Home movie footage of Duke Ellington and his band playing baseball
07:51 am


Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington
Two of the greatest home-grown American inventions—indeed, grassroots institutions—are jazz and baseball. The consensus greatest practitioners of both pastimes—Louis Armstrong and Babe Ruth, respectively—were in their prime at the exact same time, the 1920s, and both men were raised in orphanages. Shit, it’s jazz and baseball, I’ve just accidentally named two Ken Burns PBS series, that’s how freaking iconic those two things are. You can tell the story of America through baseball, or through jazz. They’re both rich mines of meaning.

And if you have something that combines the two, well, that’s something I want to know about. Smithsonian Magazine recently came up with some truly remarkable footage, dating from around 1941, of the legendary jazz bandleader and composer Duke Ellington playing a little bit of baseball during an off moment with a few of his bandmates, namely cornetist Rex Stewart and valve trombonist Juan Tizol. For the record, that’s the Duke pitching and then swinging the bat from about 0:15 to 0:30. (That’s tenor sax man Ben Webster in the bathrobe at the end, clearly communicating something along the lines of “You guys can play out there if you want, I’m hung over and I’m staying right here.”)
Duke Ellington
This fantastic image actually has nothing to do with the footage. That picture was taken sometime in the mid-1950s—the massive slogan on the bus, “Mr. Hi-Fi of 1955,” in addition to being my own future nickname if I have anything to say about it, surely puts us pretty close to that year. The appearance of the neon word “Colored” at left certainly suggests that this little game of pickup ball took place somewhere in the South.



Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
‘Such Sweet Thunder’: Duke Ellington does Shakespeare
03:14 pm


Duke Ellington

The great Duke Ellington, a giant even among the most gigantic giants of 20th century music—I mean seriously, who deserves to be included in his rarified company? Lennon and McCartney? Stravinsky? Miles? Louis Armstrong?—was born on this day in 1899. The man was a force of nature, gaining recognition for jazz as an important American art form, financially keeping an orchestra together for decades (that wasn’t easy!) and composing, playing and conducting some of the greatest music ever made.

Every few years I go on a Duke Ellington kick. I tend to like the recordings from the mid-fifties onward mostly because they sound better. One absolute gem in Ellington’s later years catalog is Such Sweet Thunder, a longform twelve part suite that he and Billy Strayhorn wrote in 1957 based on the work of William Shakespeare. The name comes from a line of Puck’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” Ellington said of the work, that it was his “attempt to parallel the vignettes of some of the Shakespearean characters in miniature—sometimes to the point of caricature.” Such Sweet Thunder premiered at the “Music for Moderns” concert at New York’s Town Hall in April of 1957, but without the suite’s final number, which had not even been written yet.

Such Sweet Thunder was an early stereo recording, but due to problems with the production, was only issued in mono when it came out in 1957. It wasn’t until Sony started to look into their vaults during the 1999 Ellington Centennial that a stereo Such Sweet Thunder was issued.

Below, the CBS radio premiere of Such Sweet Thunder with introductions from Ellington, at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, July 1, 1957:

“Such Sweet Thunder” and “Sonnet to Hank Cinq,” live in Switzerland, 1959:

A wild avant garde ballet choreographed by Maurice Béjart to Ellington and Strayhorn’s score, directed in 1960 by Joachim-Ernst Berendt for Belgian and German TV:

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Happy Birthday Herb Jeffries: Totally fake black cowboy, jazz vocalist, centenarian
01:07 pm


Duke Ellington
Herb Jeffries

bronze buckaroo
I couldn’t tell you what year it was when I bought Herb Jeffries’ Devil Is A Woman, but it had to be in the mid to late ‘90s, when I was neck deep in ironic acquisitions—mass-produced thrift store kitsch paintings, boxes of ‘50s vacation slides, vanity pressed gospel and lounge organist albums purchased for their endearingly cheap cover art but almost never listened to. I’m sure a fair many DM readers know that whole drill.
devil is a woman
One night back then, a friend was over for company and cans of cheap beer, and he played DJ with one of my crates of weirdo records. Most of it was boring dross, as was to be expected, but soon enough, lo, a gem didst shine out for us. It was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the aforesaid Jeffries LP, sporting a K-Mart price tag of 77¢, probably purchased for more like a quarter.
As soon as the needle settled into that thick old slab of Golden Tone Hi-Fidelity vinyl, a potent, red-blooded, exotic rhythm underpinned a horn section’s dramatic spy-movie stabs, and then the delightful vocalist entered the fray, crooning in a huge, unlikely wail and a surely fake, vaguely Mediterranean/Caribbean/somethingorother accent,


I’ve searched for a freakin’ hour, dear reader, and unless my Google Fu is just totally garbage today, the entire song is nowhere to be found online. The 30 second sample on Last FM is crystal clear and representative. Also there’s this:

The rest of the album is similarly filled with eye-widening delights, so there my friend and I sat, two newly minted fans of - who? Jeffries’s name is set in uncommonly tiny type on the cover, which may be just as well, as it’s misspelled. But off I went to find more, and so I did. Not only more recordings under his own name, but I learned that this odd pop singer was also pedigreed as the golden Jazz voice atop Duke Ellington’s very large hit “Flamingo.”

And it gets weirder - Jeffries initially became known in the ‘30s singing for the Earl “Fatha” Hines orchestra (he’s the lone surviving member of both Hines’ and Ellington’s bands), and improbably parlayed that into a career as a singing cowboy in low-budget western films with all African-American casts. Well, all African-American save for Jeffries himself, whose background, in reality Irish/Sicilian unless he’s still bullshitting even now, was a matter of some chicanery throughout his career, and even now, it seems like no two bios are in exact agreement on the matter of his ethnicity. His astonishing passing himself off as black in everyday life during the segregation era - how that might sit in relation to blackface performance is a discussion I’d love to hear from people better informed on such matters than I - earned him the nickname “The Bronze Buckaroo,” from the title of one of the films. This film, in fact.

Per his Wikipedia biography, Jeffries discovered his birth certificate in 2007, learning then that his birthdate is September 24, 1913, making this performer with a crazy back story a centenarian as of today. And so we salute and congratulate Herb Jeffries on his 100th birthday. Here’s a short documentary celebrating his career, showing him spry as a damn kitten and in full possession of his faculties even in his nineties.

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Leave a comment
Record Making with Duke Ellington
07:11 am


Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington stars in this fascinating short promotional film that explains the tricky and complex process by which the legendary jazz pianist and band leader made records back in the 1930s.

Bonus: 3 landmark tracks from Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, after the jump…
With thanks to Tim Lucas

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment