a site by John Cobley

a coppice gate

Duke Ellington in London, 1933

by John Cobley

Thursday Apr 28th, 2016

When the Duke Ellington Orchestra visited London in 1958, it performed concerts in the Royal Festival Hall, perhaps England’s most prestigious venue for serious music. This privilege was in stark contrast to its first visit to London 25 years earlier in 1933, when the orchestra undertook a two-week engagement as part of a variety bill at the London Palladium. Ellington’s music for this gig was promoted as “voodoo harmonies” and “jungle rhythm.” (Spike Hughes, Daily Herald, June, 1933) On the bill with the Ellington Orchestra in 1933 were twelve other acts. They included Max Miller, a stand-up comedian famous for his risqué jokes; contortionists De Wolf, Metcalf & Ford; dancers Bailey and Derby; Bessie Dudley, a dancer known as the Snake-Hips Girl; and a group called 7 Hindustanis. Of course, the Ellington Orchestra changed a lot in those 25 years, especially with the contributions of arranger and composer Billy Strayhorn that started in 1938. The Ellington Orchestra of 1933 was nevertheless creating some innovative and proficient music that thrilled British audiences and that, seen in retrospect, was moving towards the brilliant 1938-1942 music.


The 1933 tour was crucial to Ellington’s career as a bandleader and composer. In the previous year, the 33-year-old had been growing increasingly frustrated with the attitude of music publishers and the popular music scene. “I felt it was all a racket. I was on the point of giving up,” he told Richard O. Boyer later in 1944. (“The Hot Bach” New Yorker, June 24, 1944) But his reception in Britain revived him: “The main thing I got in Europe was spirit; it lifted me out of the groove. That kind of thing gives you courage to go on with a lot of things you want to do yourself.” (Swing, Sept. 1940, p. 24) Ellington returned home revitalised and continued to write successful compositions like “Solitude” and “Reminiscing in Tempo” and to develop the sound of his orchestra.



 Promotional photo taken before the 1933 tour.


The ground for a successful tour had already been prepared. Many Britons were familiar with Ellington’s music through his 78 rpm three-minute records. Enthusiastic reviews of these records by Constant Lambert, an influential classical composer, had ensured that Ellington’s prestige was high. The most powerful promotion came from the weekly Melody Maker that had run regular articles leading up to the tour. So there was a lot of interest in seeing the 14–piece Duke Ellington orchestra on stage; in fact it became the thing to do in British high society.



Ellington’s 1933 European tour was his first abroad, and the reception was overwhelming. His liner was met by some musical dignitaries at Southampton Docks and was soon ensconced in the new Dorchester Hotel in London. His musicians were all surprised at the enthusiastic crowds that greeted them wherever they went. Clarinetist Barney Bigard’s reaction when the band arrived by train in London was typical: “As we stepped off the train they were calling everybody by their names: ‘Here’s Barney, here’s Hodges, here’s Cootie, here’s Tricky Sam.’ They recognized everybody. That was a surprise to me.” (Max Jones, Talking Jazz, p.11) As Derek Jewell has written, it was clear that “a substantial section of London’s intelligentsia worshipped Duke’s music.” (Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington, p. 53)


While Ellington’s players were recognized by the public, the Duke himself attracted most of the attention. Urbane, articulate and suave, he impressed society people, including the Duke of Windsor, who were keen to meet him and buy him drinks. According to the Sunday Post, “his manners [were] of the public school quality—or better.” (July 1933)


Nevertheless, despite the comfortable way he was able to fit in with cultured Englishmen, Ellington was never shy of promoting his own African heritage and talking of its jungle origins and slavery. According to Hannen Swaffer, “He stressed the origins of his new music. Extremely articulate, Ellington was always happy to talk to the media, expressing the almost missionary aims of his music.” He told Swaffer, “I have gone back to the history of my race and tried to express it in rhythm. We used to have in Africa a ‘something’ we have lost. One day we shall get it again. I am expressing in sound the old days in the jungle, the cruel journey across the sea and the despair of the landing, and then the days of slavery. I trace the growth of a new spiritual quality and then the days in Harlem and the cities of the States. Then I try to go forward a thousand years. I seek to express the future when, emancipated and transformed, the Negro takes his place, a free being, among the peoples of the world.” (The Daily Herald, quoted in Jewell, 52-3) 


Opening at the Palladium

This initial welcome was nothing compared to the ovation his orchestra received on opening night at the Palladium. The reaction of the capacity 2,300 audience was deafening. Ellington recalled, “This was a night that scared the devil out of the whole band. The applause was so terrifying—it was applause beyond applause. On our first show there was 10 minutes of continuous applause.” (Down Beat, Nov. 5, 1952) This acclamation came after Ellington fans had waited through 12 supporting acts that had lasted an hour and a half.


As the curtain rose, the stage was darkened except for a spotlight on drummer Sonny Greer, who was high on the stage surrounded by his extensive paraphernalia (drum set, timpani, chimes, vibraphone, and gong). Forty-six years later, Greer recalled this moment: “The curtain broke, and the spot’s on me, and all you can see is my face and hands, hitting anything. I don’t know whether it was right or wrong. Just making some noise. Man, about the eighth bar, they stood up, standing ovation. They hadn’t seen the whole band yet. Stood up, cheers. No exaggeration.” (Smithsonian Institution Jazz Oral History Project. Interview with Stanley Crouch, Jan. 1979)


The Ellington Orchestra on stage at the London Palladium.

The "grinning darkey caricatures of banjo players" can be seen

top left. Sonny Greeris perched high above his colleagues top right.

Ellington directs from the piano.


Following Greer’s percussive intro, the lights went up to show the orchestra set out in a triangle with Greer at the top. Behind the orchestra was an ornate backdrop featuring “grinning darkey caricatures of banjo players.” (Teachout, p. 135) Duke, at the piano, was dressed in a white single-breasted suit. His orchestra sported brown slacks, cream jackets and white shoes. The powerful effect of the presentation and the dynamic music of  Ellington’s 1930 composition “Ring dem Bells,” sent the audience wild. At the end of this first number, Duke moved from his seat to the footlights. He had to wait a long time before the applause abated. Behind him the musicians were apparently stunned by the enthusiasm.


Max Jones, then a 16 year-old, semi-pro sax player, was in the audience: “We impatiently sat through the ‘acts’—all twelve of them!—before the magic of the curtain rising and the band playing ‘Ring Dem Bells.” None of us had ever heard a sound like this live before, not to mention the spectacle of actually seeing Duke’s band live before our very eyes.” (Smithsonian Institution Jazz Oral History Project, quoted in Lawrence, p. 201.)


For the second number, Duke chose a current popular song that the general audience would have known: “Three Little Words” from the recently released movie Amos ‘n’ Andy. Following this, Ivie Anderson came on stage in a dazzling white dress to sing the very popular Harold Arlen song “Stormy Weather.” Her performance brought on what was described by some as the greatest ovation of the evening. Bert Wilcox was in the audience: “…the thing that sticks in my memory is Ivie Anderson leaning against one of the marble pillars and singing  ‘Stormy Weather’ without a microphone.” (Smithsonian Institution Jazz Oral History Project, quoted in Lawrence, p. 202)


Anderson herself was reduced to tears. But she recovered to give an encore: “Give Me a Man Like That,” a 1930 song with racy lyrics composed by Arthur Sizemore. It was now time to bring on the dancers: Bessie Dudley, nicknamed Snake Hips, danced to “Rockin’ in Rhythm,”  a 1931 composition by Ellington and Harry Carney; next, tap dancers Bill Bailey & Derby Wilson danced to another Ellington composition “The Mystery Song.”


To slow down the pace, the orchestra now played an Ellington variation of the classic jazz standard “Tiger Rag.” This arrangement was “a pianissimo version.” (Barry Ulanov, Duke Ellington, p. 137) With the mood of the audience somewhat calmed, Ellington called for perhaps his most serious composition to end the set: “Black and Tan Fantasy.”


Encores were expected and Duke introduced Freddie Jenkins, a consummate showman,  for “Some of These Days,” a Sophie Tucker song written by Shelton Brooks in 1910. Jenkins played to the audience as only he could: “The house was wildly enthusiastic,” the reporter for The People wrote. “When they played ‘Some of These Days’ it was almost impossible to hear any tune.” (June 18, 1933) Still the audience clamoured for more, so the band played the restrained “Mood Indigo,” one of Ellington’s greatest compositions, to finally end the set. 


Freddie Jenkins (foreground) with Lawrence Brown,

Cootie Williams and Juan Tizol



The novelty of Ellington’s first British performance had a huge impact. “Britain was somewhat bewildered by the prospect of this elegant black entertainer leading out his impeccable band. They defied all stereotypes of jazz men as rakehellers.” (Jewell, p. 52).


Not surprisingly, reactions to the first-night shows varied considerably. One complaint actually came from jazz specialists like Spike Hughes, who were familiar with the recordings. They were unhappy because the program contained too few Ellington originals and too many popular numbers. Pete Rush voiced this complaint in print: “The Palladium concert greatly disappointed me in one particular respect. Number after number was the music of Ellington of the stage. I wanted more of the music of Ellington of the records.” (Tune Times, Sept. 1933) The Manchester Guardian music critic was one of the most negative, finding the music “thoroughly vulgar from start to finish” and claiming that “even the ‘music’ would be more bearable if the words were not so stupid and if the ideas which exist vaguely behind it were not so pathetically crude.” (Ulanov, p.138) Ernest Newman, a classical-music critic, famously called Ellington “a Harlem Dionysus drunk on bad bootleg liquor.” (This was originally quoted by Ulanov without a reference. Many writers have repeated it as coming from a regular Times column of Newman’s. However, I can find no such column in the archives nor the source of the quote.)


Duke Ellington on the Palladium stage, 1933


One of the most interesting reactions was in a letter from Gerard Finzi, a classical composer of repute in England: “I went to see Duke Ellington last Monday. Worth it, if only for the attack and precision and to see how all these odd noises that one hears are made. Slightly aphrodisiacal, and all too dazzling for my slow mind to be able to follow. Otherwise the whole show is pretty worthless.” (Letter to Howard Ferguson, June 21, 1933)


On the other hand there were many positive responses, especially from Ellington aficionados like Constant Lambert and Hannen Swaffer. Swaffer wrote perceptively in The People: “It shows you the advance that has been made in jazz during the last few years, that a Negro can come to the largest music hall in the kingdom, with a modern orchestra, cut out a melody and excite a huge gathering, not with tune but with rhythm….

You get proof that the much despised Negro is working out a culture all his own. You know you are in the presence of something that will go right across the world.” (June 18, 1933) Stanley Nelson was moved to tears, and in The Era called the performance “the most vital, emotional experience the vaudeville in England has ever known.” He suggested that Wagner would have “hailed this music as one of the most significant forms of modern musical art.” C.L. Ricketts in Melody Maker noted the orchestra’s “immaculate tempo” (July 29, 1933) and the Daily Express reviewer praised “a very good dance band playing ingeniously orchestrated music.”  (quoted in Lawrence, Duke Ellington and His World, p.203)  


Work, Work, Work

Ellington’s 1933 tour of England included much more than the two-week Palladium engagement. Manager Irving Mills, cashing in on the success of the Palladium engagement, booked the orchestra wherever he could. The band members were unhappy. Lawrence Brown recalled: “All I remember about that trip was work, work, work. We never got a chance to do anything else.” Cootie Williams said the same: “Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow, I don’t remember much about them; we worked every day.” And Sonny Greer was upset at having to work on Sundays: “We never had a day off. I figured we’d have at least Sundays. The next thing we knew, Mills was booking us for concerts on those days!” (all quoted in Lawrence, p. 213) Mills even found work for the orchestra right after their Palladium gigs, which ended at 10:00pm. He booked the orchestra for a series of midnight dances that were within driving distance. These were generally at ballrooms around London, but one gig was in Brighton, which was over 50 miles away. Thus the Orchestra would have two sets at the Palladium followed by a midnight dance that required a bus journey.


There were several other important dates, the most successful of which was the nationwide BBC broadcast. The Melody Maker reported that “The band’s precision and polish was even more marked on the air than it is on records.” It also expressed approval that Duke chose “numbers we wanted to hear at the Palladium, but didn’t.” These numbers were “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” “Lightnin’,” “Creole Love Call,” “Old Man Blues,” “Rose Room,” “Limehouse Blues,” “Best Wishes” (new number for the tour, Ivie Anderson & Sonny Greer singing), a selection from Blackbirds (1928), “Sophisticated Lady” (Ellington’s latest composition), “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (Ivie Anderson singing), a selection of pop tunes, and “Mood Indigo.” Of all these, only “Mood Indigo” had been used at the Palladium. (Detector, “Radio Reports,” June 24, 1933)


Less successful were the Melody-Maker-sponsored concerts at London’s Trocadero Cinema. These were meant to be special shows for Ellington aficionados, but the 4,500 attendees also contained a lot of non-musical people attracted by the publicity. The jazz fans were disappointed when Ellington changed the format from his own compositions to his vaudeville program after the first few numbers had not gone over well. A second Melody Maker concert three weeks later was much more successful.


After 1933

There had been some indication before 1933 that Ellington’s orchestra was evolving from its vaudeville and dance-band origins. As the 1930s progressed this evolution continued as Ellington continually tried new approaches to modify the orchestra’s sound. By 1938 the orchestra had reached what some critics believed was its zenith. But the Ellington orchestra barely survived the demise of the big-band dance music in the 1940s. It survived because it was playing music for listening rather than for dancing.


This movement away from dance music paved the way for the booking of the Ellington Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall in 1958. I wasn’t at these concerts, but I did see the orchestra twice at the same location in the early 1960s. How different these concerts were from the vaudeville atmosphere in the 1933 Palladium! The audience behaved as if at a classical concert, with absolute silence during the music and polite applause after solos and at the end of numbers. Of course there was no backdrop like the one the Palladium had in 1933; and there were no dancers or even singers. The only difference from a classical concert was that Duke introduced numbers, provided the names of his soloists and told the audience that he and his orchestra loved them madly. Maybe there was still just a hint of 1930’s vaudeville when Ray Nance came to the front with his violin.

Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.