Search This Blog

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Ellington by the Numbers

From the Library Dept.: A few years ago, Metroland asked its writers to celebrate an oddball book that perseveres as a favorite. It was an easy enough choice for me to make, as I was then in the midst of making sense of the many Duke Ellington CDs I’ve accumulated, and I had this particular volume open on my desk. There has since been a fifth edition published, but the one I have – The Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen, Fourth Edition, Compiled by W.E. Timner – continues to serve me well.


THE PAGES LOOK as if they were ripped from a dot-matrix printer, except that it’s high-quality printing. But there’s that unmistakable computer-database appearance of columns and rows.

Open at random: Pages 130-131. 20 Nov. 1952. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra are at Birdland in Manhattan. Decipher the initials at the top of the listing and you see that Clark Terry, Britt Woodman and Russell Procope are among the players. No Johnny Hodges, though: he’d taken off for a while. Betty Roche sang “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Two nights later, the band is there again, and four nights after that. Much of the gig was issued on the Jazz Unlimited label.

In December, Duke is at the Apollo, then takes off to Chicago for a recording session and a concert at someone’s home in Winnetka. New Year’s Day he’s at Chicago’s Blue Note; at the end of January, he’s back in New York.

So it is with this book: From Ellington’s first recordings in 1923 as part of Snowden’s Novelty Orchestra to his last putative recording (“tape is said to exist”) at Northern Illinois University in 1974, Timner’s volume lists every Ellington performance that may have been preserved.

The book’s 600-plus pages also document significant recordings by Duke’s sidemen, and cross-reference every song title, so you can see that “Satin Doll” merited 439 waxings; “Clothed Woman” only eight.

But that’s not the fun of this volume. I pore over its pages and imagine being on that band train, chugging from town to town, playing the music of America’s greatest composer. It probably was more grind than pleasure, made all the worse by the race hatred that drove Duke to get his own Pullmans so the band had somewhere to sleep each night. But the romantic in me sees a Hollywood montage, low-angle shot of that train engine bursting into the frame as you hear the band roar into “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

Players come and go, an impressive number of them, and those movements also are cross-referenced in an attendance chart that covers many pages in the back of the book. If I were a more obsessive Duke Ellington fan, I would own Klaus Stratemann's book Duke Ellington: Day by Day and Film by Film, and be able to study the band’s movements even when they weren’t recording, but that title is way out of print (and hundreds of dollars as a used title), so I content myself with Timner. Besides, I have 149 Ellington CDs, so when I hunger for more – and there are plenty more out there – this book tells me whether I already have a particular session on a different label. In other words, if my wife spots the book on my desk, she’s quick to hide the checkbook.

The Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen, Fourth Edition
Compiled by W.E. Timner
Scarecrow Press

Metroland Magazine, Sept. 3, 2006

No comments: