Thursday, 22 June 2017

Maple Leaves



I own the LP Concerts in Canada but not the liner notes by Andrew Homzy which came as a fold-out booklet. Courtesy of a vendor on Ebay here are photographs of the booklet which came originally with the record...






Friday, 2 June 2017

... and nothing but the tooth...

DID DUKE ELLINGTON END A MAN'S CAREER?


Did a punch thrown by Duke Ellington put paid to the career of trombonist Lawrence Brown? 
That is the astonishing claim made in the UK magazine Jazz Journal published in April 2015.

In 2015, the magazine published a profile of Lawrence Brown. Of Brown’s leaving the band in 1970, the piece asserts:
“His retirement was not voluntary. After more than 30 years of fury with Ellington, things had finally come to a climax and the two men had had a fight in a European airport. Ellington knocked out two of Brown’s front teeth and he was never able to play again.”
    
Someone on the Editorial or production team at Jazz Journal felt this assertion was important enough to box out and highlight at the top right hand corner of the page.

    The earliest reference I can find in print to this alleged incident is in Duke’s Bones by Kurt Dietrich (Advance Music, 1995).
Dietrich writes (p.182):
“Around the turn of the year 1970, Lawrence Brown, after almost thirty years with the Ellington organization, finally left the band for the last time. Resentments between Brown and Ellington that had boiled beneath the surface for decades finally erupted, and difficult as it may be to believe, it is now common knowledge that Ellington punched Brown in the mouth, knocking out several teeth.”
    Crucially, Dietrich nowhere makes the assertion that it was as a result of this incident that Brown never played the trombone again.
    To find that inference, we have to look at Terry Teachout’s biography: Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington Gotham Books 2013. Teachout says (p.346):
   “Now, too, came the terrible and crushing losses, the first of which was the departure of Lawrence Brown, who quit in December of 1969, claiming that he had “lost all feeling for the music” and had no desire ever again to play the trombone … the real reason for his sudden retirement, which he chose not to reveal save to friends, was that after decades of feuding, he and Ellington had finally gotten into a backstage fistfight, and his boss had knocked out his two front teeth. Brown never played again.”
    Whilst Teachout cites Dietrich as the source for this incident, Teachout’s own account is at variance with the evidence in Duke’s Bones: Dietrich claims that Brown lost several teethwhilst Teachout states explicitly “his two front teeth.” 
    Teachout does not claim that Brown gave up the trombone directly as a consequence of losing any teeth but that is clearly the inference that the reader might be expected to draw from the way Teachout has organized his ideas in that paragraph. 
    What is Teachout’s evidence for claiming that Brown “quit in December 1969”? The way this is phrased also leads to misunderstanding. It may be that Brown served his notice to quit in that month but Teachout’s prose gives the impression Brown was gone before the new year. In fact, Brown was still working with the Orchestra during the first week of January, 1970.
    What does Teachout mean by ‘backstage’? Is he talking metaphorically? If so, this only adds to the confusion. If he is talking literally, there is no ‘backstage’ in a recording studio.
    Was Teachout’s biography the source the Jazz Journal gossip writer was citing, uncredited, in his piece in Jazz Journal in April 2015? It is a possibility. Certainly the writer of the piece seems unaware of Dietrich’s work since, when reviewing the Teachout biography for Jazz Journal, the ‘eternal triangle’ which was alleged to have existed between Ellington, Brown and Brown’s wife Fredi Washington was news to him. It would not have been, had he read Duke’s Bones.
    Here again, Jazz Journal’s account creates a third version of these events. The magazine claims that the altercation between Ellington and Brown took place “in a European airport”. I can find no source amongst the Ellington literature I have for this assertion.
    Duke Ellington and his Orchestra departed from New York for a tour of Europe on 27 October 1969. Perhaps the most famous souvenir of that particular tour is the album Duke Ellington’s 70th Birthday Concert, a compilation of two live engagements the band played towards the end of the tour at Colston Hall, Bristol on 25 November and The Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 26 November. In the original liner notes to the issued album, Derek Jewell wrote:
    “His swing through Europe in 1969 was incredibly gruelling, the band roaming from Scandinavia to Italy on a hectic series of one-night stands.”
    Jewell creates a sense of the scope of the band’s travels concisely and eloquently. In which of these countries’ airports did the alleged punch-up take place? The puzzled music lover, taking his copy of Duke Ellington’s 70th Birthday Concert down from the shelf and listening, in particular, ironically enough, to Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me will hear the trombone of Lawrence Brown, recorded at The Free Trade Hall on 26 November. The punch up which meant Brown “was never able to play again” must have taken place after this concert, then. The next airport the Orchestra would have occasion to find themselves in after this would have been in London for their return flight home. A “European airport” is a decidedly odd way for a British writer to refer to an airport in London. It would be the last time Brown would find himself in a “European airport” with Ellington whilst a practising horn player.
    And if the blow meant that Brown “was never able to play again”, how can we explain the fact that a week later on his final engagement with the orchestra, Lawrence participated in recording three titles. The Kissing Mist remains unissued, but of the two other titles, Tippytoeing Through The Jungle and Noon Morning, on the former, the smooth, sonorous trombone solo towards the end of the track is instantaneously recognizable as belonging to one Lawrence Brown. 

The recording session took place in Las Vegas, Nevada on 7 January, 1970, a month after the Orchestra had returned to the States from their European tour.
    
    Perhaps the writer of the Jazz Journal article didn’t read his Terry Teachout closely enough. The New York critic’s prose on this point is somewhat slippery. Only by inference can we conclude from Teachout that Ellington was responsible for ending Brown’s career in this way. 


    This piece in Jazz Journal is the only article I have read on this subject which makes the connection directly: “His retirement was not voluntary... Ellington knocked out two of Brown’s front teeth and he was never able to play again.” This assertion is presented without qualification as fact. It is not a fact. It is an assertion. No evidence is offered in its support. The writer has been asked directly for evidence to support the claim that Brown was “forced” to retire.

No response has so far been received. 



    

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Black, Brown and Baize

In the mid-forties, RCA Victor issued Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige on 78 in two formats: one was a hardback, felt-bound edition (hence the execrable pun in the title of today's post); the other was in colour-printed paper wraps. It is the second version which is illustrated here, for reference...











Tuesday, 30 May 2017

And his mother called him...



Remembering and celebrating the life of Billy Strayhorn who died fifty years ago today, 31 May, 1967.

Distingué Traces


31 May 2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of William Thomas Strayhorn.
Throughout most of his professional life, Billy Strayhorn was Duke Ellington’s arranging and composing companion. Ellington said he was “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”
Talk of miracles may be overstating it a little, but whatever combination of circumstances led to Billy Strayhorn walking into Ellington’s dressing room at The Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh on 2 December 1938 for an audience created, like a miracle, an event which was both propitious and unique. That Strayhorn chose in the first place to let Ellington “hear what he could do” and that Ellington, in return and as the self-styled “world’s greatest listener” really heard what Billy had to offer is the happiest accident not just for the course of category-defying music over the next twenty-nine years but for the rich legacy we enjoy today and will continue to enjoy for a long time to come.
Billy Strayhorn’s arrival in the Ellington aggregation coincided, it seems to me, with two particularly important trends. Firstly, Ellington’s relationship to the members of his band was beginning to change and the way new music was created. Was Ellington now a little less close to the members of the orchestra than formerly? Did rehearsals, try-outs, collaboration or (in Lawrence Brown’s loaded term) ‘compilation’ have a lesser impact on the creation of new music? If so, then Billy’s arrival as a ‘staff writer’ was all the more fortuitous. And Strayhorn began work, too, with the Orchestra just on the cusp of what became ‘the Swing Era’ or as otherwise known, the era of the ‘name bands’. Ellington had been a ‘name’ for more than a decade. As jazz became more popular with white audiences, many ‘new’ names came into the jazz universe including Goodman, Dorsey, Shaw et al. These ‘names’ rather eclipsed those of the musicians and writers who worked for them. Billy became friends with, and tutored, the young Bill Finegan, staff arranger for Glenn Miller. I can never hear Finegan’s arrangement of Little Brown Jug without being reminded of Strayhorn’s The Gal From Joe’s and that ‘stringed’ rhythmic, ‘walking’ introduction Finegan replicated on several arrangements in the Miller book. Like Strayhorn, Finegan toiled for his boss in relative anonymity and, like Strayhorn too, had to suffer the indignities of the dreaded blue pencil on their work as their bosses looked to simplify or popularize what they had written. As Strayhorn had done for him, Finegan in turn came to tutor the young Nelson Riddle whose settings for vocal work by the likes of Frank Sinatra fifteen years later would take adult pop music to a whole new level. Finegan claimed that Billy’s work for Rosemary Clooney on the album Blue Rose resulted in the finest vocal album he had heard. When one considers that Gil Evans was a frequent visitor to Strayhorn’s apartment in the period leading up to what became known as the ‘Birth of the Cool’ sessions, then it becomes clear that Billy Strayhorn’s influence on much mainstream, sophisticated music beyond the Ellington orchestra is incalculable.
I have space here only to draw attention briefly to two further intertwining silken threads of Billy Strayhorn’s life and legacy. The first is the stage production My People which took place in Chicago’s McCormick Place in 1963 as part of the ‘Century of Negro Progress’ Exposition. Strayhorn sought to work with Ellington because a conventional career in the conservatoires of the classical world was forever closed to him because of his race. As a result, he created music far more demotic and therefore truly democratic, far more vital and more significant than much produced by the composers of ‘serious’ music in the European tradition. Strayhorn’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement and his links to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. can only receive ever greater attention in future Strayhorn studies. Strayhorn’s convictions found their most explicit expression, perhaps, in the musical production of Ellington’s My People in 1963 for which he was the musical director and conductor. Along with 1941’s Jump for Joy, these were the two peaks of Ellington and Strayhorn’s success writing musical theatre. The medium of musical theatre brings us full circle to the young man standing in Ellington’s dressing room preparing to perform his own composition, Lush Life. His own musical, Fantastic Rhythm, was written circa 1935 and professionally produced for two years in Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Several songs from that play became part of the Ellington book, namely My Little Brown Book and Your Love Has Faded. I have never considered Lush Life a love song in the conventional sense. The structure, the usual narrative arc of unrequited love is there, it is true, rendered, albeit in the rather overwrought language of the adolescent. But, those opening lines seem to indicate a much more profound and existential concern. What compulsion, after all, had drawn the song’s singer to those ‘come-what-may’ places in the first place? And what of the phrase ‘the axis of the wheel of life’ with its echoes of Lear’s I am bound upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like molten lead, that leads the listener to believe that something is rotten to the extent that love will neither salve nor solve. With its prophetic references to Paris (Strayhorn’s favourite city), smoky dives and luminous libations, it is tempting to see the song as self-dramatizing autobiography. This would be wrong, I think, after all, Strayhorn was classically schooled. His work is neither mere self-indulgent self-expression nor therapy. It is art of the highest order and an art in touch with what it was like to be alive in the 20th Century: the century of Eliot’s The Wasteland; Joyce’s Ulysses; Picasso’s Guernica.
Lush Life paints on the broad canvas not of Tin Pan Alley but of sophisticated supper club songs or cabaret. Ellington never found the unqualified success he hoped for in musical theatre and I think if he had, Billy Strayhorn’s name would have reached much greater prominence sooner for Strayhorn’s métier found perfect expression in this genre. Albums have been recorded of Ellington and Strayhorn’s music for Saturday Laughter and Beggar’s Holiday (which received a revival in Billy’s beloved Paris in 2012). These are invariably recorded with just small-group, jazz-inflected arrangements. What treasures remain yet to be uncovered – and better still, performed – from his music for the theatre? And the projects to which Strayhorn was drawn often revolve around characters in extremis: Timon of Athens, Turcaret, Professor Unrat, Don Perlimplini: those whose lives are metaphors all, perhaps, for life in the 20th Century, or the dark corners of our own lives. As we celebrate Strayhorn’s own centenary, we can be assured that his work will continue to speak as long as there are those who have ears to hear and we shall continue to make new discoveries about his work in the fifty years ahead and beyond…