Duke Ellington and the razor knife incident.
DUKE ELLINGTON EARLY 1930: THE YEAR OF THE DEPRESSION
Today it is 111 years ago that bandleader, pianist and composer Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as the Duke, was born in Washington DC. Eighty years ago, 1930, he performed at the Cotton Club in Harlem ( NYC) and his star was rising. His orchestra, labelled at The Cotton Club Orchestra, was a twelve-piece band, which featured great names like Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Juan Tizol, Harry Carney and Barney Bigard.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
There were a lot of jazz- and dance bands in Harlem during this period, but Duke's was the best of all - even "better" then Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. The reasons was that Duke was a great composer, who made arrangements for the individual members of the band instead of making a generic charts that could be played by any orchestra. Each sidemen in the band developed in Duke's band developed into great soloists. The Audio Park album Harlem Jazz 1925-1937 brings a great tribute to this period.
Enjoy a fragment from the film Black and Tan, made in August 1929 and released December 1929, which starts with Duke at the piano and Arthur Whetsol on the trumpet, playing the growling, so-called "jungle style" on his instrument. The second part of the fragment is from the 1930 film Check and Double Check.(Old Man Blues) What a great band !!
Duke Ellington - piano, composer - Fred Guy - banjo - Wellman Braud - double bass - Sonny Greer - drums - Arthur Whetsol, Cootie Williams, Freddy Jenkins - trumpets - Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton - trombone, Juan Tizol - valve trombone - Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard - reeds - Freddie Washington - dancer
In 1927 Irving Mills became his manager and impresario. He would make the band into an international attraction. He became a wealthy man thanks to the numerous compositions in his name. Irving Mills organised numerous recording sessions and as most bands and musicians had a very tough time to make a living due to the Depression, it seemed that the Duke's popularity was still growing in 1930. In 1930 Duke Ellington moved permanently from Washington to New York City, the place to be in those days. He moved to 381 Edgecombe Ave., apt. 142, where he lived with his mother Daisy, his sister Ruth and his son Mercer. His marriage, late 1920s, with his wife Edna was not good and it seemed that Ellington had a relations with the beautiful actress Fredi Washington. During one of their fights Edna cut Ellington with a razor knife. Edna cut him ..... He was living on Seventh Avenue somewhere around there, in one of those apartment buildings ... that big scar on the side of his face? His wife did that to him .... Barney Bigard remembers. His son Mercer said about the incident: He probably hadn't come home for two or three days and he and mother got into a tremendous fight, in the course of which she got hold of this knife and slashed across the face ( Reminiscing in Tempo (Stuart Nicholson) p.101)
His band became famous because of the so-called jungle style music, a type of jazz that incorporated pseudo-African musical effects - especially pounding tom-toms, unusual harmonies, "primitive" scales ( usually pentatonic and whole-tone), and muted, growling bass lines ( Mark Tucker in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz). Love to share with you the final scenes of Black and Tan, in which you can hear the growling jungle style very well.
Still from the 1929: Black and Tan film
In 1930 he made numerous recordings, thanks to Irving Mills, who organized recording sessions for all major record labels, like Victor, Okeh ( Harlem Footwarmers), Brunswick (Jungle Band), but also, with all kinds of pseudonyms, for budget labels like Hit of the Week ( Harlem Hot Chocolates), Conqueror ( Ten Black Berries) Diva and Clarion ( Mills' Ten Black Berries). The former, Sing, You Sinners (HOW 1045) and St. James Infirmary ( HOW 1046) by the Harlem Hot Chocolates were recorded 80 years ago and will be remembered at the DURIUM80 project next week when these two, now sought after, records were released, 80-years ago, at the news-stands in the major US cities - May 1930.
Enjoy Sing You Sinners by the Duke Ellington orchestra, labeled as Harlem Hot Chocolates. The vocalist is Irving Mills himself.
Duke Ellington's popularity was growing 80 years ago .... Although the Depression hit every American citizen and a lot of (dance) band leaders had to re-organize their orchestras or had to fight for gigs to make a living, it seems that he was doing well. Keep Swinging loves to look back to this period on the day of his birth - now 111 years ago. If you don't want to miss any Keep Swinging blog entry, ask for its newsletter.
( drawing Early Jazz Greats: R. Crumb)
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