I first learned about Duke Ellington’s Coronets when I came across this 10” LP in a back-street shop in Brighton, England. I must admit I bought it mainly for Ellington’s name and the unusual cover. Who were the Coronets? The musicians were not listed on the cover, but I found them on the record itself (one of them, Gonsalves, misspelt with a “z”). Also on the record was the name of the original recording label, Mercer Records, N.Y. This British version was issued by Vogue Records Ltd., 113-115 Fulham Road, London SW3. It was described as a Microgroove 33 1/3 r.p.m. and was listed as L.D.E. 035. I guessed it was from the early LP days.
Though the music is acceptable, I derived most enjoyment from researching the history of these 1951 recordings that were issued under the name Duke Ellington’s Coronets.
The early 1950s were a low point for Duke Ellington. Not only had the big band craze evaporated, but he was hit by personnel problems. Three of his longtime musicians abandoned Duke in early 1951. All three had been with him for many years: Johnny Hodges (23) Lawrence Brown (19) and Sonny Greer (28). Additionally, Hodges and Brown were arguably his best soloists, and the unorthodox Greer was close to irreplaceable as Ellington’s drummer.
Many thought that Duke would retire, but he fought back almost immediately with three new acquisitions from the Harry James Orchestra: Juan Tizol, who had previously been with him (1929-1944), Willie Smith, a leading alto player, and Louie Bellson, a spectacular drummer. Then he enlisted Brit Woodman, who had worked with Boyd Raeburn and Lionel Hampton.
Very soon Duke was recording again (May 1951). He then undertook a week’s engagement in New Jersey, no doubt using the time to hone his “new” orchestra’s sound. Duke had a few more engagements in the summer of 1951, but then the band was dormant until nearly the end of the year.
It was during this rebuilding phase in 1951 that the Coronets made four brief recordings: Session 1, April 17; Session 2, May 18; Session 3, June 1; Session 4, June 19). Session 3, which had three tracks, was not used for the 10” LP and will not be discussed further. Out of his orchestra Duke assembled two Coronet septets and one sextet. The players varied for each session: three saxes: Willie Smith (1,2,3), Paul Gonsalves (1) and Jimmy Hamilton (3); one trumpet: Cat Anderson (1); three trombones: Juan Tizol (1,2,3), Brit Woodman (2) and Quentin Jackson (2); one bass: Wendell Marshall (1,2,3); one drummer: Louie Bellson (1,2,3). Billy Strayhorn played all the piano on session 1 and he alternated with Duke on Sessions 2 and 4.
Ellington’s priority in early 1951 was obviously to get his orchestra into shape and to develop his repertoire. So why did he devote time and money for a separate venture that would record some of his musicians in a separate small-combo setting? One clue is in the name of the original record label—Mercer Records. Mercer was his son. He had also led a band, and when it folded in 1949, he returned to work for his father in 1950. Clearly one of Duke’s motives for the Coronets was to help his son financially. Another likely motive was to give his newer musicians a chance to record in a small-group setting. As well, I’m sure he was interested to see how his new signings would perform in the studio. Gonsalves, who joined in 1950, as well as newcomers Bellson, Smith, Woodman and Tizol, filled most of the positions.
None of the eight compositions subsequently made it into the Ellington book. The tracks are all around 3:00 minutes, clearly with 78s in mind. The 10” LP needed eight of the 14 numbers recorded by The Coronets. The numbers not used from the main three sessions were “Indian Summer, “She,” and “Hoppin’ John.” I have not heard these tracks but they can’t have been very good if “Alternate” was deemed good enough to be selected above them.
There is some good soloing by Gonsalves, Smith and Woodman. Only in Session 2, which has the three trombones, was there any significant orchestration. (Mercer Ellington once wrote, “The trombones were always Pop’s favorite section in the band.” Duke Ellington in Person, p. 28) Of interest is some jocular piano accompaniment by both Ellington and Strayhorn, which suggests that neither pianist was taking things that seriously.
Brief Notes on Tracks
Composers are in parenthesis
1. Happening. (Paul Gonsalves) A prolonged solo for Gonsalves, providing a good chance to hear what Gonsalves sounded like in his early Ellington days. The tone is a little harder than in his later playing; I hear a lot of Coleman Hawkins in his playing here. Already a fine musician, he plays the changes perfectly. There is good continuity in this fluid solo. Gonsalves is very impressive here. Duke must have been delighted. Gonsalves played this number only once more, a month later in a concert. There the tempo is faster and he sounds more like the Gonsalves of the late 50s.
2. Britt and Butter Blues. (Ellington) The only recording of this composition. It starts with a great Ellington arrangement for the three trombones. After Willie Smith tries out some Hodges licks, Britt Woodman solos well. There are two identical piano runs by Duke behind Woodman: virtuosic, eccentric and out of place as accompaniment.
3. Sultry Serenade. (Ellington) First recorded in 1947, this is a vehicle for Woodman. After an auspicious start with Duke’s piano. Short Smith and Woodman share the solos. Woodman gets the chance to exhibit some of the unorthodox trombone sounds that Duke liked.
4. Alternate. (Ellington) A basic blues and clearly a filler for this album. Smith and Hamilton alternate eight bars in order to fill up the three minutes.
5. Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid. (Lester Young) Interesting choice of a Lester Young composition. Routine solos by Hamilton and Smith. Strayhorn has a bizarre solo with block Garner-like chords. A very un-Ellington track.
6. Swamp Drum. (Billy Strayhorn) This is an arrangement for Smith. There is a nice trombone arrangement to back him. He plays well, but Hodges would have done much better.
7. Cat Walk. (Cat Anderson) A vehicle for Cat Anderson’s trumpet. It starts with a clever piano intro that imitates the irregular walk of a cat. Anderson shows off his plunger technique to good effect, and thankfully doesn’t go for high notes.
8. Moonlight Fiesta (Juan Tizol) Tizol introduces his own melody. Good rhythm section for the Cuban beat. Gonsalves solos appropriately and then Smith plays double-time. Anderson solos well before Tizol takes it out. For me, this is the best track on the album.