for yet more touring. On May 4, he entered Victor’s Hollywood studio to make more recordings. “Cotton Tail,”(2) his brilliant collaboration with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, was recorded before he focused on “Never No Lament.”

Although the events of history, snapshots in time, are always better understood when viewed in context, there is nevertheless another side to that coin. Sometimes, despite all of the facts that surround any specific historical event, something so remarkable happens that it seems obvious, at least in retrospect, that it was inevitable that it happened, and that we don’t need a lot of context to understand how remarkable that event is. Such is the case with Ellington’s recording of “Never No Lament.”

It is fair to say that at most times during Duke Ellington’s long and illustrious career, he was at the center of myriad activities. He loved nothing more than interacting with many people on many different levels. But only he knew what those many human interactions actually were at any given time, what they gave him and what they cost him. And what is most remarkable, is how he could shut off the distractions, even when he was in a group of people, and get in touch with his inner, creative self. Duke’s composition, arrangement and the musically perfect performance he elicits from his band on “Never No Lament” are all reminders that he was no ordinary musician.

The music:

Much has been made by some commentators that Ellington’s musical “style” as an arranger, at least through the 1930s, eschewed the antiphonal “call and response” method of arranging that found its highest expression in the work of Fletcher Henderson. There is certainly some truth to this. Duke very often employed a more complex method of arranging involving unusual groupings of instruments, usually as a means of creating denser sonorities and harmonies. But very often, he also used brief, alternating instrumental sounds to create musical contrasts. Nowhere in the Ellington canon is this more apparent than in “Never No Lament.”

This classic performance starts (there is no introduction) with the cup-muted brass stating the melodic fragment that is the central theme of “Never No Lament,” being answered immediately by the richly voiced saxophones (with Harry Carney’s massive baritone sound prominent). This call-and-response continues through the first eight bars, with some minor variations.

The instrumental dialog continues through the next eight bar sequence, with the conversation being between Duke on piano, playing melodically, and Lawrence Brown on trombone, improvising gently.

Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges then steps forward to solo for sixteen bars, his gleaming middle-register sound being contrasted with and answered by the other horns in the band, in a lower register, played softly. This is a yet another masterful set of musical (and sonic) contrasts set up by Ellington. Hodges demonstrates in this solo that he was supremely skilled at melodic paraphrase. The band plays the bridge as an ensemble, continuing Duke’s exercise in sonic and dynamic contrasts. Hodges returns to finish the chorus to remind the listener that, in addition to projecting his unique alto saxophone sound, he was also a soulful musician. His playing, when he wanted it to be, was drenched in the blues, even if the tune he was playing, like this one, was not a blues.

Trumpeter Cootie Williams follows, using a plunger over his pixie straight-muted trumpet. Once again, Ellington provides a shifting set of backgrounds for Cootie to play against. The reeds and brass providing warm harmonic cushions that contrast with Williams’s acrid sounding trumpet. The introduction of the saxophones playing a secondary melody punctuated by chirps from the trombone trio in this sequence is yet another Ellington masterstroke. Those saxophones set up a riff which springs Lawrence Brown, who is preaching on his trombone, into his solo on the tune’s bridge. Duke chose to back him with intense and rhythmic brass.

The brass move seamlessly into a bright recap of the tune’s main melody, yet again being answered by the reeds. Then in a reversal of the explosive build-up process used by Glenn Miller in “In the Mood,” Ellington himself returns on piano with melodic fragments being played against a dynamically ebbing ensemble to finish the performance.

This is a perfectly balanced performance of an arrangement of a simple yet beguiling melody, which contains many musical contrasts, and expressive solos. The seeming simplicity and inevitability of it all belies the immense amount of musical talent in its creator, Duke Ellington, and his band of virtuosi had. That talent is what made all of this seem so easy.

(*) The change of title of this Ellington masterwork came in 1942 with the addition of a lyric to the basic melody by Bob Russell. Missed the Saturday dance; Heard they crowded the floor; Couldn’t bear it without you; Don’t get around much anymore.

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

Notes and links:

(1) Here is a link to Duke’s (and Rex Stewart’s) “Morning Glory”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/12/26/morning-glory-1940-duke-ellington-rex-stewart-and-1964-ted-heath-kenny-baker/

(2) And to “Cotton Tail”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/02/02/cotton-tail-1940-duke-ellington-and-ben-webster/

(3) And to “Concerto for Cootie”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/10/25/concerto-for-cootie-1940-duke-ellington-and-cootie-williams/

(4) A partial list of Ellington originals that were either composed and/or recorded in 1940: “Jack the Bear,” “Ko-Ko,” “Concerto for Cootie,” “Cotton Tail,” “Never No Lament” (“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), “Bojangles,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” “All Too Soon,” “Rumpus in Richmond,” “Sepia Panorama,” “In a Mellotone,” “Warm Valley,” and “Across the Tracks Blues.”

“Harlem Air Shaft”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/04/11/harlem-air-shaft-1940-duke-ellington-live-version/

“Sepia Panorama”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/03/18/sepia-panorama-1940-duke-ellington/

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5 Comments

  1. Hi Mike — Greetings from RojoLand!

    Nice article as always. If you’ll pardon another of my little nit-picks though: “Cotton Tail” wasn’t the first title cut at the 4 May 1940 session (though it is the first to be issued). Here’s the complete session:

    1016 N. Sycamore Ave., Hollywood, Sat 4 May 1940. (Harry Meyerson, present)
    PBS 049654-1 Bojangles (A Portrait Of Bill Robinson) – VI rejected (LP: Meritt #1)
    PBS 049655-1(2) Cotton Tail – VI 26610–B et al [tk 2 Not processed]
    PBS 049656-1(2) Never No Lament [Don’t Get Around Much Anymore] – VI 26610–A et al [tk 2 Not processed]
    PBS 049657-1 Blue Goose – VI rejected (LP: Meritt #1)

    The unissued tracks were regrettably omitted on RCA-France LP FPM1-7047 “The Works Of Duke Volume 10.” Both titles were remade 28 May 1940 in Chicago, mxs BS 053021-1 and BS 053023-1 respectively, and issued on VI 26644–B and 26677–B respectively.

    Just looked the session up on DAHR and I see they DON’T list the rejected titles! Go figure. (Without that info, I can’t say definitively but I’d suspect a Take 2 of each title was also made and not processed.)

    Take care,

    J. E. Knox “The Victor Freak”

    • Joe, thanks for that information. It fills out the picture just a bit more. I have revised the post so that it coincides with the information you have provided. These kinds of interactions are what makes swingandbeyond.com the place swing mavens go to get correct and complete information. Thanks again!

  2. Hi, Mike—
    Your Infrequent Correspondent, Dan, here.
    I just wanted to share with you and your audience the fact that I always enjoy hearing (or performing) “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
    I enjoy it that much more when a vocalist is present to sing it. This is because some years ago, I realized I get mentioned at one point in the lyrics:
    “…couldn’t BARRETT without you…”
    Ahem.
    Carry on,
    Dan B.

  3. It could be argued, I suppose, that it was the addition of lyrics that allowed many of Duke’s stunning compositions to become true standards, known to more than just those with an interest in jazz. I must say, though, that I almost always prefer the Ellington instrumental to subsequent vocal renditions, sometimes, as here, under different titles. A couple of exceptions would be “Subtle Slough” and “Sentimental Lady,” which I feel had greater impact (the latter, in somewhat altered or expanded form) as “Just Squeeze Me” and “I Didn’t Know About You,” respectively. I’m a big admirer of the work of lyricist Mitchell Parish, but I do agree with criticism I’ve encountered of his “Sophisticated Lady” lyric, for example, which complained that he took an essentially scolding tone (wish I could remember the exact adjective that was used), which may not have been ideally suited to Duke’s sinuous melody. Bob Russell’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is extremely clever (and is certainly a lament!), but I often feel that when you have “singers” of the quality of Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams and Lawrence Brown, you don’t need words being actually vocalized — it’s all there in their tone and improvisation. Duke’s chart, departing from his typical methodology, is brilliant. It’s impossible to imagine a way in which the song could be arranged for more potent effect. As always, Harry Carney’s sound in the ensemble is huge, giving great import and depth to the proceedings. Whether playing strictly in the section or soloing, his presence was pivotal on all Ellington sides, and we must imagine that his work with Duke inspired many orchestra leaders to take on a bari sax.

    I recall reading a rather critical appraisal of the Ellington rhythm, in which I believe “slushy” was used to describe the combined contributions of Duke, Sonny Greer and Fred Guy; the point had been to stress the value of the addition of Jimmy Blanton. Well, Jimmy was in a class by himself, and he was unquestionably an important part of what made this the best edition of Duke’s band — but I do think that each man in the section’s work is perfect here . Duke’s own pithy statements nicely bookend the lament.

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