This 10-CD collection has been overlooked in recent books on Duke Ellington (Teachout, Tucker, Nicholson, Hasse). It deserves attention.
Jazz critics have often asserted that Duke Ellington had two instruments—the piano and his orchestra. There was always a piano available for practicing his keyboard skills, but it was a different matter when it came to honing of his orchestral skills. Rehearsals helped, but he only got to hear the finished product one play-through at a time. A better, though expensive option arose in the late 1950s. He would rent a recording studio and record new compositions and new arrangements. This way he could “hear how it sounded” and through repeated listenings analyse the music away from the distractions of the recording studios and of rehearsals. His longtime trumpeter Clark Terry has written how important listening was to Duke: “He was very firm about us listening…listening to the totality of the music. The texture. The timbre. What each section meant to the total piece.” (Clark, p. 133)
So Ellington used recording studios in this way (“to hear how it sounded”) from 1956 to 1971. The resulting material was later issued on 10 CDs as The Private Collection (5 CDs in 1987 and 5 CDs in 1989). This collection has received little critical attention. While not seminal, the music in The Private Collection provides many insights into how Ellington ran his orchestra and how he developed its repertoire. As well, there is some fine soloing.
The ten CDs—two of them contain live music not private recordings—are accompanied informative notes by Stanley Dance, an Ellington specialist. Dance cites more reasons for Ellington’s use of the recording studios for his own private collection. Due to the tough times for big bands in the early 1950s, Ellington also regarded his collection as insurance, music in the bank so to speak. “The big-band business [is] by no means healthy,” he was reported as saying in 1956. His “stockpile” could be used to issue LPs in the future. On the artistic side, his private recordings enable him to experiment, putting his soloists in different settings, trying new types of orchestration, resuscitating old numbers. Dance points out that Ellington’s overall focus was “more experimental than commercial.” (7)
Although Ellington is often trying out new ideas, the music here is of high quality. What we get is a final version of each number, often after several takes. For example, “Bad Woman” on CD4 is the last of ten takes. All the music of the eight studio CDs is comprised of complete takes that I think Ellington regarded as issuable.
The sound of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in these studio sessions is peerless. Ellington had long maintained a full-time orchestra. Over the 15 years from 1956, there were few changes in personnel. The five-piece sax section remained unchanged, while the trombone and trumpet sections were stable. Thus the orchestra gelled so well that it did at times really sound like one instrument. I was struck by this quality when I heard the Orchestra live in London in 1963. I had listened to some fine big bands, but none had such a unified sound—though Basie’s came close.
Not all the music in this collection features the whole orchestra. On CD4 there are a dozen tracks that focus on Ray Nance with just the sax and rhythm sections. This set-up provides a good opportunity to listen extensively to the sax section. “Stoona” and “Blue Rose” are good examples of its wonderful ensemble sound. Hodges and Carney both have very distinctive sounds, but when they play ensemble, they meld perfectly into the five-instrument sound. It’s a sound like no other, a combination of writing and playing.
Additionally, this CD4 displays the wonderful soloing of Ray Nance. He had quickly made his name as a soloist when he joined Duke in1940. His early solo on “Take the A Train” became a classic that was sometimes in later years played note-for-note in recordings and performances. By the time of The Private Collection he had been with Duke for more than 15 years, and Duke rewards him here with generous solo time. He is not as flashy as many trumpeters, but he always plays with feeling and melody. He also solos well on “Do Not Disturb” and “Miss Lucy” (CD1)
Just as Nance is centre stage on CD4, Gonsalves is dominant on CD3. For half of the tracks he is supported by just eight instruments (3 trombones, 3 saxes and the rhythm section). Ellington features him on some superb ballads. He excels on Strayhorn’s “Take It Slow,” which was only ever recorded twice. There are many other examples of his ballad style, though many of these didn’t move up into the orchestra’s concert repertoire, clearly being experimental vehicles for Gonsalves’ soloing.
Indeed a lot of this collection is experimental. Some numbers were refurbished after many years of neglect: “Serenade to Sweden” and “Harmony in Harlem” (CD4) were compositions from the 1930s. Ellington also tried out new arrangements of old chestnuts: “Satin Doll” (CD1) is rearranged to feature Gonsalves; “The Mooche” gets a slightly new look for Procope and Hamilton (CD2). Ellington also tried some new compositions like “Feetbone” (CD1).
There are two extended works in the collection. The Degas Suite (CD5) was composed for a French film that was never made. Only ten orchestra members were used: Ellington himself, Willie Cook (trumpet), Chuck Connors (Bass Trombone), the sax section, and Castleman (bass) and Rufus Jones (drums). There is a lot of fine Ellington piano in the eleven short parts, but otherwise the music is not up to usual Ellington standards. It’s the only version available on record.
Ellington also tried out an updated version of Black, Brown and Beige, which had been a major work for him in the 1940s and which he had played in almost every concert on his recent 1965 European tour. (CD10)
Another interesting item is Hodges’ first recording of Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” (CD4). This was to become a staple in the Ellington repertoire in the 1960s. Stanley Dance finds Hodges “tentative,” but he sounds pretty good to me.
Two pieces of interest on CD3 were used for a concert with Thelonious Monk at the 1962 Newport Jazz Festival--one composition by Strayhorn, “Frere Monk,” and an arrangement of “Monk’s Dream.” These had not been a great success at Newport, but clearly Ellington wanted them recorded for himself. They were never used again.
The Private Collection also includes two non-studio dance concerts. CD2 and CD6 contain material recorded at two military bases in California. Like the famous 1940 Fargo live date, these 1958 recordings are of interest not only for the fine form of the orchestra but also for insight into how enthusiastically the orchestra played live for dancers. For atmosphere alone these are worth listening to. Ellington’s men are clearly enjoying themselves. Most of the tracks show the orchestra members playing their hearts out, although in the later numbers of the two concerts alcohol was having an effect that was not that positive. Despite Hodges’ absence, the sax section still sounds good. Nance solos often. Carney sometimes seems to hold things together when the orchestra gets a little lost late in the concerts. Of interest is the inclusion of a Dick Vance arrangement of “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” This has Ellington playing in the popular big band style. It sounds very un-Ellington. I wonder whether he was concerned about catering to popular tastes for dance gigs.
While The Private Collection is a must for serious Ellington collectors, I would recommend CD3 and CD4 to those not interested in buying the whole collection. This is not to say that the other CDs aren’t worth buying. After all, this is Ellington music performed by the Orchestra during one of its peak periods.