“Flamingo” (1940) Duke Ellington, Herb Jeffries, Billy Strayhorn / (1953) Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Billy Strayhorn


Composed by Ted Grouya (music) and Edmund Anderson (lyric); arranged by Billy Strayhorn.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on December 28, 1940 in Chicago.

Duke Ellington, piano, and Billy Strayhorn, 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; Ben Webster and Barney Bigard, tenor saxophones; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Jimmie Blanton, bass; Sonny Greer, drums; Herb Jeffries, vocal.

The story:

As 1940 was coming to an end, Duke Ellington was in a tizzy. He was a member of ASCAP, having been accepted into that very closed society in 1935. This was more, far more, than an honorary society. Membership in it was a key economic component for any successful composer. A substantial part of Ellington’s earnings each year came from royalties ASCAP collected for Duke, and paid to him. Duke definitely did not want to do anything that would jeopardize his excellent standing in ASCAP. Here is a summary of Duke’s problem:

“The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), America’s largest musical performing rights organization, was determined to extract more money from the radio networks for the privilege of airing songs written by its members, on whose behalf ASCAP collected and distributed performing-rights fees. The networks responded by setting up a competing organization called Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). (ASCAP’s catalog) …amounted to some 1,250,000 songs, including nearly all of the top hits of 1940. The (radio) boycott of ASCAP songs went into effect on January 1, 1941, forcing bands that performed on the radio to play either BMI controlled or public domain songs during their programs. Soon every bandleader was frantically commissioning arrangements of (traditional tunes, folk tunes or classical melodies).” (1)

Duke Ellington was an extraordinary person, in addition to being a great musician, composer, arranger and bandleader. His creativity extended into all of those aspects of his life, and many others. By the beginning of 1941, Ellington had been a bandleader for over 15 years. He had during that time confronted and overcome myriad challenges that would have defeated a lesser person, and would continue doing so for the next 30+ years. He devised a solution for the ASCAP boycott challenge that was uniquely Ducal.

On January 3, 1941, Ellington and his band opened an engagement at the Casa Manana, a popular Los Angeles nightspot in the Culver City district, not far from from the M-G-M movie studio. Billy Strayhorn later provided a bit more context: “When we opened, …we had air time every night, but could not play our library. We had to play non-ASCAP material. Duke was in ASCAP, but I wasn’t. So we had to write a new library.” (2) Probably for reasons of telling a good story as much as anything else, Duke made this statement to the press: “After spending $8,000.00 for a musical education for my son, I will now have a chance to realize the returns. Mercer (Duke’s son) will sit at my right hand during 1941 and write compositions under his own name. He’ll do much arranging as well as composing.” (3) Although Mercer Ellington would in fact assist with the creation of some new music for the Ellington band, the vast majority of new music that was written at that time for the Ellington band was written by Billy Strayhorn.

Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.

Duke was well aware of the approach of the ASCAP boycott long before January 1, 1941. Nevertheless, he did not really deploy Strayhorn and Mercer to begin writing new music until the Ellington band was en route to California by train at the very end of 1940. While on that train trip, Strayhorn either composed and/or composed and arranged many pieces that soon would be a part of the Ellington band’s book of arrangements. These included: “After All,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” “Love and I,” “My Little Brown Book,’ “Passion Flower,” and the most famous of all Strayhorn compositions, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Slightly later, “Rain Check,” “Clementine,” “Rocks in My Bed,” and “Someone” were being performed by the Ellington band. Mercer Ellington, a very bright young man with an excellent musical education, was learning how to interact productively with two musical geniuses: his father, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn.

The music:

Ellington had incorporated Tempo Music in 1940, after he freed himself from music publisher Irving Mills’s various enterprises. Soon, Duke began publishing new compositions written by him and by Billy Strayhorn through Tempo Music, Inc. As the ASCAP imbroglio approached, Duke aggressively recruited other young and/or unknown composers to sign contracts with Tempo. Among those he signed were Ted Grouya and Edmund Anderson. One of the first songs they submitted to Tempo Music was “Flamingo.” In preparation for the ASCAP boycott, Duke had Billy Strayhorn write an arrangement on “Flamingo.” Grouya and Anderson were not members of ASCAP.

Strayhorn’s arrangement on “Flamingo” arrived in the Ellington band’s book in late 1940. Upon first seeing what Strayhorn had produced, Duke was impressed, and quickly recorded the arrangement. Nevertheless, he was too busy to organize his thoughts about this latest example of Strayhorn’s work, and express them cogently until shortly before his death. This is what he said then: (“Flamingo”) “…was a turning point in vocal background orchestration, a renaissance in elaborate ornamentation for the accompaniment of singers. Since then, other arrangers have become more and more daring, but Billy Strayhorn really started it all with ‘Flamingo.'”(4)

Walter van de Leur, the preeminent expert on critical analysis of Strayhorn’s music, has written at length about Billy’s arrangement on “Flamingo.”(5) He devoted five pages, including musical notations, to his review of what Strayhorn did with “Flamingo.” Here are some of his observations: “Flamingo’s initial bars are an exposition rather than an introduction, as they present the song’s characteristic opening interval (‘flamingo’ spelled out by the trombone and echoed by the trumpet) as well as the main rhythmic cell that is one of the arrangement’s unifiers. On a subliminal level, this…exposes the tonal ambiguity Strayhorn explores in the arrangement, pointed up by the grating layers of saxophones and brass and a low-register repeated polytonal chord. This creates a dissonant texture…”(5)

“As the vocal chorus draws to an end, Strayhorn starts the first half of a complex thirty-two bar transitory section that will modulate from Db to A via Ab and F, and back to Db. All modulations build on the song’s original material…”(6) Herb Jeffries later revealed that only at the recording session did Strayhorn suggest to Jeffries that “…he do the vocalise that so beautifully tinges the first half of this transition but is absent in the original manuscript. ‘He suggested that (I) do that oh, oh in there, and do that modulation down through it. He really directed that whole record.'”(7)(Above right: Herb Jeffries and Jimmie Blanton, with Ellington in the background.)

Staryhorn’s impact on young arrangers was great. Gerry Mulligan later recalled: “I was part of a small community of very young musicians and arrangers, and we paid a lot of attention to who was doing what with all of the bands. When Strayhorn came on the scene, he just blew us away, because he was doing very complicated, sophisticated things, (yet) they didn’t sound complicated to the ear at all – they sounded completely natural and very emotional. To bring all that complexity to bear and have it be so beautiful was something incredible to everyone who knew anything.”(8)

I wish to add a few comments about the incredible performance of the Ellington band on this recording. The solo trombone and trumpet parts in the exposition/introduction are played by Lawrence Brown and Wallace Jones. Drummer Sonny Greer’s accompaniment using brushes, including his perfectly placed cymbal swishes, is understated but colorful. Duke’s piano accompaniment is likewise a superb enhancement to the vocal as well as everything the band does. Herb Jeffries’s vocal chorus, as well as the vocalise discussed above, are excellent. Jeffries had a rich, resonant voice, a fine sense of pitch, and a supremely relaxed delivery, all of which are well utilized in this performance. The solos after the vocal chorus are by Lawrence Brown on cup-muted trombone and Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone. The singing first alto saxophone part was played by Otto Hardwick. Brown’s trombone and Duke’s piano are heard in the coda. The pointillistic trombone trio notes Strayhorn scatters throughout the arrangement are particularly felicitous. (Above left: Billy Strayhorn talks with Lawrence Brown as Tom Whaley, an Ellington musical assistant, and Duke look on.)


Music composed by Ted Grouya; arranged by Billy Strayhorn.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Capitol on April 9, 1953 in Los Angeles.

Duke Ellington, piano, directing: William “Cat” Anderson, Willie Cook, Clark Terry, trumpets; Ray Nance, trumpet and violin; Quentin “Butter” Jackson and Britt Woodman, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Russell Procope, first alto saxophone; Rick Henderson, alto saxophone; Jimmy Hamilton, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Paul Gonsalves, tenor saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Wendell Marshall, bass; Butch Ballard, drums.

The story:

Duke Ellington had returned to recording for Victor in early 1940. His association with that company continued until September 3, 1946, and overall was very successful. He then made what turned out to be a large mistake by signing to record for the upstart Musicraft label, making his first recordings for that label on October 26, 1946. His last recordings for Musicraft were made on December 18, 1946. Shortly after that, Musicraft went bankrupt. By September 1, 1947, Duke was recording for Columbia. That relationship lasted through 1952, when Columbia did not renew Ellington’s contract. He then signed with Capitol early in 1953, and made his first recordings for that label on April 6, 1953. That affiliation lasted until May 19, 1955.

To set the recording Duke Ellington made of “Flamingo” for Capitol Records on April 9, 1953 in context, I will cite to the liner notes to the wonderful 1995 collection of Duke’s mid-1950s recordings for the Capitol label gathered, remastered and reissued by Mosaic. Those notes were written by Duke’s long-time friend and biographer Stanley Dance. (The parenthetical comments are mine.) (At right: Ellington in the recording studio – 1950s. No, he’s not on his cell phone. He’s scratching his ear.)

“The period during which Duke Ellington and His Orchestra recorded for Capitol (1953-1955) was a difficult one for jazz in general and big bands in particular. The effects of World War II, still felt on the national economy, had been prolonged by the war in Korea. Many of the pre-war venues (where big bands played, usually for dancers), had ceased to exist, and lengthy engagements at those that remained were seldom possible, with the result that arduous one-nighter tours became more than ever a way of life for most musicians in the big bands. Considerable competition was also forthcoming from smaller groups playing in the related rock and R & B idioms. Promoters found that the heavy beat these groups favored, when strongly amplified, drew crowds of young people in the unlikeliest places, even former garages. The reduced size of these bands constituted a big savings in terms of wages, transportation and hotels (for the bands), so that (lower costs and) more profit for the promoter was assured. 

Restrictions imposed under wartime conditions (including travel preferences on public transport for military personnel, gas rationing, and a crushing amusement tax), had diminished the pre-war popularity of dancing, and television now offered alternative entertainment in the home. A couple of (musicians’ union) recording bans during the previous decade (which most musicians disagreed with), had further boosted the popularity of singers at the expense of instrumentalists. But besides the different forms of competition, changes within jazz itself contributed to the decline of big bands.” (Above left: Duke talks with Dave Dexter, one of his producers at Capitol Records.)

Dave Dexter later wrote that Ellington wanted to hear his records “…on the jukeboxes, and on the radio, and playing over the p.a. systems of shops and markets.” In retrospect, we have come to understand that these ideas were becoming less and less realistic as the 1950s progressed. I suspect that Duke himself was well aware of this at the time. He was trying to keep his band working at least 340 days a year, and had seen first-hand how increasingly difficult that had become in the years just before he signed with Capitol.

The music:

The arrangement Billy Strayhorn did on “Flamingo” for this new Capitol recording is totally different from the one he had done for the original Victor recording in 1940. The primary difference is that there is no vocal in this arrangement. The melody of “Flamingo” is celebrated in this performance by Duke’s always interesting pianistics, Ray Nance’s violin, and Paul Gonsalves’s tenor saxophone. Behind those solos Strayhorn provided a shifting series of exquisite backgrounds that give the music a contemplative quality.

The performance starts with a brief introduction which leads into Ellington’s very personal melody exposition. Strayhorn deploys the reeds, at first with Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet, then without, and the open brass, played most gently, to create soft, lush cushions of sound behind the Maestro’s piano. After this, Paul Gonsalves leads the modulation into Ray Nance’s violin solo, his tenor saxophone sound swathed in warm brass. For the first sixteen bars of Nance’s solo, his violin sound is enveloped by the soft reeds. Then comes a brief, but magnificently effective upward modulation started by the reeds and completed by the brass, that suggests the sun breaking through clouds on a balmy spring afternoon. In the following climactic sequence Nance’s violin is accompanied by both the reeds and the brass together in a thicker, more ambiguous sonority. Gonsalves then returns in a different key via Nance’s (and Strayhorn’s) sleight-of hand modulation, with his glowing tenor saxophone sound and a melodic paraphrase, now being accompanied by the three open trombones. Gonsalves plays a softly descending figure which leads to Ellington’s return for an aphoristic finale. (Above right: Ray Nance and Duke listen to the playback of “Flamingo”: They had every reason to be pleased.)

This performance of “Flamingo” presents a sophisticated yet superbly listenable arrangement of a memorable melody, played with complete mastery by the Ellington band.

Post script:

Despite Duke’s brilliant recording of “Flamingo” and a number of other excellent recordings for Capitol, his association with that label was a commercial failure. During the time Duke was recording for Capitol, he came as close as he ever would to giving up his band because of a general lack of interest in his music. But he persevered, and by 1956 was at the beginning of an Ellington renaissance, where his popularity around the world would increase greatly. This last golden age of Ellington would continue from the late 1950s until his death in 1974, and produce much remarkable music.

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

Notes and links:

(1) Duke …A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout (2013), 220. Hereafter Teachout.

(2) Teachout, 221.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Music is My Mistress by Duke Ellington (1973), 153.

(5) Something to Live For …The Music of Billy Strayhorn (2002), 38. Hereafter Van de Leur.

(6) Ibid. 38-39.

(7) Ibid. 39. Van de Leur also notes that in addition to the vocalise, the following trombone and alto saxophone solos were not in Strayhorn’s original manuscript.

(8) Lush Life …A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu (1996), 86-87.


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1 Comment

  1. I’ve often wondered how it was for instrumentalists and arrangers from other bands to hear, for the first time, a new Ellington band record. These sides could be played on jukeboxes or bought at record shops for the same price as those by other orchestras of the day … but, in my opinion, they really were on a higher plane. I have to believe that my view was shared by many in the business in the ’30s and ’40s.

    As we know, the great Billy Strayhorn was intent upon lending his talents to Duke’s orchestra. The precocious composer-pianist-arranger had fully absorbed the complexities of the Ellington band’s sound, in all its components, and was confident that he had something of value to contribute. From the beginning of their working association, before his role in the organization was more fully defined, it’s apparent that Billy’s faith in himself was entirely warranted.

    Duke’s comment on the importance and revolutionary quality of Billy’s “Flamingo” chart is so accurate. Though one of an arranger’s many tasks has always been to frame the vocalist in as complimentary a fashion as possible, Strayhorn went above and beyond here, setting a new standard. His introduction, in addition to establishing the sultry and mysterious mood for the narrative, announces our vocalist’s entrance in a manner that is full of drama, but entirely free of the corn of, say, “And now, Herb Jeffries will tell you about a beautiful bird.” (Though Duke, we know, sometimes made descriptive statements about his material in concert situations, he never, we may be thankful, did a “Kay Kyser” on record.) It’s interesting, in fact, that this landmark vocal arrangement came from the Ellington band — given that, though the orchestra featured a number of fine singers (the greatest of whom, Ivie Anderson and Herb Jeffries, were with the aggregation in this period), it was and remains best known for its instrumentals. TD’s band, whose arguable zenith coincided with that of Duke’s orchestra, was a very singer-friendly environment, with charts beautifully tailored to its excellent vocalists. The James band arrangements, particularly those that would appear in the Helen Forrest years, too, typically provided a lush setting for a romantic or sentimental vocal performance. Still ahead of the pack, though, the Ellington orchestra, with its versatile new addition, young Strayhorn, gave the forever trailing contemporaries a new sound to chase and, it could be said, pointed the way to the Singer’s Era … if unintentionally.

    I’ve read at least a couple of statements from the great Herb Jeffries in which he averred that he was Ted Grouya’s messenger in getting “Flamingo” to Duke. With minor variations, the vocalist related a story in which Grouya caught him at the stage door as he was leaving between shows and pressed the music into his hand with the request that Herb deliver it to Duke, whom Grouya had been unable to see.
    Strayhorn, the account goes on, saw the music, played it and liked it, and then Duke, overhearing the run-through and intrigued by the unfamiliar tune, instructed the arranger to make a chart for it, which could then be tried out on a show audience, Herb explained that Duke typically tested material in this way before making a decision about recording it — a not uncommon practice of the day, as we know

    One comment from an interview that Herb gave late in his life interested me: He claimed that Victor Records producer Leonard Joy ( who, briefly supervising the Berigan band’s recording sessions at the label, was a true ally to Bunny) disliked vocalists and considered it “terrible,” in Jeffries’ word, that they were given space in some of the Ellington orch’s arrangements. Herb mentioned that “Flamingo,” accomplished in a single take, was shelved for some months (despite, it seems, Ellington’s enthusiasm for the song, which he may or may not have communicated to Joy). We must wonder if the success of “Flamingo” (anticipated by Duke, based on audiences’ reception of the arrangement in live performance) did anything to change Leonard Joy’s view of the song or the day’s vocalists. In any case, Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement, from the opening note from Lawrence Brown’s trombone, creates anticipation and a showcase, through the power of the Ellington instrumentalists, for a unique vocalist.

    From the time I first encountered Jeffries’ voice, I heard, beneath the romantic crooner surface, the soul of an old sage. This wise quality, combined with his rich, Crosby-inspired baritone, sure pitch and musicianly approach, make him a most compelling vocalist. Strayhorn’s respect for Herb’s ability can be seen clearly in the fact that the Jeffries voice is all over “Flamingo.” A brief but very dramatic ensemble statement leads directly into the vocal chorus, and then there’s the vocalese during the modulation, the repetition of the song title just before and during Lawrence Brown’s spot and then a glorious reprise following Johnny Hodges’ bridge. I have to believe that Herb’s work on this side produced exactly the effect that Billy sought.

    van de Leur’s comments on the “tonal ambiguity” and “dissonant texture” in Strayhorn’s writing on “Flamingo” are very important, as these were novel sounds for a romantic vocal record in this period. So expertly and smoothly, though, does Billy incorporate these elements that I think we can safely assume that the average listener was not jarred by their contrast with the overall sultry tone of the performance. Musicians and arrangers, however, were wowed by the juxtaposition, we may imagine. I always have to laugh a bit at the “jungle band” appellation of the Ellington orch’s early years. Despite its odious implications (which, it’s sad to note, were probably lost on many of the time), the moniker had its commercial value, making picturesque reference to the growling of plunger-mute specialists Tricky Sam, Bubber and, later, Cootie. The band, though, while always vivid in its portrayal of the most elemental emotions, was unequaled in terms of sophistication and nuance — the aesthetic of Duke, his musically loyal virtuoso sidemen, and then Billy, who was a gift to the aggregation, were responsible. I love the way in which Strayhorn employs the trombones (the greatest team ever: Tricky Sam, Juan and Lawrence) during Herb’s vocal; in the background, they nudge the overall performance, almost against the smoothness of the rhythm section — a very attractive sound! Another felicity is the arranger’s scripting for the reeds, when they come in as “the wind” in Herb’s bridge. In this chart, Billy calls upon each section to play not merely a musical but also an acting role! I love the sound of Harry Carney’s baritone at the bottom of the saxes in the brief modulation from Hodges’ solo — it appears to herald the return of Herb, who was, of course, the person around whom Strayhorn built the chart. In the coda — which really doesn’t seem like an ending, as we may imagine that the action in the narrative will replay itself many times — is perfect, with Herb’s soaring cries becoming the flamingo “flying over the island”; the chordal movement below him serving as a variegated landscape; the trombone notes standing tall and majestic, as indigenous trees, and Duke’s piano glinting, as moonlight, on the sea.

    We know that Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges, two giants of their respective horns, were brilliant and expressive blues players, but in “Flamingo” we may appreciate another, shared aspect in their personal styles: Nobody — but nobody — sounds as debonair as these great artists! Listening to their solos, we can see the two men playing, in their band uniforms — cool and perspiration-free, despite the tropical clime.

    Though no Basie, Duke on many occasions very effectively utilized minimalism. Still, I do sometimes find his accompaniment a bit florid. In “Flamingo,” however, his urbane flourishes ideally suit Strayhorn’s depiction of the scene. Duke, Fred Guy, Jimmy Blanton and Sonny Greer seem collectively to depict the flamingo, once landed — its shallow webbed footprints in the sand.

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