'Air Conditioned Jungle' - Original Recordings 1945
1945 was the beginning of the end of the swing era. Within
two years, most of the top swing orchestras broke up, and those that somehow survived
either became bebop-oriented or purely nostalgic affairs. Even most of the
remaining big bands had to call it quits during 1949-50. But as with many other
areas of his life, Duke Ellington defied the rules and stood alone, keeping his
orchestra together up until the time of his death in 1974.
Duke Ellington, who turned 46 in 1945, at that point in time
could already look back on twenty years of major accomplishments and yet his
career was not even half over. Born 29 April 1899 in Washington D.C., Edward Kennedy Ellington originally planned to become an artist. But after seeing the
local pianists perform ragtime and stride, and enjoying the joyfulness of their
music and their lifestyle, he switched permanently to music. Nicknamed 'Duke'
due to his classy nature, Ellington learned to play stride piano by slowing
down James P. Johnson piano rolls to half-speed. He first became a bandleader before
he knew very many songs by having the courage (or recklessness) to take out a
large ad in the Yellow Pages about his band, which did not exist yet.
In 1922, Ellington first visited New York during a short
stint with clarinettist Wilbur Sweatman. He returned in 1923 as a member of Elmer
Snowden's Washingtonians, taking over the band a year later after a money
dispute. Duke's piano skills were developing quickly by then and he was in the
early stages of becoming an innovative arranger-composer. The Washingtonians were
based at the Kentucky Club during 1924-27, a period when Ellington made his
first recordings. By 1926 he had formed his 'jungle sound', using the
otherworldly tonal distortions of trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist Tricky
Sam Nanton which they created through their expertise with the plunger mute.
Ellington's big break occurred in December 1927 when his
orchestra became the house band at the Cotton Club, a longterm engagement that exposed
his band to a large audience on a regular basis on the radio. By 1929, Duke Ellington
was considered both a musical genius and a household name. As his orchestra
gained in popularity during the 1930s through tours, recordings and movie
appearances, many of Ellington's songs became standards. As a pianist,
composer, arranger and bandleader, Duke Ellington was considered a musical
giant before the swing era even began. His ability to blend together a wide
variety of musical voices (ranging from primitive players to virtuosos) into a
unified whole was unparalleled.
As 1945 began, Duke Ellington's orchestra was still in peak
form. While most jazz historians consider the 1939-42 version to be his
greatest, the 1945 band was on the same level. The team of Ellington and Billy
Strayhorn were still composing three-minute gems, some of which became future
standards. Clarinettist Barney Bigard and tenor-saxophonist Ben Webster were gone
but their successors (clarinettist Jimmy Hamilton and Al Sears on tenor) were comparable.
One missed the late great bassist Jimmy Blanton, but the trumpet section with
its four distinctive soloists (everyone but the nonsoloing Shelton Hemphill)
was actually superior to that in the earlier band.
The music on 'Air Conditioned Jungle' is mostly drawn from
radio transcriptions rather than commercial recordings, with the exception of a
selection taken from a radio broadcast and the two unusual items with Tommy
Dorsey. Radio transcriptions were performances recorded specifically for radio
airplay but not available for purchase by the general public during an era when
regular studio recordings were not played on the air. Quite often the radio transcriptions
were less commercial and better recorded technically.
Billy Strayhorn's swinging 'Midriff', is most notable for
Lawrence Brown's melodic trombone chorus, a fine statement that stayed pretty similar
throughout the year. Nineteen-year-old Joya Sherrill, the band's new vocalist,
embraces the melody and lyrics of 'I Didn't Know About You', a performance that
also co-stars Brown. Originally the lyrical Ellington ballad was an instrumental
called 'Sentimental Lady'.
'I'm Beginning To See The Light', although composed by Ellington,
was initially a giant hit for Harry James. The song was so popular in 1945 that
Duke often used it as an alternate radio theme in addition to "Take The 'A'
One of Duke Ellington's many innovations was writing
originals specifically to showcase one soloist. 'The Mood To Be Wooed', heard
in an extended version, puts the spotlight on the beautiful tone and romantic
style of altoist Johnny Hodges. 'Blue Cellophane'features one of Lawrence
Brown's finest solos.
The novelty 'Hit Me With A Hot Note (And Watch Me Bounce)'
has witty words from the underrated lyricist Don George that are sung with
spirit by Joya Sherrill. 'Subtle Slough'may seem to be an unfamiliar
title but it would be renamed 'Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don't Tease Me)'
when it was outfitted with words the following year. Trumpeter Taft Jordan (who
is heard briefly) and Johnny Hodges are the stars. Cornetist Rex Stewart, whose
half-valve technique was showcased on the hit 'Boy Meets Horn,' recorded 'Frantic
Fantasy' as a follow-up and he really shows off his witty style, range and wide
variety of bent notes on this fairly lengthy rendition. Clarinettist Jimmy
Hamilton, the most modern soloist in Ellington's orchestra in 1945 and the
first to be open to the influence of bebop, is in brilliant form on 'The Air
Conditioned Jungle', even taking a long section unaccompanied.
In a unique arrangement, on 14 May 1945 Duke Ellington and
trombonist Tommy Dorsey guested on one song apiece with each other's orchestra.
'Tonight I Shall Sleep'is a beautiful Ellington ballad that includes
warm statements by Dorsey (whose tone earned him the title of the 'Sentimental
Gentleman Of Swing') and Hodges. Sy Oliver's "The Minor Goes Muggin'",
which has solos from both Ellington and Dorsey, features the powerful Tommy
This version of 'I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues'is
taken from a radio broadcast and effectively contrasts the two very different
vocal styles of Al Hibbler and Kay Davis.
'Downbeat Shuffle' was one of three numbers written by Ellington that
were named after music magazines of the time, along with 'Esquire Swank' and 'Metronome
All Out'. A straightforward medium-tempo blues on the surface, it features a
dialogue between clarinettist Jimmy Hamilton and Harry Carney on bass clarinet,
solos from the remarkable trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, Hamilton, Taft Jordan and tenorman Al Sears, and totally unpredictable ensembles.
'(Otto, Make That) Riff Staccato' gives Ray Nance an opportunity to
sing, assisted by Jordan's trumpet and the booting tenor of Sears. 'The Kissing
Bug', which boasts a particularly catchy vocal by Joya Sherrill, has words
written by the singer. Al Sears, one of the most underrated of Ellington's
soloists, and a boppish Jimmy Hamilton are also heard. 'Passion Flower'is
a contrast, a sensual and impressionistic performance that could only be played
with this much intensity and feeling by Johnny Hodges. 'Everything But You'was
not a major hit but is still performed now and then. Joya Sherrill has fun with
Don George's lyrics and baritonist Harry Carney has a good spot.
This collection concludes with the exciting 'Hollywood
Hangover', a cooking blues that was arranged for the Ellington band by its
composer, trumpeter Buck Clayton. It gives five of Ellington's many soloists
(Tricky Sam Nanton, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Jimmy Hamilton and high-note
trumpeter Cat Anderson) an opportunity to romp over the ensemble.
Based on these performances alone, 1945 was yet another
great year for the Duke Ellington Orchestra, a unique band that will never be duplicated,
led by a musical genius whose accomplishments are impossible to measure but are
very easy to enjoy.
- author of nine jazz books including Jazz On Film, Swing, Bebop, Trumpet
Kings, Jazz On Record 1917- 76 and Duke Ellington, a picture book on Ellington.