In the words of the late musician/ critic Benny Green, jazz has always been ‘The Reluctant Art’. Born in the bars and ghettos of American cities it has always reached beyond itself and being an intensely aspirational music, it has produced gifted individuals who have embodied both its creative pulse and its reach beyond category. Those last two words are also the title of a biography of one such individual, the subject of this blog; Edward Kennedy Ellington, known forever as the Duke.
I want to reflect here on the music produced not by the succession of larger outfits that the Duke ran successfully for almost four decades, but on the small groups that he played in. They were often made up of players from his own orchestra (his “men” as he called them) and in the late 1930’s were recorded by his resourceful manager Irving Mills for his Variety label. Often the leaders of these group were established Ellington soloists; clarinettist Barney Bigard had his ‘Jazzopaters’, trumpeter Cootie Williams his ‘Rug Cutters’ and in the personnel list for these groups is found the words ‘Duke Ellington piano’. I came across a second hand compilation of this music in a record shop in Banbridge, County Down, Northern Ireland (‘All The Duke’s Men- The Greatest Ellington Small Group Recordings’ Indigo 1998)) and was immediately hooked. I had heard the power of the large orchestra from the Cotton Club through to the ‘New Orleans Suite’ but I loved the speed and flexibility of the smaller combinations, especially the sublime alto of Johnny Hodges who had his own ‘orchestra’ in this period. Small groups were often produced out of the pressure of keeping large ensembles on the road in difficult economic times- Artie Shaw had his ‘Gramercy Five’ and Count Basie his ‘Kansas City 6’s and 7’s and I love them all but Ellington’s small groups are the ones I go back to for their invention and sheer bluesy majesty. And I was pleased to discover looking though my own Ellington collection that this habit continued on into the 1960’s with a marvellous record called ‘The Intimacy of the Blues’- I probably heard a track from this on the radio and bought it without listening to the rest of it- but the power of the small is still there as a later generation of Ellingtonians explore the small group dynamic. The power and the range of the full Ellington orchestra has little compare- as the almost monthly flood of newly released archive material testifies to, but these smaller ensembles have a place in my heart. Somebody once said that ‘small is beautiful’ and that remains true but these recordings show that small can be funky and bluesy too!