“Just a-Settin’ and a-Rockin'”
Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn .
Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on June 5, 1941 in Hollywood.
Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Wallace Jones, Ray Nance, trumpets; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, and Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto Hardwick and Johnny Hodges, alto saxophones; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; Barney Bigard, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Jimmie Blanton, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.
The story of how Duke Ellington became involved in the production of the satirical revue Jump for Joy in Los Angeles in the summer of 1941 is told elsewhere on this blog.(1) Basically, despite many fraught moments before the show debuted, Jump for Joy was a positive experience for all of the performers and writers involved. Audiences for the show, which were largely comprised of people who were aware of issues of social justice/injustice, loved it. Unfortunately, such audiences were limited in that time and place, and after 122 performances, the show closed. Nevertheless, Duke was fascinated by the idea that his music could form the basis for a theatrical production. The logical next step, especially in Hollywood, was for Duke’s music to form the basis for a feature film. Enter Orson Welles.
When two fanciful geniuses put their heads together, chaos often ensues. The story of two particular fanciful geniuses, Duke Ellington and Orson Welles, and their abortive collaboration on what Welles hoped would be a feature film about the beginnings of jazz, is in many ways a quintessential Welles story. Duke was drawn into Welles’s creative world because he liked Orson personally, because Welles was a jazz fan and great booster of the Ellington band, and because Orson was able, for a period of time, to shower Duke with other peoples’ money.
Welles’s approach to life and work in the very early 1940s was characterized by his often irrational exuberance, which frequently carried along those around him, including Hollywood movie producers.
Ellington’s approach to life and work in the early 1940s was much more reality-based. He understood very well that he had to constantly offset the heavy expenses of running a big band comprised of expensive musicians. Opportunities to do that existed then, but they were based on a business model that at its foundation required bandleaders and their bands to spend a lot of time on the road, touring dance halls and theaters across the country. Basically, the less successful the bandleader and his management team were in securing employment for the band in ventures that required little or no travel, the more time they spent on the road. So Ellington was constantly on the alert for work for his band that required no travel. (Above right: Duke Ellington and Orson Welles. Although both men were fanciful, Duke was more tethered to the economic realities he confronted every day as a bandleader.)
One such opportunity was Jump for Joy. That production kept the Ellington band off the road for three months. During the time that production was running, and possibly before, Orson Welles attended the show and got to know Ellington. That was when the idea for a Welles feature film that would include Duke’s band and music was born. Welles, as usual, was brimming with ideas. Duke, more cautious but still very interested, did nothing to dissuade Welles. (Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane was released in the summer of 1941.)
At some point, Duke in typical fashion, gracefully deflected Welles to his management team, so that their creative partnership could be formalized. By late summer 1941, various blurbs began to appear in show business trade papers providing hints (often without any basis in fact) about the Welles-Ellington film project. Then money started to flow to Duke. By the time this project was abandoned in June of 1942, Ellington had been paid $12,500.00 by RKO-Pathe’, Welles’s studio employer (multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars), in exchange for which Duke had written about 28 bars of music.
While the Welles-Ellington film project, such as it was, evolved in late 1941, Duke remained on the Pacific coast, working various jobs. As the year ended, and the future of the Welles project became more uncertain, Ellington had to resort to his (and every other bandleader’s) default method of working: he took to the road. The months of January through March were spent touring through the Midwest and east. It was April before he returned to California. The death knell for the Welles-Ellington film project came in June of 1942 when Welles was fired by RKO for his incredible extravagance in decamping with a sizeable film-making crew to Brazil where he shot over 75,000 feet of film of which only 3,000 feet was usable, while spending months there frolicking with Brazilian beauties.(2) (Above left: 1941 – Orson Welles talks with Duke Ellington and Duke’s vocalist Herb Jeffries.)
Ellington band members take a train – 1941: L-R: Ben Webster in repose, Juan Tizol, Rex Stewart (background), Jimmie Blanton and Harry Carney.
The details of the musical collaboration between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn on “Just-a Settin’ and a-Rockin'” are somewhat mysterious because: “…though the original score is missing, various sketches by Strayhorn survive.”(3) On the surface, it appears that Duke, who in 1941 was enjoying the success (and royalties) from “Never No Lament,” later titled “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”(4), was seeking to follow-up that success with something that employed similar musical devices. “Never No Lament” was a series of brief, alternating instrumental sounds used by Ellington to create musical contrasts as a showcase for solos by Duke on piano, Lawrence Brown on trombone, Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, and Cootie Williams on trumpet. This new piece would also be a series of brief, alternating instrumental sounds that would be a showcase basically for Ben Webster’s tenor saxophone, with assists from Ray Nance’s trumpet, Tricky Sam Nanton’s plunger-muted trombone, Barney Bigard’s clarinet, and a splash of Duke’s piano at the very beginning and end. It is my informed speculation that Duke named this piece “Just a Settin’ and a-Rockin'” because the music he, Strayhorn and his band of gifted virtuosi created was most relaxed. I also suspect that after devising the basic melodic and structural contours of this piece, probably in conjunction with Strayhorn, he handed it to Billy, who took care of creating a richly harmonic arrangement to frame the various solos.
This piece became a feature for Ben Webster, who played it frequently in the Ellington band before he and Duke had their first somewhat tense break-up caused by Ben’s sometimes strange behavior when he was drinking.(5) But as so often was the case in both the Ellington band and in many other bands, despite the bad behavior of a sideman, if his playing was good, he was invited to return. Such was the case with Webster: he would be invited back into the Ellington band in late 1948.
After leaving Ellington under a cloud in August of 1943(5), Ben Webster began an independent career as a colorful jazz soloist and sometimes studio musician in the middle 1940s. Most of his activities were centered on Manhattan’s West 52nd Street, but by late 1946, the Street was becoming increasingly a place of strip shows, drugs and prostitution. By then, Webster and many other jazz musicians were finding it more difficult to work in clubs in New York. (Above left: Ben Webster in the mid-1940s.)
“Just a-Settin’ and a-Rockin'”
Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra from a live ABC broadcast at the Hollywood Empire, Hollywood, California February 1-20, 1949(*)
Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Shelton “Scad” Hemphill, Francis Williams, Harold “Shorty” Baker, Ray Nance and Al Killian, trumpets; Lawrence Brown, Quentin “Butter” Jackson and Tyree Glenn, trombones; Russell Procope and Johnny Hodges, alto saxophones; Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Ben Webster and Al Sears (5), tenor saxophones; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Wendell Marshall, bass, Sonny Greer, drums.
(*) The recording above was downloaded some years ago into my computer, and remained there undisturbed. Recently, I began preparing this post on Ellington’s (and Ben Webster’s) “Just a-Settin’ and a-Rockin'” and quickly accessed this recording in my computer. Thinking I knew exactly where I obtained the source recording in my library of thousands of recordings, I went to the place I thought was where this recording came from, only to discover that it was not there.
I then began to research various Ellington discographies to try to pin down the discographical details for this performance. This process was complicated by the fact that Ellington more often than not had Ray Nance sing the lyric to this song when his band performed it in late 1948. I isolated only four times that it was performed instrumentally in the period November-December 1948. I eliminated two of those dates because they were for performances at venues (Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater) where I thought it unlikely this recording would have been made. The two remaining venues are Union College in Schnectady, New York on November 6, 1948, and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York on December 10, 1948. The presence of the NBC announcer(? see below) on the Union College recording from November 6 led me to the conclusion that that was possibly the venue and date of this broadcast recording.
I have also received information that this recording might have been made between February 1 and 20, 1949 while the Ellington band was playing at Gene Norman’s Hollywood Empire Room, and broadcasting over KABC-Los Angeles. Many tunes were transcribed from those broadcasts and later used by the Armed Forces Radio Service for various of their radio shows. My informed speculation is that this is in fact the correct venue and date for this marvelous recording. If I am in error, I welcome any substantiated corrections.
On November 13, 1948, Duke Ellington was scheduled to play his fifth and what turned out to be his last concert at Carnegie Hall. The year 1948 had not been an easy one for Ellington. Changes in the world of big band jazz had been occurring almost daily through that year, most of them negative.(6) Nevertheless, Ellington soldiered on, often supplementing the revenue shortfalls that had been occurring in the daily operation of his band with money he earned from royalties generated by his many published songs. Duke spent much of the first half of 1948 playing theater dates, which culminated with four triumphant weeks at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan (April 21 – May 18). The theater grossed almost $400,000.00 through that engagement.
After that, Duke basically laid off his band, and prepared to go to England to perform with his trumpeter/violinist/singer/dancer Ray Nance and vocalist Kay Davis. He could not present his band in England and Scotland then because of restrictions imposed by the British Musicians’ Union. Duke was gone from June 11 until August 4.
But Ellington being Ellington, he put a positive spin on everything he could, and continued pressing his management team to secure another prestigious booking for his band at Carnegie Hall that autumn. The Ellington band regrouped in mid-August and set out on a tour that had many open dates from late August through mid-October. They were fortunate to snag a week-long engagement at the Paradise Theater in Detroit from October 15-21, which should have added some much-need cash to the Ellington coffers.
Ellington and Billy Strayhorn were busy writing new music for the upcoming Carnegie Hall Concert. Duke took advantage of several one-night dance dates before that concert to in essence rehearse much of the new music before paying audiences. Also, in anticipation of the concert, Duke added tenor saxophone soloist Ben Webster to the band. Webster would remain with the Ellington band well into 1949.
Duke Ellington and his band in the Universal film short from 1949 entitled Symphony in Swing. The film was made on February 16-18, 1949. L-R: front: Lawrence Brown, Quentin Jackson, Tyree Glenn, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Russell Procope, Harry Carney. back L-R: Sonny Greer, Wendell Marshall, Ellington, Al Killian, Harold Baker, Francis Williams, Shelton Hemphill and Ray Nance.
This live recording, which is in excellent fidelity, presents Ben Webster’s highly individual fully mature tenor saxophone style in all of its glory. Webster’s soulful outing in this performance also provides evidence of his evolving approach to his improvisation on this tune, which remained a staple in Ben’s personal repertoire for the remainder of his career. The fine growling plunger-muted trombone solo is played here by Tyree Glenn. Bassist Wendell Marshall shows that he was a worthy successor to Jimmie Blanton. Duke, as always, sets the stage perfectly for his soloists.
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Here is the link that provides information about Ellington’s involvement in the revue Jump for Joy: “Rocks in My Bed” (1941) Duke Ellington and Ivie Anderson – Swing & Beyond (swingandbeyond.com)
(2) Details of the relationship between Duke Ellington and Orson Welles in 1941-1942 come from Duke Ellington Day by Day and Film by Film, by Klaus Stratemann (1992), 193-195, hereafter Stratemann.
(3) Something to Live For …The Music of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur, (2002), 227-228.
(4) Here is a link to “Never No Lament”/”Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2022/10/07/dont-get-around-much-anymore-1940-duke-ellington-with-johnny-hodges-cootie-williams-and-lawrence-brown/
(5) Here is a link to a post here at swingandbeyond.com that gives some information about Ben Webster’s mercurial personality, and his first departure from the Ellington band: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/02/02/cotton-tail-1940-duke-ellington-and-ben-webster/
(6) Ellington also suffered from a rare challenge to his legendary good health in 1948. On April 1, while aboard a train from Washington D.C. to Manhattan, Duke collapsed and was rushed to a hospital as soon as the train reached New York. It was discovered that he had a cyst on one of his his kidneys. Surgery was required to remove it. Duke convalesced for almost three weeks after that. Billy Strayhorn led the band and played piano through a week-long engagement at the Apollo Theater that started on April 2, though Mary Lou Williams also helped out at the piano. The band with Strayhorn as leader played one more engagement in Buffalo, New York, on April 11, then all engagements were cancelled until Ellington returned. Duke rejoined the band on April 21 for an extended run at the Paramount Theater in New York.
(5) It appears that Ellington carried six saxophones, including two tenor saxophone soloists, Ben Webster and Al Sears, until the end of 1948. Webster had rejoined the band in early November. Sears departed at the end of 1948.
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