“Jack the Bear” (1940) Duke Ellington with Jimmie Blanton, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams, Harry Carney and Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton / (1959) Glen Gray with Mike Rubin, Gus Bivona, Shorty Sherock, Chuck Gentry and Si Zentner

“Jack the Bear”

Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on March 6, 1940 in Chicago.

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

The story:

Jazz historians frequently refer to Duke Ellington’s 1940 recording of “Jack the Bear” as a vehicle for the young man, bassist Jimmie Blanton, who at the time this recording was made was still a relative newcomer to the Ellington band. Blanton’s performance on this recording had bassists everywhere shaking their heads. Where, they asked, had all of that drive, technique and creativity come from? (At left: James Harney Blanton, Jr. in 1941.)

Duke Ellington and his orchestra were playing at the Club Caprice in the Coronado Hotel in St. Louis for two weeks at the end of October 1939. They were the first black band to do so. “After the show one night, some of the band members went to an after-hours club in St. Louis where a twenty-one year-old bassist named Jimmie Blanton was jamming. Tremendously impressed, the bandsmen told Ellington of their discovery. The next night, Ellington visited the club, and in his own words ‘…flipped, like everyone else. We talked him into coming down to the hotel the next night to play a few things with us. He was a sensation and that settled it.'”(1)

“During a tenure with Ellington that would last just two years, Blanton proved to be one of the major innovators of jazz by revolutionizing the approach to the string bass. He freed the instrument from its accepted role of staid time-keeping and harmonic simplicity. In his hands, the bass acquired greater rhythmic variety and harmonic refinement. Blanton’s fabulous taste and technique would be a tremendous influence on other bass players.” (2)

Ellington was fascinated by Blanton’s abilities. He saw in them possibilities to do new things musically, both within the context of his band, and outside of it. Duke recorded a couple of duets with Blanton on November 22, 1939, only a short time after Blanton had joined the Ellington band. The resulting record contained a blues on one side and a 32-bar tune on the other, humorously titled “Plucked Again.” Both of these recordings include quintessential Blanton bass-playing, and many guideposts to the music Blanton would make with Ellington, including “Jack the Bear.”

The music:

“Jack the Bear,” is of course a showcase for Jimmie Blanton’s bass playing. But it is so much more. It is a marvelously colorful and joyous musical celebration, orchestrated in the literal sense by Duke Ellington. When confronted with Blanton’s revolutionary approach to bass playing, Ellington enthusiastically embraced the challenge of integrating Blanton into his orchestra of jazz virtuosi. The result is what we hear in Duke’s marvelous recording of “Jack the Bear.”

Here is a good explanation of what is going on structurally in this iconic recording: “Blanton makes a dramatic entrance after a terse fanfare by trombones and reeds. From then on, he is a pervasive and propulsive force. After first playing melodic lines, he goes on to walk with rhythm section partners Guy and Greer and to double a syncopated saxophone line in a thrice-repeated transition. He reappears at the end as star soloist, complete with a chromatic cadenza that leads to the final chord. 

Blanton’s facility, tremendous swing and perfect intonation have been often cited as reasons for his greatness. Yet he also had the ability, rare for someone his age, to choose exactly the right note at the right time. As stunning as the other soloists and orchestral effects in ‘Jack the Bear’ are, it is possible to focus just on Blanton and feel completely satisfied.

In constructing this vehicle for Blanton, Ellington came up with an ingenious formal plan that combined a ritornello (Italian for “little return” – the saxophone and bass line unison mentioned above), the 32-bar song form (which begins and ends with Bigard soloing), and five choruses of 12-bar blues. Ellington’s achievement lies not just in mixing these structural elements, but in fusing them into an organic whole. (‘Jack the Bear’) is like a good yarn spun by a master raconteur; it builds in momentum, weaves several main themes in and out, and keeps the listener riveted until the tale’s end.” (3)

The actual nuts-and-bolts of Ellington’s arrangement on “Jack the Bear” reveal not only that he was a master craftsman, but more importantly, that he was also a highly creative painter in musical sounds. The musical “episodes” of “Jack the Bear” are incredibly colorful, and undoubtedly provided all of the Ellington bandsmen, definitely including Jimmie Blanton, with abundant inspiration.

The eight-bar introduction does indeed contain the reeds, including Barney Bigard’s piquant clarinet, in dialog with the three trombones. This sequence is undergirded at first by Blanton’s bass interjections; then he takes off on his own. There follows a 12-bar blues sequence during which Ellington, the pianist, is in a musical exchange with the entire ensemble. Listen to the driving bass accompaniment Duke gets from Blanton.

Then there is a four-bar transition (the ritornello mentioned above which will recur twice more during this performance as a pivot point) which contains a mysterious Ducal blend of instruments topped by the virile sound of Harry Carney’s baritone saxophone. Blanton plays in unison with the other instruments in this sequence.

Then the 32-bar sequence (AABA) begins. Barney Bigard plays the first “A” section of this chorus, his juicy clarinet sound contrasted with rhythmic oo-ahs (or just ahs) emanating from the brass instruments. Cootie Williams follows on his plunger-muted trumpet playing on the second “A” section. He is fairly levitated by a background of surging saxophones and marching open trombones. Bigard returns on the bridge of this chorus (section “B”), this time backed by preaching saxophones and brass. On the last eight bars of this remarkable chorus, Bigard’s clarinet is accompanied as it was in the first eight bars. There follows a reprise of the four-bar transition that preceded this chorus.

Now come the series of blues choruses. Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney plays first. The comping he gets from Duke can aptly be described as other-worldly. Tricky Sam Nanton plays next, displaying his mastery of the plunger-muted trombone. At first he is backed by smoothly undulating saxophones that become more rhythmic as his twelve bar chorus ends.

The two ensemble choruses provide a climax, with the open brass (led by the vastly underappreciated Wallace Jones) being answered by the clarinet-led reeds in the first, with these roles reversed in the second. The power of Blanton’s bass is palpable in this sequence, underpinning drummer Sonny Greer’s back beats. Unfortunately, we can barely hear Sonny’s China cymbal, a perfect bit of coloration in this passage. Another four-bar transition leads to Blanton’s solo chorus. He is provided aphoristic open brass asides as he romps through his solo. Blanton then plays a four-bar tag which leads to the bright full band chord to end of what is surely one of the most remarkable recordings of the swing era.

Duke Ellington’s band onstage at the Elk’s Auditorium in Los Angeles – October 5, 1941. This photo was snapped at an ominous moment: notice how Jimmie Blanton seems to be coughing into his hand. Tragically, he would soon be forced to leave the Ellington band because of tuberculosis. He died of that disease on July 30, 1942.


“Jack the Bear”

Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.

Recorded by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra for Capitol in Hollywood on August 14, 1959.

Glen Gray, directing: Conrad Gozzo, first trumpet; Walter “Pete” Candoli, Clarence F. ” Shorty” Sherock and Mannie Klein, trumpets; Simon “Si” Zentner, first trombone; Francis “Joe” Howard, Tommy Pederson and Milt Bernhart, trombones; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, first alto saxophone; Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona, B-flat clarinet and alto saxophone; Irving “Babe” Russin and Plas Johnson, tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Meyer “Mike” Rubin, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.

The story continues:

After listening to recordings made during the swing era very closely for many years, I have come to some conclusions about the respective merits of the various recording studios in which those recordings were made. I understand that what I am about to say is a generalization. Consequently, it is not something that is true in every single instance. But I think there is enough truth in it to merit me sharing it.

Victor Records basically had three recording studios during the swing era: those in Manhattan, those in Los Angeles, and those in Chicago. To my ears, the recordings made by Victor in Los Angeles, for whatever reasons, had the best overall sound consistently. Much of the credit must be given to Harry Myerson, who supervised most of the Victor and Bluebird recordings made in that studio. The second-best sounding recordings were made in Manhattan, though many of those recordings were what sound engineers call “very dry,” meaning they are devoid of any natural room resonance.

The distinction of the consistently poorest sounding Victor/Bluebird recordings was earned by those made in Chicago. Very many of those recordings sound as though they were recorded just a bit off-mike, so that the full resonance of the instruments is not heard. In addition, they very often are as “dry” as the recordings Victor made in New York, giving them additional dullness.

As fate would have it, at one of the most propitious moments in Duke Ellington’s long and illustrious career, the time he returned to the Victor label as a recording artist in early 1940, the activities of the Ellington band were centered in Chicago. Consequently, the great Ellington compositions recorded for the first time in March of 1940, including “Ko-Ko,” “Morning Glory,” “Concerto for Cootie,” and “Jack the Bear” all suffer to a greater or lesser degree from the overall dullness that is present in so many Victor or Bluebird recordings made in Chicago then.(4)

I have spent many hours in my studio working on the above-said Ellington recordings, and many others made in Victor’s Chicago recording studio, trying to make them sound better. The results I have achieved have been uneven. Since the primary objective of swingandbeyond.com is to present as complete a picture of the music we discuss as is reasonably possible, it is often helpful to include in posts another performance of a given tune for comparison. I have found that these comparisons inevitably yield a greater understanding and appreciation of the original recording.

So I am presenting here the recording Glen Gray did of Duke Ellington “Jack the Bear,” made in excellent stereophonic sound in 1959 by master swing musicians, for comparison. For me, the major benefit of listening to this later recording is that it makes it much easier to simply hear what Ellington was doing by deploying the instruments in his band as he did in his 1940 recording of “Jack the Bear.” To say that what he did was and is extraordinary would be an understatement.

The music: This performance of Ellington’s “Jack the Bear” is different from the original in many respects. First of all, it was played by a larger orchestra, though that doesn’t interfere with the swing we hear, or Duke’s sometimes mysterious instrumental blends. Bassist Mike Rubin demonstrates how completely Jimmie Blanton’s bass innovations had been absorbed by the bassists who followed him within a span of two decades. The other soloists pay respects to the original creators, and as mentioned above, we hear more clearly the instrumental backgrounds those solos are played against. The ensembles are played beautifully, with the climactic ensemble choruses sparkling under the sterling lead trumpet of Conrad Gozzo. Of particular note in those choruses is the great drumming of Nick Fatool, who makes deft use of his crisp back-beats and China cymbal.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo. Considerable work was required to get Ellington’s Victor recording to sound as it does, which is far from optimal.

Notes and links:

(1) Duke Ellington …Day by Day and Film by Film, by Klaus Stratemann (1992), 160. Hereafter: Stratemann.

(2) Stratemann, ibid.

(3) Liner notes for Duke Ellington …The Blanton-Webster Band, (1986) RCA/Bluebird LP set 5659-1-RB-B, written by Mark Tucker, page 3.

(4) Here is some information provided by Joe Knox, an expert on most issues involving Victor, Bluebird and later RCA Victor Records about Victor’s Chicago studios during the swing era:  “The Merchandise Mart venue holds for Chicago (Victor) recordings circa 1932-34, but after about November 1934 the studios (Chicago studios A, B and C) were at 445 N. Lake Shore Drive (that address appears to be consistent well into the 1950s if not longer). I’m aware that Steven Lasker has quoted the Merchandise Mart address for post-1934 Duke Ellington Chicago sides. Discogs.com states ‘…RCA’s Chicago studios had at least two different locations in its history. The first, from circa 1935 through April 1969, was at 445 North Lake Shore Drive in the Navy Pier section; then after that, they moved to a new location at 1 North Wacker Drive in the Loop. …’ Broadcasting annuals 1935, 1936 and 1937 do list the Merchandise Mart address (Suite 1143), but the 1939 and 1940 annuals show the Lake Shore Drive address. The Feb.-March 1940 RCA Recording Department manual doesn’t show an address for the Chicago studio (but the PDF copy found online specifies the address of the Hollywood studio for which that copy was originally issued).”

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