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Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra
Live performances, 1938-63

Recordings, transcriptions and broadcast rarities show the band's sound in live performance was distinctly different from their studio sound.

Highlighting the historic Fargo, North Dakota concert, this series features fresh restoration from broadcast tapes of the “Birthday Sessions,” recorded at McElroy's Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, April 1953 & 54.


This series of dynamic live performances is dedicated my late aunt, Bee Pine. A long time member of the Ellington Society, she was the most committed Ellington enthusiast I’ve known.  Bee once drove all night and half way across the state of Arizona to attend a live performance by Duke and his orchestra.
  


Pt. 1 - Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra Live

ELLINGTON LIVE 1A.mp3
BLUTOPIA  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1945
IT DON’T MEAN A THING (IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT SWING)  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1945
AIR CONDITIONED JUNGLE  --  Duke Ellington & his Famous Orchestra, 1945
SOPHISTICATED LADY  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, c. 1953-54
V.I.P.’s BOOGIE  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, c. 1953-54
CARNIVAL IN CAROLINE  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1938
HARMONY IN HARLEM  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1938
DINAH  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1938

ELLINGTON LIVE 1B.mp3
MOOD INDIGO  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
SEPIA PANORAMA  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
RUMPUS IN RICHMOND  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, Berlin 1959
 








The Famous Orchestra in
Chicago, 1932


Pt. 2 - Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra Live


ELLINGTON LIVE 2A.mp3
C-JAM BLUES  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, c. 1953-54
AT SUNDOWN  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, c. 1953-54
SULTRY SERENADE  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, c. 1953-54
THE MOOCHE  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
HARLEM AIRSHAFT  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
KO-KO  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
NEVER NO LAMENT  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
STOMPY JONES  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940

ELLINGTON LIVE 2B.mp3
OH, BABE MAYBE SOMEDAY  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1938
THE GAL FROM JOE’S  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1938
RIDIN’ ON A BLUE NOTE  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1938
THE WEST INDIAN INFLUENCE  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1943
A LIGHTER ATTITUDE  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1943
ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
    







Harlem's finest in Fargo, 1940


Pt. 3 - Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra Live

ELLINGTON LIVE 3A.mp3
CONGA BRAVA  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
COTTONTAIL  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1940
JUST SQUEEZE ME  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1955
LAY-BY  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1963
TULIP OR TURNIP  --   Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, c. 1953-54
BASIN STREET BLUES  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, Berlin 1959
SLAPPIN’ SEVENTH AVE WITH THE SOLES OF MY SHOES  --  Ellington Orchestra, 1938
DOWNTOWN UPROAR  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1938

ELLINGTON LIVE 3B.mp3
JAM-A-DITTY (CONCERTO FOR FOUR JAZZ HORNS)  --  Duke Ellington Orchestra, 1947
FRANKIE AND JOHNNY  --  Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, 1945       
KINDA DUKISH/ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM  --  Duke Ellington Orchestra, 1963
  


You'll find four more programs about Duke Ellington, here.
  



Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra in Performance

Early on Duke and his band discovered there was a significant difference in energy between their sit-down concerts versus dance dates.  Some of the drive and swing they had when playing for dancers was missing in theatrical or stage shows.  Fortunately, ever since the mid-1930s excellent live recorded performances of Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra have been preserved on transcription discs, acetates and tape.

Ellington was one of the most brilliant, prolific, adventurous, inventive, charming, gifted, hard- working, influential jazz musicians and composers.  He wrote and recorded hundreds, possibly thousands of tunes, performed all over the world, and continuously maintained a working band for more than four decades. 

Solely as a bandleader and pianist, other accomplishments aside, Ellington would be considered among the premier jazz musicians of the 20th Century.   From his early success at Harlem’s Cotton Club, his band set the highest standards for musicality, adventurous soloing, and imaginative musical ideas.

One of America’s greatest composers, Duke wrote quite a few popular standards among his thousands of tunes.  He was continuously advancing innovative ideas in melody, harmony and form.  He employed some of the finest soloists of jazz, who often found their finest moments in his band.


Hot in Harlem . . . or Fargo, North Dakota

The Ellington band achieved early fame at the Cotton Club in Harlem during the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Later, they were special guests when not touring or performing elsewhere.  Good recordings of their Cotton Club broadcasts from the ‘30s are part of this body of work, and feature some of his most illustrious stars: Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Harry Carney, and singer Ivie Anderson.

You might not think that Fargo, North Dakota could possibly be the source for a remarkable live Ellington performance.  But after young enthusiasts, Jack Towers and Richard Burris, brought a disc recorder to a concert at the Crystal Ballroom in 1940.  The superb results became legendary, preserving the sound of the orchestra at a peak point of creativity.  Excerpts have been occasionally issued on LP or CD, but are only well-known among true Dukeophiles.

The 1940 Fargo concert stands among the orchestra’s best live recordings, despite the recent departure of trumpeter Cootie Williams  --  which was such big news in 1940 that Raymond Scott wrote a popular ditty, “When Cootie Left the Duke.”  But Ellington had recently added bassist Jimmy Blanton, tenor sax giant Ben Webster; arranger Billy Strayhorn.  Just days earlier he had singer, trumpet player and violinist Ray Nance, who ably took Cootie’s trumpet chair.

It was an unseasonably warm November in North Dakota, a balmy contrast returning from frigid Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.  As the concert proceeded and musicians heard some of the playbacks, they rose to the occasion.

Results of the “Great James Robbery” heard on the Portland Birthday Concerts

Among the notable performances on these programs are the rarely issued “Birthday Sessions,” recorded at McElroy's Ballroom in Portland, Oregon at a series of performances in late April 1953 & 54 (Duke’s birthday is April 29).  They’re notable for capturing the live excitement of the Ellington orchestra during an era of otherwise dreary recordings for Capitol Records.  

In the Ellington orchestra musicians stayed an exceptionally long time, often decades.  It was said that you could still be “the new guy” after five years.  The 1951 departure of his biggest star, Johnny Hodges, trombonist Lawrence Brown (a nearly 20 year veteran), and drummer Sonny Greer who had been with Duke for 3 decades was a shock.

Duke’s rebound was surprisingly robust.  Recovering from the blow, he quickly raided the Harry James band for several musicians.  In what the music press called “The Great James Robbery,”  he rehired his former valve trombonist, Juan Tizol, alto saxist Willie Smith, and energetic young drummer Louie Bellson, a veteran of the Dorsey and Goodman bands.  Also on the roster for Portland were reed players Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves, and Harry Carney; trombonists Quentin Jackson and Britt Woodman; and trumpeters Cat Anderson, Ray Nance and Clark Terry.

Striving for Something Larger

By the 1940s Ellington’s music had moved well beyond the conventions of jazz or swing:  not only in the form of his extended suites and tone poems, but in the bold originality of his arranging and adventurous harmonic experimentation.  Fully representing his concertizing must include his presentation of extended works.  From the early-1940s on, he strove to create a more expansive frame for his music, attempting to fuse it to the larger body of formal art music.  

In his own words Elllington sought to tell, “the history of the Negro in America,” in extended compositions:  “Harlem,” “Liberian Suite,” “New World a Comin',” “Deep South Suite,” and most ambitious of all, the forty-five minute tone poem, “Black, Brown, Beige.”  Yet within his complex composing and arranging Duke always provided room for improvising and jamming, particularly in live performance.
















"We do love
you madly."

A Citizen of the World

The live performances of Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra were rarely surpassed on record. Ellington loved to travel and his band loved to perform.  He and his orchestra may have toured more often, more widely and longer than any other band. 

Duke was a master at connecting and bonding with his audiences.  His charming patter gently flattered a crowd, drawing them into an intimate circle summed up in his catch phrase, “We love you madly.”

Ellington’s music was unique for its range, invention, depth and wide appeal.  There was a special magic and electricity in the best live performances.  Like his life, music, and personality, Duke Ellington’s live concerts and dance dates were beyond category.









Duke and
"Floor Show"
Ray Nance


SIDEBAR:
Ray Nance


Ray Nance was a quadruple threat performer: a dynamic trumpet player, superb jazz violinist, entertaining singer, and a dancer: all of which he utilized in his stage routines.  Duke said: Ray Nance never played a bad note in his life. . . .  Many is the time, when other members fell short, that he jumped into a substitute spot . . . he worked beyond the call of duty . . .  and is a pure artist  at heart.” 

The admiration was mutual.  Ray said,“there’s no type of music I’d rather play than Duke Ellington’s.”

A compact 5’ 4”, he was a big performer.  His crowd-pleasing antics won him the nickname “floor show.”  Ray Nance was arguably the most popular singer Duke ever presented in live performance.
 

















Duke's T-bones

by
Mark Ulriksen


LINKS:

You'll find three more JAZZ RHYTHM programs about Duke Ellington, here.

Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940 live
The Duke Ellington Society
Official website of Duke Ellington
Ellington at Red Hot Jazz.com
Ellington at Ken Burns Jazz/PBS
Ellington on Wikipedia.org