March 30, 2007
'I now have a sense of what heaven could be like' — Nat Hentoff on 'The Duke Box'
Long story short: the legendary Danish label Storyville has just released an 8 CD box set of the 1940s Duke Ellington orchestra, consisting entirely of live performances.
Added Hentoff, "The nonpareil Ellington mosaic of moods, colors, incandescent ensembles... and instantly identifiable soloists makes this a set I ought to include in my will."
Here's his March 28, 2007 Wall Street Journal review.
- Ellington's Band Is Heavenly In These 'Live' '40s Recordings
I now have a sense of what heaven could be like. For those of us for whom Duke Ellington is rejuvenatingly contemporary, Storyville — the legendary Danish label, a cornucopia of ageless jazz — has released "The Duke Box," available on Amazon.com and in record stores. The 1940s Ellington orchestra (his most exhilarating) is heard entirely in "live" performances — in dance halls (where, as Duke told me, the dancers became part of the music), nightclubs, concert halls, and on radio remotes from around the country.
In the 40-page booklet — with photographs by Herman Leonard and William Gottlieb, masters of decisive jazz moments — Dan Morgenstern notes that the sound of Ellington "live" is more vividly realistic than "the dead (non-resonant) studios of that time." (Those studio recordings also do remain essential because Duke insisted on no more than two or three takes a song for maximum immediacy.) But, as I can attest from having been at some of the dance halls and concerts, Ellington and his wondrously distinctive sidemen were most memorably heard in person.
The sound quality of "The Duke Box" is somewhat variable, but all of it is more than acceptable, and some of it glorious. These eight hours of Ellington on eight CDs are in chronological order; but I recommend you start with the 1940s band's second CD — the one I would want with me if I were stranded on the proverbial desert island.
As featured in that CD, on Nov. 7, 1940, the band, after a typically grueling road trip, arrived at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, N.D. Fortunately, on hand with recording equipment were two young Ellington enthusiasts, Jack Towers and Dick Burris. (Mr. Towers later became an unexcelled sound-restorer of time-worn classic jazz recordings.)
As some of the sidemen later recalled, the band suddenly took fire that night. Here, on 16 Fargo tracks, from "Mood Indigo" to "Harlem Airshaft" and "The Flaming Sword," the heroes of my youth and beyond -- Johnny Hodges, "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Rex Stewart, Ben Webster, Ray Nance (who had just joined the troupe), Barney Bigard, and "the piano player in the band" (as Ellington described himself) — demonstrated why this, of all Duke's orchestras, is the most revered.
But on every one of the eight CDs, the nonpareil Ellington mosaic of moods, colors, incandescent ensembles ("Duke loves his brass," as one player told me) and instantly identifiable soloists makes this a set I ought to include in my will. A historic event, from the Hurricane in New York, is the first performance, in 1943, of "Tonight I Shall Sleep." Duke had recently composed the ballad.
He might have even written it on the road. One night, at the Raymor Ballroom in Boston, I heard an Ellington piece new to me. During a break, I asked baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, "What was that?" "I don't know what it's called," Carney said. "He just wrote it."
Off the stand, Duke was often writing — or hearing in his head what he'd later work out on the piano. Mr. Morgenstern's comprehensive and deeply knowledgeable notes to "The Duke Box" end with Ellington's death, at age 75 — on May 24, 1974 — of pneumonia and lung cancer. In his hospital bed, he was still composing; and that spring, he sent out Christmas cards. (I was privileged to get one of them.) Duke was always planning ahead — as in his music, which he wanted to be always in "a state of becoming," as former sideman Clark Terry told me. "And that's why he never settled on a final ending for what he wrote," Terry added.
The remarkable achievement of researching, assembling and remastering the historic contents of "The Duke Box" is Storyville's contribution to Ellington's legacy. The Copenhagen company (www.storyvillerecords.com) is now owned by Musical Sales Group, headquartered in London, and distributed in the U.S. by MRI Associated labels in New York.
Looking through Storyville's extensive catalog, I always find CDs I must add to those I already have — from two volumes of Bing Crosby with Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden ("Havin' Fun" and "Havin' More Fun") to "George Lewis and his New Orleans Stompers" and "Thelonious Monk in Copenhagen." In the blues division, there is the deeply flowing blues of pianist-singer Otis Spann.
Named for the red-light district of New Orleans — where many later jazz legends performed -- the label was started in Copenhagen in 1952 by 23-year-old Karl Emil Knudsen, who jubilantly identified himself as "Doctor of Jazz Archaeology." Along with arranging for the release of many out-of-print American classic jazz recordings, he also produced sets by jazz masters visiting Europe, including some — like the magisterial tenor saxophonist Ben Webster — who took up residence in Denmark.
After Knudsen's death in 2003, Music Sales Group acquired Storyville Records, wisely keeping on Knudsen's longtime Copenhagen associates Mona Granger and Andres Stefanson, who share the founder's passionate conviction that the music in the Storyville catalog will remain imperishable. (The catalog is available on the Storyville Web site.)
In view of the diminishing interest by American record conglomerates in searching their archives for jazz reissues, the lively persistence of Storyville is particularly worth celebrating. I spoke recently to the London-based head of Musical Sales (and Storyville), Paul Lower. I found him widely versed in jazz history — with the sense of mission of the label's founder. Among future releases, he told me proudly, is a Ben Webster boxed set.
And in the mail a couple of weeks ago, I found a harvest of more Storyville "Masters of Jazz" sets — Sidney Bechet, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Griffin, Johnny Hodges, Billie Holliday and Earl Hines. With four children and six grandchildren to remember in my will, I may well include these CDs in my bequests along with "The Duke Box."
At a 1963 press conference in Calcutta, India, Duke Ellington was asked: "How have you managed to keep a big band so long when so many others have broken up?"
"It's a matter," said Duke, "of whether you want to play music or make money, I guess. I like to keep a band so that I can write and hear the music the next day. The only way to do that is to pay the band and keep it on tap fifty-two weeks a year."
Asked whether the rise of rock 'n' roll had taken away the jazz audience, Duke answered: "There's still a Dixieland audience, a Swing audience, a Bop audience.... All the audiences are still there."
And, for them, so is still Storyville Records.
The Duke Box costs $79.98 (£49.98; €66.98).
March 30, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink
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Oh sweet mystery of life.....I just heard part of it. I thank you for this most wonderful unexpected pearl!
Posted by: Joe Peach | Mar 30, 2007 7:00:36 PM
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