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Duke Ellington in 1930: The Busiest of Years

by John Cobley

Sunday Sep 27th, 2020



To describe Duke Ellington’s life in 1930 as busy would be an understatement. Riding the wave of his growing success, he was always working hard and always looking ahead. R.D. Darrell, the eminent critic of the Phonograph Monthly Review, noticed this at the time: “Ellington refuses to rest a single month on his laurels.” (Tucker, 33).


In 1930 Ellington’s band recorded on 20 occasions under nine different names. It played almost every night at the Cotton Club from January 1 to June 12 and from September 14 to December 30. It had three two-week engagements on Broadway. And it travelled to Hollywood to participate in a major feature film. All this was on top of shorter engagements and numerous radio broadcasts. Duke also had to find time to write new numbers and to orchestrate current popular songs. These new additions to the band’s book meant regular rehearsals too. Even more of his time was taken up running his band, dealing with manager Irving Mill, and sometimes negotiating with organized crime. So it’s surprising that in 1930 Ellington also found the time and energy to take the first step away from his dance-band composing towards music suitable for the concert hall. This first step was a composition whose variable rhythms discouraged dancing and whose length exceeded the limits of the conventional 78rpm record.




In 1930 the Great Depression and changes in the movie industry caused a crisis in the music business: “Musicians were hard hit. The advent of talking and singing motion pictures had caused most theaters to abandon their orchestras, typically replacing them with a single organist. Tens of thousands of musicians were thrown out of work as the general belt tightening left most people with less to spend on entertainment.” (Hasse, 133) Ellington, however, was not affected. He was in great demand with the record companies and had a regular and remunerative engagement at the Cotton Club.


His records had been selling well in the late 1920s, but Ellington did even better in 1930, recording for all the major companies. In order to maintain a semblance of loyalty to each of these companies, he issued records under nine different names: The Ten Blackberries, The Jungle Band, Harlem Hot Chocolates, Mills’ Ten Blackberries, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra, The Harlem Footwarmers, The Harlem Music Masters, and Frank Brown and His Tooters. For the first time two of his records appeared in the Top 50 of the year’s recordings: “Three Little Words” (#6) and “Ring Dem Bells” (#29).


The exposure from his Cotton Club engagement, as well as from his records, led to several other prestigious engagements that he managed to fit into his already busy schedule. Not long after starting his sixth production at the Cotton Club (Black Berries of 1930), Ellington’s band was chosen by Maurice Chevalier, the famous French singer, to support his two-week engagement at the Fulton Theater on Broadway. This was a “colossal coup” (Teachout, 103) for the Duke. Moreover, the Ellington band played the first 50-minute set before Chevalier made his appearance, in effect giving a concert each night—“one of the earliest concerts by a jazz band.” (Hasse, 126) For the first time the band was listened to rather than danced to. It was an amazing breakthrough—playing on Broadway, and to a packed house as well. 


The Chevalier engagement was carried out without a break from their daily Cotton Club gig. Each day from March 30 to April 13 the band played its Chevalier gig in the evening and then went on to play its regular late-night engagement at the Cotton Club. And if that wasn’t enough, the band also carried out two daytime recording sessions during this two-week marathon (April 3 for Columbia Records, April 11 for RCA Victor).



There were other short engagements that had to be fitted into the band’s schedule. In the spring it did a one-week revue at Harlem’s Lafayette Club. Then in May, at the Palace Theater on Broadway, the most celebrated vaudeville house in the country, it did a one-week show that was held over for a second week. Next after a short tour of the North-east, the band headed across the country for the first time to Chicago and on to California. 


The purpose of the trip to the west coast was to make a film in Hollywood, Check, Double Check. This was a major feature film starring the famous comedy duo Amos ‘n Andy. The band recorded three numbers for the film. The first attempt wasn’t a success, so they recorded “Old Man Blues,” “Three Little Words” and “Ring Dem Bells” a second time. The film was not a success, but it gave the Ellington band more exposure and added prestige.


After a short engagement at LA’s Shrine Auditorium on August 29, the band returned to New York and to its regular Cotton Club gig. Soon there were other engagements to fill while doing nightly Cotton Clubs shows: September 6, a week at the Palace Theater; October 31, two weeks at the Paramount Theater. As well, there were short engagements at the Lafayette Theater and at the Douglas Theater.


Even though he was busy throughout 1930, Duke still managed to compose and arrange regularly. Nevetheless, his composing was often rushed. He was notorious for coming to rehearsals with an incomplete score and having to work with the band to finish it up. Perhaps because of his hectic schedule, there was only one major composition for 1930: “Mood Indigo.” And even that famous number was composed on the run. According to Ellington, he wrote and orchestrated “Mood Indigo” in 15 minutes, while he was waiting for his dinner at home. Originally entitled “Dreamy Blues,” the tune was written for a radio broadcast. It was “the first tune I ever wrote specially for microphone transmission,” he later said. “The next day [after the broadcast] wads of mail came in raving about the new tune.” (Quoted in Hasse, 134) Later he would refer to the tune as his first big hit.


Musicologists have long written about the originality of “Mood Indigo.” Ken Rattenbury, in Duke Ellington, Jazz Composer, has described how Ellington ingeniously used a muted trumpet, a muted trombone and a clarinet to create the mournful main theme: “In its technically undemanding middle register, the trumpet provides the required whisper of sound. In contrast, the trombone enters in its high register, yet is not allowed to obliterate the delicate trumpet lead. Finally, the clarinet in its extreme low register moves in parallel major thirteenths to the trumpet….” (92) 



“Mood Indigo” endures as one of Ellington’s most famous compositions. It was always in his bandbook and was last performed two months before his death. The composition is included in Ted Gioia’s authoritative book Jazz Standards.


There were two other compositions of note in 1930: “Ring Dem Bells” and “Old Man Blues,” both written and recorded for the film Check, Double Check. “Ring Dem Bells” is a foxtrot dance-tune that sometimes uses the call-response format. Ellington has inserted a lot of music into the 3:00 format. The recording features scat-singing and fine trumpet playing by Cootie Williams. “Ring Dem Bells” is not a memorable melody, but it makes up for this with excitement and some fine soloing. R.D. Darrell called this number “An incredibly skillful and lightfooted performance.” (Tucker, 38)


“Old Man Blues,” which is played in the film in its entirety, is a hot, up-tempo number. The camera, which focuses on the band for almost the whole time, provides many insights into the band’s style. The seated musicians are dressed in tuxedos and are tidily positioned in sections, with Ellington and his piano front and center. There is a little showmanship, especially from trumpeter Freddie Jenkins on the left and drummer Greer. Ellington himself is shown driving the band almost excessively. The playing is very tight and all the five solos are excellent. The whole arrangement, lasting less than 2 ½ minutes, is notable for its compactness and flow. Teachout asserts that this number “demonstrates that Ellington now knew how to fuse written ensembles and improvised solos into fully integrated musical structures” (106).



Not all the band’s repertoire was written by Ellington. It also included current hit songs. Thus in 1930 the band was playing such well-known songs as “When You’re Smiling,”  “St. James Infirmary,” “Three Little Words” and  “Memories of You.” These songs were arranged by Ellington and of course involved even more work for the busy bandleader. 


As if all the live performances, the recordings, the filming, and the arranging were not enough for Ellington in 1930, he also started serious composing. This led to an extended work that was eventually to be recorded on January 31, 1931. “Creole Rhapsody” was long enough to cover both sides of a 78 phonograph—something only done once before by Red Nicholls. It was not primarily a commercial venture like all his compositions so far, and it was not suitable for dance dates. Several critics have described this six-minute work as the first step towards later masterpieces like Black, Brown and Beige.


Ellington’s achievements in 1930 attest to both his musical genius and his energy. His self-confidence enabled him to tackle many challenges. According to Cab Calloway, whose band sometimes substituted for the Ellington band at the Cotton Club, “Duke was more than suave. He had something special and he carried it with him all the time…. But mostly it was that air of self-assurance that got to me.” (Hasse 132)


Books Consulted

Collier, James Lincoln. Ellington, 1987

Gioia, Ted. The Jazz Standards, 2102.

Hasse, John Edward. Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington, 1995.

Lawrence, A.H. Duke Ellington and His World, 2001.

Rattenbury, Ken. Duke Ellington, Jazz Composer, 1990.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era, 1989.

Teachout, Terry. Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, 2013.

Tucker, Mark. ed. Duke Ellington Reader, 1993.

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