July 13, 2011

Tales of the Big Bands: Ellington

At least half of the 300+ individuals we’ve interviewed for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive experienced significant big band work during their careers. Some toiled with obscure bands before they found their way into the small group scene, studio work, and other means of employment. Other well-known musicians spent their whole careers in various big bands. Only a handful of musicians stayed with one band for more than a few years; most of them played musical chairs. They sought better pay and more challenging musical situations, while balancing the road life with home and family. This blog entry will start a series of entries comprised of stories from big band musicians.

A legitimate place to start is with Duke Ellington. Ellington is America’s greatest jazz composer, a man who was able to hold a band together for 50 years and who deservedly is a household name.
In 1964 bassist John Lamb was living in the Philadelphia area making $48 a week as a mail boy in the office of the Acme Food Market chain. He was invited to play a “socialite gig.” Someone recorded it and passed the tape through channels to Duke Ellington. John relates the result of that fortunate incident:

JL: One day I came home after a long day and I saw this telegram. It says “Opportunity if interested give me a call.” So a few days later I called and it was a woman that answered the phone who happened to be a member of a very prominent family in New Jersey. As a matter of fact at one time he was Attorney General. His name was Walter Reed. And it was his wife, Mrs. Reed, had written the telegram, and she said “I have this thing, I’m a friend of Duke Ellington’s and maybe we could set you up with some kind of contact there. All you have to do is come over to the house and we’ll have a little party and we’ll have some Cornish hens, bring your family and your kids and all that and I’ll invite a few other people and I’m going to invite some musicians to play along with you.” And in the back of my mind I said she wants some free music for her party. And so this went along and we set up a date and I piled my son in the back of the station wagon and my wife, and the bass and we went over to Riverton, New Jersey. And we played and she stuck a tape recorder down there. I was aware that the tape recorder was there so what I decided to do I decided to play in the style of Jimmy Blanton. So I was playing in the style of Jimmy Blanton, you know that very basic, driving beat. And so a few weeks later she shoved it in front of Duke when he came to the Steel Pier. So later I was living in a housing project by then and I was comfortable, my kids were walking around. I got this phone call “good evening, Mr. Lamb?” “Yes.” “This is Duke Ellington.” I said “who?” “Duke Ellington.” I said “just a moment please.” So I went back in there and told my wife “that’s Duke Ellington on the phone.” She was very cool about that. So I walked back in and I says “yes, what can I do for you, Mr. Ellington?” And he says “well look here, Mr. Lamb, we’d like you to come up to New York and play some things with us.” So okay, fine. We set up a date. He said “well we’re up at a place called Freedom Land, why don’t you try coming up there” — like say Tuesday or so. “Fine.” “Bye.” That was it. So I hopped on the train at North Station in Philly. Took my bass. This was before we had the wheel, and I carried it. Hopped on the train, went up to New York, got off the train, this was all on a Tuesday. Got off the train and got on another train and went up to the Bronx, and we ran out of subway. And so I had to take a taxi from there. So I took a taxi on over to Freedom Land, which at that time was sort of like a resort area or an entertainment place. And I walked in the place back there, back to the tents. I saw this guy walking around with his slippers on and I said that looks like Johnny Hodges. I’d seen his pictures you know. And I walked back through there and I says “where’s the band” I asked the guy. He says “oh back there.” So I went back into the tent, walked in and there was this guy sitting up with his blue outfit on, he had this blue bandana around his head. And the television was blasting, blaring, it was distorted, I mean it was so loud. And he was fixed on that television set. Turns out that it was Duke. And I was approached by the band boy and he says “are you here, the new bass player?” I said “yeah.” And he says “hey Duke, the bass player’s here.” And Duke stands up and he walks, very gracious, a very nice man. He was like a perfect six feet, a perfect mannequin so to speak, you know, so graceful. Even in that outfit that he had on. And he was very soft spoken and as a matter of fact I says hmmm I’m in the presence of something here, but I don’t know what it is. And he told me he says “well yeah,” he says “you want to take the next set? The second half of the show?” “Yeah.” He said “okay.” Then the band boy says “can he read?” “Yeah, I can read.” You know. So I went on up and did — Peck Morrison was the bass player at the time, he was there for a short time. And so I went in and played the second show. The first tune we did was “Stomping at the Savoy.” I saw this blur, you know, he was kicking off the tune and I didn’t — most band leaders will do something like this [gestures] you know. I didn’t see none of that, he just did like that and the band started. I says uh oh, this is a train. So I hopped on the train and we didn’t quit until the end. It was in the key of D flat. “Stomping at the Savoy.” Okay, the next tune I did was one of the tunes from his “Far East Suite,” he had written that. And I looked at the music and I says this is written in fourths, I says that’s going to be very muddy, I can’t play that that low, with a low A on the bottom. So I reversed everything and made it like this. And somebody says he had noticed that I was changing Duke’s music for the notes. He said “what’s he doing?” So I changed the music around and played, it was a bass solo in the very beginning. As a matter of fact that same thing was recorded afterwards and it received an award. So we played that Far East thing and Cootie [Williams] says “uh huh, that’s all.” Because everybody shook their head. So that was the end of that and the bass player came back out.

MR: Talk about trial by fire.

JL: Yeah, that’s what it was. So I went in and did that and went on back to Philly. The next day another bass player was supposed to come by. But somebody was supposed to pick him up and the person didn’t pick him up. And he didn’t get the gig of course, he never showed up. He was depending upon somebody’s word, whereas I took the train and lugged that thing up there and that probably made the difference. And the ability to play the bass notes. That’s all it is is playing the bottom, whatever is required. And shortly after that I got another phone call back in Philly, it was from Mercer [Ellington]. Mercer says “hey John, Pop wants you to come up to New York” on like Monday or so in a couple of weeks. Well I had to quit my job, you know, I had a day job. And so I said “okay I’ll arrange that.”

MR: Yeah. Interesting. This was 1964?

JL: Yeah, ’64, right. 1964.

MR: What kind of salary did he offer you?

JL: Well my being naïve about salaries, anything was better than what I was getting, $48 a week, and so they decided to start me off with scale. They had to pay me the scale. It was about $60 or something a night I guess.

MR: $60 a night?

JL: Yeah probably $60 a job or something like that. And the stars were getting all the money. And my being, not knowing anything about charges and all that, and prices, I was just happy to get a gig. I had been making $48 a week at Acme Markets. So $60 a night was great, huh? And compared to $50 a week at that other place years ago. And so I worked my way up. Gradually it began to increase.

The late Louie Bellson was one of Ellington’s favorite drummers and was able to witness the almost mystical collaboration between Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

MR: Did you get a chance to see Ellington and Strayhorn, how they collaborated on their music? It seems like such a fascinating thing the way they pulled that off.

LB: Well you know Strayhorn joined Ellington as a lyricist from what I hear, and Billy Strayhorn told me that he didn’t think that Duke knew at first that he arranged. So Duke gave Strayhorn an assignment for lyrics, and he said “I’ll check you out when I get back, we’ve got to go to Europe.” So when they came back from Europe, Billy said “I write arrangements also.” So Duke said “really?” He said “do you have one?” He said “yeah.” And that was “Take the A Train.” And Strayhorn told me that Duke put his arm around him and said “you’re with me forever.”

MR: Wow.

LB: But you know that was a perfect match. Because nobody in that band, even the guys that had been there for years like Harry Carney, they couldn’t tell the difference, whether Strayhorn wrote the composition or whether Duke did it. That’s how close it was.

MR: Amazing.

LB: They were an exceptional twosome. I would say they were both geniuses, really. Very superstitious. Don’t ever whistle in the dressing room; Duke and Strayhorn never put a button, a finé on an arrangement. They got down to letter S and then just let it fizzle out, then they worked it out at the rehearsal, but never really put like boom, the finale there.

MR: They didn’t write it you mean?

LB: They didn’t write it. They worked it out at rehearsal, see? And never wore a shirt with buttons all the way down, there was only maybe three buttons this way and then the slipover, and no color yellow, but blue was the favorite color. And I made the mistake once of giving him a gift for his birthday, a pair of shoes, he says “no, no, no, don’t do that, don’t do that. That means you’re going to be walking out of my life.”

MR: No kidding?

LB: I said “oh really?” And so I exchanged those for a blue sweater. But they both had that great originality that you look for, that you strive for, and it came natural for them. You know Ellington never really went to school to learn how to write music. And Strayhorn may have had a little bit, but they had that God given talent to be able to sit down and write music but it was strictly their style. They weren’t getting it from somebody else. There it was. In the voicing in the reed section, the voicings in the brass section, being able to supply the soloists. He knew every soloist, what their range was, so when he wrote something for you, it was perfect, just like you getting a brand new set of clothes and they fit perfect. And he gave you the greatest introductions in the world. He really set you up you know. One thing, when I joined the band, Strayhorn and I roomed together for almost three weeks. And I made the mistake of telling Strayhorn one night, we were just talking and I said “Strayhorn, how did Duke voice that ‘Caravan?’ thing? Boy, man, I could really see the camels coming when they play that one part.” And he went like this to me “ahhh.” And I said “oh, excuse me, I’m invading your privacy.” So I didn’t say a word, and I guess Strayhorn had talked to Duke about me asking and so forth, and nothing happened for about oh, three or four months, and all of a sudden we were doing a one-nighter and Duke got up on the piano, this was before the people came in, and he said “come here, sit down by the piano.” He explained to me how he voiced “Caravan.” What notes he gave to Johnny Hodges, what notes he gave to Procope, Carney, and so forth. “This is what I did.” So I thought to myself man, here the great Duke Ellington is taking time out to show me some voicings.

The early 50’s was a time of significant racial tension, depending on where you were in the country. Here Louie addresses that part of traveling with a big band.

MR: Was there ever any problem in certain parts of the country with any racial subjects coming up?

LB: Well yes. In 1951 they had the Big Show of 1951, which consisted of Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington’s band. They were the three big stars. Now besides that they had Peg Leg Bates, Timmy Rodgers, Stump and Stumpy, Patterson and Jackson, all these wonderful acts — tap dancing acts, you know. It took us a week to rehearse that whole show, playing with Nat King Cole and Sarah, Duke, and all these acts. So after we finished rehearsing for a week, Duke finally discovered that hey, we’re getting ready to go down to the deep south you know? And in those days, you had segregated audiences. And we couldn’t, the whites couldn’t play with the blacks at that time you see. And in those days it was “colored,” you didn’t use the word “blacks” see? So now the big problem is, Duke called me in the dressing room and says “what are we going to do? I can’t find a drummer to take your place, because it would be a week’s rehearsal and the guys that can do it, they’re all busy.” So Duke says “you mind being a Haitian?” I said “no, okay, that’s all right” you know. So we got through it okay. It was a little tense, because the situation was still down there, and the audience, because they told Jack Costanzo with Nat King Cole he couldn’t appear because of the racial thing you know. But some spots it was a little rough. But we got through it. I think through Ellington’s peaceful ways and the wonderful attitude that the band had you know, kind of rubbed off on everybody. But still it existed.

MR: Well it’s nice that the music had a part in helping that situation to move along a little faster.

LB: Well you know we played a gig in Mississippi and there the townspeople were wonderful, they came to the rescue, where we couldn’t stay in certain hotels. I mean these people came from wealthy families too. They had Strayhorn and Duke and Clark Terry stay in one house, and Carney and Russell Procope and myself in another house, and all on down the line. Beautiful homes and they fed us. So you know, along with the bad there’s some good too. And these were situations that we got over, we dealt with it. Sometimes it’s almost like a slap in the face but you realize what the situation is and you go straight ahead because you’ve got something to do that’s valued and I think when you do that you realize that none of those things should bother the musicality of something. It’s the fact that whoever’s playing that music doesn’t make a difference, let’s play it and show where the peace and love is.

The late trombonist Grover Mitchell was a player who was lucky enough to spend time in both the Ellington and Basie bands, eventually leading the Basie Orchestra in 1995. Grover describes the discipline, or lack thereof, that resulted with a band that carried all the positives and negatives associated with a large family.

MR: I heard [Ellington] had his own method of discipline.

GM: Look, let me tell you, just to give you an anecdote. The first night, I lived in the San Francisco area. We had left the Monterey Jazz Festival. This was the second year, 1960 I guess it was. And we got to San Francisco in this club that we played that was owned by the DuPonts called The Nevey. And the first night was just absolutely gorgeous. The band just roared. This was my first night with these people, see? And the second night, it seemed like everybody was late. There was a nucleus in this band that was always on time. You could always figure you would see Lawrence Brown, you know he was very dapper and he was sitting there and never late and all that stuff. And oh, Lou the trumpet player there, and the rhythm section pretty much would be there. And so some of the guys were out milling around in the audience and I mean here I am in what was my hometown then, trying to make this big impression and you know I was really embarrassed you know what I mean? So he had this funny old medley or something that he could play with two or three guys on the stand, and he would go through this act, you know “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve been successful over the years” and he’d go into these unison type things with maybe six people up there. So I told him I says “wow, Duke, man this is terrible, this is embarrassing, all of my friends are here.” And he says “look, I don’t worry about these people. Number one, these people are not going to drive me crazy. I live for the night that this band is great. Tonight means nothing to me.” I said “oh, how can you say that?” Because here are these guys milling around, and Jimmy Hamilton was sitting there, he was playing and I’m all upset, and I says “Jimmy, look at all these people walking around out here, and we should be up on the bandstand playing” you know and he looks at me like I’m crazy and the waiter comes up to the bandstand and says “Mr. Hamilton, your steak is ready.” And right in the middle of the tune he steps over the rail and starts cutting on a steak. And so about a week later we were playing at an Air Force Base outside of Sacramento called Mather Air Force Base now. There’s no place to go. So here’s the band, and they’ve got to play. There’s no place for these guys to fool around and you know, this whole military atmosphere, and so the band is just roaring, beautiful. And so I hear the piano player, Duke, saying dink-dink-dink-dink; dink-dink-dink-dink. And so I looked around, and he over there and he says [whispers] “see what I mean?” So. That’s the way he was. And nothing bothered him.

I think it’s safe to say that a “rich jazz sideman” is an oxymoron. Life as a big band sideman was strenuous, sometimes monotonous, and occasionally exciting, but rarely financially rewarding. Salary issues played a role in the decision of moving from one band to another. Because of union regulations, loyalties, and simple good manners, leaving one band for a competitor had to be undertaken with caution. In this clip, trumpeter Clark Terry relates to his friend Joe Williams the behind-the-scenes story of his move from Basie to Ellington:

CT: Joseph, I’ve got a Basie story.

JW: Count Basie?

CT: Yeah. I don’t know if everybody knows about this, but when I was with the Basie band, and when I left the Basie band to join Duke, you know I left, well we had kicked it around a little bit and he had sent his scouts around, and one time Joe Morgan said “you want to join the band?” And I used to like his little hat that he used to wear. And he said “I’ll get you a hat like this if you’ll join.” So finally we talked about it long enough and I finally decided well I think I’d like to join Duke’s band. This is when, at this time, Basie was down to a quintet. So we were working in Chicago —

JW: At the Brass Rail.

CT: At the Brass Rail, right. So Duke finally he comes around and he says “I’d like to discuss things with you.” So he says “okay?” He says “but we can’t do it out in public, so later on I’ll have to come to your hotel.” So I says “okay, I’m at the Southway.” He says “all right, I’ll come by and I’ll call you when I get in the lobby and I’ll hurriedly get out of the lobby and meet you in your room.” So I says “okay.” So he comes to the hotel, and he calls up and I says “oh, all right.” So he says “I’ll meet you on your floor and I’ll meet you at the elevator and show me where it is.” So Duke gets off the elevator about the same time I come out my door. And just as I walk out of my door and Duke steps off the elevator, and next door to me is Freddie Green. Freddie Green opens his door and steps out. He says “woah,” and went back and slammed the door. So of course Duke and I went on with our business. But that night on the gig, Freddie, I walked in and you know, Pep [Freddie Green] would look at you like this, he didn’t even say hello. “If you don’t you’re a fool.” So the funny thing is, the conversation with me and Duke, he says “well now we’ve agreed on the bread and everything,” and for me it was a big bread in those days. ‘Cause I was making with Basie $125 a week, and the last part of my stint with the Basie band I got a raise, $15 raise, so I’m making $140 a week. And Duke says, Duke would give me $225 a week.

JW: All right.

CT: Oh, man, that was great big bread for me, you know, ‘cause there was cats in there making three and four and five, but I didn’t know it. But to me, that was big bread. So that day he says to me, he says “well you know, it’s just not proper protocol for a person to snatch somebody out of his buddy’s band. So we’ll have to strategically work this out.” I said “okay, what do you suggest?” He said “well I’ll tell you what I think. I think you should maybe just get sick and tell Bill [Basie] that you’re going to go home and recuperate and while you’re home recuperating I’ll put you on salary.” Yeah? Wow man. Ain’t no better deal than that. So I went back and told Bas’ that I put my notice in, I said “no Bas’, I’m just not feeling good, I just need to go home and just get on.” And he said “okay, well when you get yourself together you can come on back, because this is always home for you.” So I said “thanks, Bill, I appreciate it very much.” So I went home, I’m on salary, and right away the first check, wham, so before I get home, you know?” So this went on and on until the band just happened to come through St. Louis, three months later, I’m on salary for three months, and they’re coming through St. Louis playing the Keel Auditorium on November the 11th, Armistice Day. And I just happened to join the band. That was the Big Show with Sarah Vaughan, Peg Leg Bates, Patterson and Jackson and all them from the Big Show. I don’t know if it was ‘51 or ‘52. But anyhow, I left and went with the band. I stayed with the band for almost ten years you know? And years later, I went up to the Carnegie Hall when Basie was already sick and he had to take a little side elevator to ride up, this was before they installed the thing that they’ve got there now. And I went backstage to see him and I’m standing at the top and he’s coming up and I said “you know one thing?” I said “I have a confession to make to you, something that’s been bugging me for years and years.” He said “yeah? what is it?” I said “when I left the band you know, I told you I was sick and going home,” I said “I wasn’t really sick.” He said “um humm.” I said “the reason I did that is because Duke had made me an offer I couldn’t pass up.” He said “um humm.” He said “why do you think I took the raise back, you think I didn’t know that?”

Clark will help us transition to the next entry which will focus on my favorite big band, the Count Basie Orchestra.

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