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Duke Ellington Tuesday, 27 April, 1999, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Which was the greatest band?
Musical styles and different musicians provided a kaleidoscope of strengths to Duke Ellington's band. There is something of a debate about which was the best band.

Duke Ellington
While everyone has an opinion, the majority of the jazz punditocracy seems to go with the great line-up Duke had in the period 1939-41. This galaxy of great players coincided with a rich period of creativity for Ellington.

Galaxy of stars

A number of important musicians joined Ellington in the late 30s.

One was bass player Jimmy Blanton. His premature death in 1942 from tuberculosis, at the age of 23, deprived jazz of one its most important musicians. Nevertheless, in his brief period at the top he managed to revolutionise the playing of his instrument.

His performances moved the instrument to new levels. As well as adding a new rhythmic dimension, he also played melodic lines.

Ellington was quick to pick up on the potential of his new band member and ensured he was prominently featured.

Listening to a track such as Jack the Bear, shows bass playing reaching a level of artistry. Blanton hits a groove which means the whole band swings like the clappers.

Another player, Ben Webster, was a master of the tenor saxophone and added a new edge to Ellington tunes.

His disruptive and aggressive nature meant he would only be with Ellington for a couple of years. Nevertheless, his awesome playing gave the sax section an exciting new soloist, a greater attack in the execution of musical phrasing and depth of sound. His sense of timing lifted the entire section.

A Ben Webster feature composed by Ellington was Cottontail. It's a masterpiece.

The band picks up the riff before Webster, pins back his ears and builds up a head of steam on the tenor. It is both awesome in its power and one of the most exciting numbers anywhere in jazz.

Other inspired Ellington creations from this short period include: Ko-Ko, Harlem Air Shaft, and In a Mellotone and Concerto for Cootie.

Hallmark sound

The latter was composed by Ellington in 1940 in honour of Cootie Williams, a powerful trumpet player who became a hallmark of the Ellington sound.

He replaced another terrific player Bubber Miley, whose revolutionary growling sound was to become a part of Cootie's repertoire too.

Cootie joined Ellington's band in 1929. Among those he played with beforehand were Fletcher Henderson's and Chick Webb's.

He was never told to copy Miley's growling sound but as he later told an interviewer: "I thought as I was taking Bubber's place I better learn how to growl...then one night when I had a solo I picked up with the plunger and surprised the band with a growl solo. When we came off the stand Duke and the boys said , "That's it, keep that in!" '

Then amid a blaze of publicity and controversy, Cootie was to join Benny Goodman's band, lured not only by Goodman's huge popularity but also by a somewhat fatter pay packet. Ellington and Williams remained cordial during this extraordinary episode with Duke simply admitting he could not match the monetary rewards.

Some years later, indeed in 1962, Cootie rejoined Ellington's band, which by now had attained worldwide popularity and remained in the line-up until the death of the great leader himself.

Through thick and thin

But a stalwart of the band was Harry Carney, the baritone sax player, who doubled up as Duke's driver.

He was in the band for some 45 years or so and became one of Ellington's closest associates.

Long drives, often several hundreds of miles, cemented their friendship. As Duke slept, composed or simply pondered over issues, Harry sat behind the wheel and took them on to the next town.

Carney hailed from Boston, and lived just several doors away from fellow band saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

Hodges, nicknamed rabbit because of a liking for lettuce and tomato sandwiches, played the alto saxophone with one of the greatest sounds in jazz.

His rich, blues-infected tone, was his trademark. He joined Ellington in 1928 and was to stay with him for more than 20 years, albeit with a break for several years when he led his own band.

Hodges was heavily featured by Ellington and his classic tracks include Jeep's Blues, Hodge Podge and Passion Flower.

On his death, Ellington said: "Because of this great loss our band will never sound the same."

This band coincided with a spell of rich compositional creativity for Ellington and this, together with the band's added musical ability, meant that traditional riff-orientated big band sounds were given a more sophisticated musical edge.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
Jack The Bear, with Jimmy Blanton on string bass
Audio
Cottontail: Featuring Ben Webster on tenor saxophone
Audio
Jeep's Blues: Featuring Johnny Hodges on alto sax
Links to more Duke Ellington stories are at the foot of the page.


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