“Rude Interlude” (1933) Duke Ellington with Juan Tizol, Louis Bacon and Cootie Williams.

“Rude Interlude”

Composed and arranged by Duke Ellington.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on September 26,1933 in Chicago.

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

The story – part one: The Ellington band.

The year 1933 was a pivotal one in Duke Ellington’s career. Duke began the year by playing a week at the Albee Theater in New York. By early March, the Ellington band was working on a film short, Paramount Pictorial No. 837 – The World at Large. They appeared in this film with two other bands that were managed by Irving Mills, Cab Calloway’s and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band.(1) Indeed, Mills himself appeared in the film, announcing his bands. This film was made at Paramount’s Astoria Long Island studio. Duke and his band then worked in the Cotton Club for a time, finishing the last nights of The 21st Cotton Club Parade starting on March 9. Cab Calloway, who had starred in that revue, had to leave then to begin a long tour. Ellington and his troupe remained at the Cotton Club, and were one of the acts in The 22nd Cotton Club Parade, which opened on April 16 and ran until May 26. But their work at the Cotton Club was at night. Irving Mills made sure that they also worked during daylight hours, whenever possible.

One of their daytime jobs was to appear in another Paramount short film, called A Bundle of Blues. That film was made on May 23, 1933, also at Paramount’s Astoria studio, and it contains vocalist Ivie Anderson’s first appearance on film. Ms. Anderson sang the song “Stormy Weather” in that film. “Stormy Weather” was written for The 22nd Cotton Club Parade by Harold Arlen (music) and Ted Koehler (lyric), and became a big hit in 1933, and is now a standard in The Great American Popular Songbook.(2)

But the most excitement for the Ellington band came when they boarded the S.S. Olympic on June 2, heading for England. They arrived in Southampton on June 9, and began working in England, Scotland, The Netherlands and France. (Above right: Duke Ellington about to disembark from the S.S. Olympic for England, June 9 1933.) Their European tour lasted until August 3, when they closed a three-night stand at Salle Pleyel, Paris. They then returned to the United States aboard the Majestic, arriving in Manhattan on August 9.

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on the stage of the London Palladium – June 12 – 24, 1933. L-R front: Freddie Jenkins, Cootie Williams, Arthur Whetsel, Ellington, Otto Hardwick, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard; middle: Joseph Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown, Fred Guy, Wellman Braud; back: Sonny Greer.

From the date they arrived back in the U.S. until the recording presented with post was made, approximately six weeks, the Ellington band took to the road, playing a mix of one-night dance dates and longer stays in theaters. They were playing a week-long engagement at the Chicago Theater, on State Street in Chicago, when this recording was made at Victor’s Merchandise Mart studio there.(3)/(3A) (Below left: The Chicago Theater in the early 1930s.)

The story – part two – Ellington’s management.

When reviewing the schedule of work Duke Ellington’s band did in the first nine months of 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression, one arrives at the conclusion that the Depression was not a time of unemployment or underemployment for them. Indeed, it was the opposite: a time of overemployment, plus almost constant travel to and from the various sites of their work. Relatively little comment has been directed toward explaining how and why the Ellington band was so busy then. The primary reason of course is that Duke had put together an ensemble of highly individual and talented musicians whom he used brilliantly to do whatever musical work they found themselves confronted with. But as we know, a great band full of fine musicians led by an inspired leader was not a guarantee of success during the swing era. There had to be someone, somewhere behind the scene pushing hard to get the band work. In the case of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, that man was Irving Mills.

The amount and variety of work Mills secured for the Ellington band was truly astonishing. In addition, Mills’s business relationship with Ellington was all-inclusive: He was Duke’s personal manager, band booker, publisher of Duke’s music, and director of Duke’s recording activity. Duke was the perfect client: He took care of the band’s personnel and music in masterful fashion; he was a dynamic and suave stage presence; and he followed Mills’s instructions to the letter. Together, they achieved a substantial amount of success, especially considering that Ellington and his band were working at a time of pervasive Jim Crow racism in America, where people of color were denied many opportunities for success. (Irving Mills as he appeared in the short film Paramount Pictorial No. 837 – The World at Large, early March 1933.)

Irving Mills was not only an aggressive manager, he was one who was in constant motion, endlessly probing the marketplace for music in search of opportunities for his clients. (His biggest-earning client was the exuberant showman Cab Calloway.) He did not limit himself in any way in how he pursued opportunities. Here is an interesting bit of context for that: “A year after pooling their interests in artist management, Irving Mills and Tom Rockwell severed their partnership, dissolving Mills-Rockwell, Inc., which they had built into one of the top agencies among those booking radio talent. The split was an amicable one caused mainly by the complexities inherent in the many corporate entities and sub-corporations united under the Mills-Rockwell name, all carrying corporate taxes with complicated arrangements. For a while, the parties occupied the same offices until Rockwell teamed-up with F.C. “Cork” O’Keefe – earlier responsible for one-nighter bookings in the Mills-Rockwell combine – to form Rockwell – O’Keefe, Inc. In the Mills-Rockwell split, each partner regained full booking control and financial interest in the artists he had brought into the original unit, and those that had joined under either partner’s sponsorship. .”(4)

After Mills separated from Tom Rockwell, he became involved with Victor Records: “The second week of September 1933, Irving Mills was enlisted as talent scout, advisor and record producer for Victor Records, without him having to divest himself of any other of his business interests. In a first move, Mills signed Victor contracts for his three major black bands, previously exclusive Brunswick recording artists: Calloway’s, Ellington’s and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band.” (5)

The music:

It appears that Duke drew inspiration for the title for his composition “Rude Interlude” by learning, to his amusement, that English composer Constant Lambert’s Eurasian wife had misinterpreted his announcement of “Mood Indigo” at a London performance as Rude Indigo.(6)  I had always suspected, knowing Ellington’s proclivities, something more earthy. One of Duke’s biographers, James Lincoln Collier, seems to have also suspected this: “The number does sound a bit like an interlude – a moment in which all activity is suspended – but it is the reverse of rude.”(7) (Below right: Constant Lambert (age 25) and his fiancee’ Florence Chuter (age 18) July 31, 1931 in London.)(*)

Mr. Collier then provided an insightful analysis of the music itself: It is a quiet almost motionless piece in which Duke has made a thing of shimmering beauty out of the simplest of materials. Atypically, there is very little soloing. Cootie Williams has eight bars in the plunger mute, and Louis Bacon, who was brought in for the recording session, …scats a moody vocal in a deep voice. Aside from these and a few piano interludes, the piece is made entirely of a tiny, two-note phrase played by one or another section of the orchestra, with answers coming from another section. Harmonically, it is built on what feel like alternations of dominant and tonic but what are in fact so filled with suspensions, particularly of Ellington’s beloved lowered sixth, that the harmony lacks the firm sense of purpose that dominant-tonic movement usually has. Instead, it drifts, so that the whole piece seems to float slowly into sight at one side of the field of vision and out the other. What movement it has is supplied by a generally rising line the tiny melody takes. It is a superb piece of shading, all muted colors, and shows Duke’s absolute mastery of form.” (8)

As so often was the case, Ellington’s sound palette contained more colors than those used by most other bands. After a brief, somewhat abstract piano introduction, we hear the sound of Juan Tizol’s valve trombone being played open but into a plunger mute, against a background of humming, cup-muted brass, against a backdrop of rhythm provided by guitarist Fred Guy, bassist Wellman Braud, drummer Sonny Greer and Ellington, who adds accented piano chords in strategic spots. Within seconds, Duke has created a mood of mystery. The saxophone quartet, under the glowing lead of Otto Hardwick’s alto, appear with another instrumental color. As they play an ascending phrase, Tizol manipulates his plunger cup to get a subtle wa-wa effect. (At left: Valve trombonist Juan Tizol in the mid-1930s, sans mute.)

The next sequence spots trumpeter Cootie Williams playing a quintessential solo, his horn muted by a pixie straight mute and a plunger. He plays against the saxophones. Guest Louis Bacon, who was a trumpeter, is used here by Duke as a vocalist. His wordless singing and robust voice add yet another color to the music, and sustain the mood. Backed by the saxophones with Hardwick’s singing alto prominent, Bacon sings in a gently rhythmic way that fits the music perfectly.

Immediately after the vocal, Duke provides a brief, contrasting piano interlude, accompanied only by Sonny Greer’s gently brushed snare drum. There follows a slowly building series of ensemble sounds centered around the cup-muted brass (at first – soon the mutes are removed), and three or four clarinets, played in antiphonal fashion with the brass. These sounds are borne aloft by the magic carpet of rhythm supplied by the piano, guitar, bass and drums. The music moves up dynamically and in register, reaching a climax at the very end.

This is an exquisitely evocative piece of music which contains many instrumental colors and sonic and dynamic contrasts. Duke’s brilliantly creative deployment of the rather limited resources of his fourteen-piece band to make such music is evidence that he was far from an ordinary bandleader.

Duke Ellington and his band arriving in Hollywood – February 19, 1934. Among other work there, the Ellington band would be featured in the Paramount films “Murder at the Vanities,” “Belle of the Nineties” and “Many Happy Returns.” Work on these films took place intermittently from February 26 into mid-May. L-R: Earl “Snakehips” Tucker,(**) Juan Tizol, Arthur Whetsel, Ivie Anderson, Joseph Nanton, Harry Carney, Wellman Braud, Otto Hardwick, Duke Ellington, Fred Guy, Freddie Jenkins, Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown and Sonny Greer.

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

Notes and links:

(*) Information about the photo of Constant Lambert and Florence Chuter comes from the blog: “A Tune a Day – Book One.”

(**) Earl “Snakehips” Tucker was not a member of the Ellington band, but he frequently worked with them in stage shows. Neither he nor Ms. Anderson appeared with the Ellington band in the three films they made for Paramount in Hollywood in early 1934.

(1) The name Mills Blue Rhythm Band became the permanent name of a band Mills operated for the next several years in July of 1933. Prior to that, the band had been known as Baron Lee and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. Mills and Lee came to a parting of the ways in the summer of 1933.

(2) Ethel Waters introduced the song “Stormy Weather” in the 22nd Cotton Club Parade, and recorded it on May 3, 1933 with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra on Brunswick Records. From May through the rest of 1933, more than a dozen other recordings of “Stormy Weather” were made. Also in 1933, for the first time the entire revue from the Cotton Club went on tour, playing theatres in principal cities. It was originally called The Cotton Club Parade of 1933, but for the tour it was changed to Stormy Weather Revue. “Stormy Weather” was sung in that revue/tour by Adelaide Hall. (This information is a summary of the information in the Wikipedia post on “Stormy Weather.)

(3) Victor was in the process of building-out a new recording studio at 445 North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago when this recording was made. Their former studio, at 952 North Michigan Avenue, had been vacated recently (Brunswick Records then moved in), and they temporarily moved their recording operation into suite 1143 of the Merchandise Mart, 222 West North Bank Street. This location was a part of N.B.C.’s Chicago broadcast facility. The new recording studio was completed and occupied by Victor sometime in 1934. Victor, and later RCA Victor, used that studio until April 26, 1972. (These details were provided by Joe Knox, friend of swingandbeyond.com and Victor expert.)

(3A) The details of Ellington’s work schedule in 1933 and into 1934 are derived from: Duke Ellington – Day by Day and Film by Film (1992), by Klaus Stratemann, 50-114.

(4) The original reporting on the Mills-Rockwell split was contained in Variety in the months of August and September of 1933.

(5) Variety, September 12, 1933.

(6) Liner notes to Big Bands – Duke Ellington (1983), by Stanley Dance.

(7) Duke Ellington (1987) by James Lincoln Collier, 160-161.

(8) Ibid.

Here are links to other great performances by Duke Ellington in the 1930s:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2022/04/16/solitude-1934-duke-ellington-and-maxwell-davis-1960/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/03/16/gypsy-without-a-song-1938-duke-ellington-1993-smithsonian-jazz-masterworks-orchestra/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/01/21/the-sergeant-was-shy-1939-duke-ellington-and-charlie-barnet-billy-may-1940/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/12/31/blue-reverie-1937-38-duke-ellington-and-benny-goodmans-1938-carnegie-hall-concert/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/04/05/something-to-live-for-1965-ella-fitzgerald-with-duke-ellington-1939-duke-ellington-1975-tommy-flanagan/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/09/01/it-dont-mean-a-thing-if-it-aint-got-that-swing-1932-duke-ellington/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/04/10/i-let-a-song-go-out-of-my-heart-1938-duke-ellington-and-1955-conrad-gozzo/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/05/22/drop-me-off-in-harlem-1933-duke-ellington-and-1984-from-the-film-the-cotton-club/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2022/05/25/creole-love-call-duke-ellington-1927-with-adelaide-hall-and-bubber-miley-1949-with-kay-davis-and-ray-nance/

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