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The Ellington Orchestra in 1959

by John Cobley

Thursday Jul 28th, 2022




    Otto Peminger watches Strayhorn and Ellington compose.                               


In the mid-1950s, when the Duke Ellington Orchestra regained its popularity, the Duke found it increasingly difficult to find the time and space for composing. To maintain the orchestra and to ensure its financial viability was time-consuming but essential. He needed an orchestra to work on new compositions, but the maintenance of the orchestra impeded his ability to compose. Clearly a balancing act was needed, but in 1959 his composing was adversely affected by time and effort he put into his orchestra.


Composing was Ellington’s main love, and there was always pressure to provide fresh music for recordings. He had some success with two extended works: Newport Jazz Festival Suite (1956) and Such Sweet Thunder (1957). A Drum Is a Woman (1957) was ambitious but less successful. Otherwise, he tended to rely on his earlier compositions, especially for live performances. 


On the other hand, the Duke Ellington Orchestra had stable personnel and was playing brilliantly. As well, Ellington could call on some of the best soloists in jazz: Johnny Hodges, Clark Terry, Shorty Baker, Ray Nance, Brit Woodman and Paul Gonsalves. 


New Year

When the orchestra played its regular New Year’s Eve gig at The Blue Note at the end of 1958, its reputation was riding high. In January, after this gig and a CBS-TV performance, the orchestra headed to Florida for a three-week engagement. Jump for Joy was to be staged at the Copa City theatre restaurant in Miami Beach. Ellington had long wanted to revive this stage show, which in 1941 had been a failure. Back then, Ellington had had ambitious plans for the show, hoping that it would eventually play on Broadway. He later wrote that the plan was to “take Uncle Tom out of the theatre” and “eliminate the stereotyped image exploited by Hollywood and Broadway.” (Mistress, 155) Now in 1959, Ellington and Strayhorn produced a revamped version, updating the lyrics. 


Sadly, Jump for Joy closed after 20 days and lost $100,000. After this setback the orchestra needed a uplift. A recording session in the Columbia studio (February 19-20), originally intended for the recording of the four new parts of his 1958 “Toot Suite,” turned into a welcome-back party for Ellington—as well as a celebration of his 60th birthday. Three other notable musicians were present: Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Rushing and Jimmy Jones. As well, nine percussionists were on hand for “Malletoba Spank”  and “Tymperturbably Blue.” The recorded music, issued as Ellington Jazz Party, is spirited if not memorable. “Toot Suite” was never used again, although two of the parts were encored a few times in later years. Perhaps the highlight of the album is the interaction between Gillespie and the trumpet section. Both played brilliantly, no doubt motivated by competitive pride. “Malletoba Spank” was one of Ellington’s most unusual tracks, with all nine instruments playing in syncopated unison. 


The orchestra’s next project, Queen’s Suite was begun after the second Jazz Party session. Two more sessions (April 1, 14) were needed to complete the six sections of the suite. However, nothing was issued at this time. Some parts were re-recorded in 1971-2 and a final version was not issued until 1976.


In March the orchestra was in the studio twice, once with vocalist Lila Greenwood (never issued) and once for a session that was eventually issued as Ellington Moods. This latter recording is an anomaly in the Ellington oeuvre. It appears to have been a purely commercial venture. The orchestration is very “unEllington” and is best described as conventional swing. At times it’s hard to believe it’s the Duke Ellington Orchestra—until Hodges or Terry solos. This material was released on Columbia but on the Fairmont label. Its title couldn’t be more misleading.


Film Music

The next venture was something very different, and it produced some of the finest work of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Ellington was approached by film director Otto Preminger to write music for his upcoming film Anatomy of a Murder. Although he had not written film music for 25 years, Ellington accepted the offer and went on to write some of his finest music. Ultimately, the film did not use much of it, but there was enough for Ellington’s music to deeply affect the film. The LP from Anatomy of a Murder ranks as one of Ellington’s finest. Not only is the music of the highest quality, but the playing and the orchestration (with some help, I think, from Strayhorn) are peerless. Hodges’ solo on “Flirty Bird” and Shorty Baker’s on “Almost Cried” add greatly to the quality of this album.


Festival Season

Work on the film occupied the Ellington and his orchestra for much of the spring, with the final recording in Hollywood on June 1, 2. It was now time for the festival season, and Ellington did produce two new works for the tour: the three-part “Idiom 59” that premiered at the Newport Festival on July 4; and the three-part “Duael Fuel” that premiered at a concert in the Chicago Stadium on August 8. The orchestra was again a big success at Newport. According to John Wilson, part of this success was the presence of two drummers—Jimmy Johnson and Sam Woodyard—who “laid down a beat of such driving solidity” that the orchestra and crowd were “swept up by it.” (New York Times, 6 July 1959)


The discipline of the summer festival tour had the orchestra playing extremely well. This can be readily seen in their August 9 engagement at The Blue Note club in Chicago. The music was thankfully recorded, although not with the precision of a recording studio. Some of it appeared on a Roulette LP, and then in 1994 Blue Note Records, recognizing the quality of the music, issued the whole concert on the two-volume Duke Ellington Live at the Blue Note


Surprisingly, the orchestra was not in form a month later when Ellington was in the Columbia studio to record his new works from the summer “Duael Fuel,” “Idiom ’59” and “Launching Pad.” The playing on Festival Session is lackluster throughout. As well, Ellington’s material was not his best. The resulting LP was one of the orchestra’s weakest. Not even some brilliant playing by Clark Terry could save it. Again, as with “Toot Suite,” Ellington hardly used this music again. 



Maybe the minds of the musicians were on the upcoming European tour that began two weeks later. Starting in Paris on September 20, the orchestra, without Shorty Baker and Sam Woodyard, played Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin, Frankfurt, Zurich and Munich on a three-week tour. Apart from occasional selections from Anatomy of Murder and the traditional Medley of Ellington “hits,” the repertoire included old favorites like “Take the A Train,” “El Gato” (for Cat Anderson’s high notes), “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “All of Me,” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” By now, Ellington knew how to cater to European concert audiences. 


Blues Album

Duke Ellington Orchestra was back in the Columbia studios for the last time in 1959, just six weeks after their last European concert, to record the album Blues in Orbit. After two departures from the trumpet section (Clark Terry and Cat Anderson), Ellington went with only one trumpet, the trusty Ray Nance. This gave the ensemble sound a unique blend and exposed the trusty trombone section a little more than usual. The two sessions on December 2 and 3 did not produce enough satisfactory material to fill an LP. So Ellington had to use some unissued material from three recordings made on Feb 4 and 5, 1958 and on Feb 25, 1959—a total of 6:59 to add to the 30:45 of the acceptable music from the two December 1959 sessions. 


Although not one of the DOE’s finest albums, Blues in Orbit offers many pleasures, especially fine solos from Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton and Ray Nance, as well as some fine writing for the occasional ensemble passages. Unlike the orchestra’s previous recording, Festival Session, the playing here is full of spirit. And it is good to have an Ellington album devoted to the blues. Ultimately, however, the material is not up to the high standards that Ellington and Strayhorn had set in the previous few years. 


On New Year’s Eve 1959, the DOE performed again at The Blue Note in Chicago. It was to be the last time as the club closed later on in 1960.



Without Anatomy of a Murder, Ellington’s 1959 would have been a disappointing year—at least from the perspective of his recordings. Although able to maintain arguably the finest jazz orchestra, Ellington was unable, at the same time, to produce new music that would stand the test of time. Anatomy of a Murder clearly shows that he was still capable, at 60, of composing great music, so it’s reasonable to conclude that he was so involved with running with his orchestra that he lacked the energy and time to compose more than one successful work.

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