“Take the A Train”* was born without any effort – it was like writing a letter to a friend. Duke Ellington. (Composed by Billy Strayhorn.) A Train became the Ellington Orchestra signature. Brothers Will and Peter Anderson precision doodle the lively swing number. “Black and Tan Fantasy” (Duke Ellington/James “Bubber” Miley) follows, an insinuating blues all flutter and lag.
In its third successful year, The Anderson Brothers’ Songbook Summit again offers Will Anderson’s entertaining biography of each honoree peppered with performance video, interview excerpts, and photos illuminating how an artist fits in musical history and what made him unique. Live performance, both instrumental and vocal, flesh out the chronicle enriched by Peter Anderson’s respectful, textured arrangements as tailored to the small onstage band. These evenings are both illuminating and great fun.
Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974), composer, pianist, and jazz orchestra leader (from 1923 to his death) was raised by musician parents to be dignified and dapper. Graceful bearing earned him the nickname “Duke” while still in grade school. Though more interested in baseball than piano lessons, he wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag” at age 14.
Pianist Jen Patton shares the composition. It’s bright, bouncy and immensely sophisticated, offering something of a narrative rather than just themes.
Around the same time, Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday’s Poolroom where he was captivated by ragtime piano. That was that. Apparently an excellent artist, he turned down a scholarship to Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, instead supporting himself as a sign painter while assembling a group to play for dances. The artist married his childhood sweetheart, had son, Mercer, who would carry on the legacy, and moved to Harlem.
Vocalist Molly Ryan, one of our finest interpreters of this material, offers 1933’s “Drop Me Off in Harlem” or, as she sings, “Halum.” (Duke Ellington/ Nick Kenny.) Her creamy voice is borne on clarinet and alto sax effortlessly stretching through long phrases.
“I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” (Duke Ellington/Paul Francis Webster) emerges vocally lighter, but emotionally more serious. “He didn’t love me…” Ryan croons with furrowed brow, “Like I love him…,” an arm moves across her waist, hand fisted. Piano is hurry-up-and-wait. Sax and clarinet seem to braid. “Jazz has always been the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” Duke Ellington
“I’m Beginning to See the Light” (Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges/Don George/Harry James) bounds in fresh and open. The vocalist seems like everybody’s crushed-on girl next door. Alto and baritone saxes are rhythmic and sweeping. A beautifully arranged “Prelude to a Kiss” (Duke Ellington/ Irving Gordon/Irving Mills) adds Chuck Redd’s subtle, resonant vibraphone and Peter’s satiny flute. Ryan’s tone is round edged, powdery.
We hear about Ellington & Co. becoming house band at the iconic Cotton Club, then moving on in a less receptive market. Despite competition from such as the more contemporary Benny Goodman, they maintained point of view. “My brother and I being swing clarinetists, always get the question who’s your favorite band leader, Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. We always answer in unison: Duke Ellington.”
Teenage Billy Strayhorn, later nicknamed Sweetpea for his demeanor, made a cinematic entrance into Ellington’s life. At first meeting, he had the audacity to play song after song the way the Duke had written it and then in his own inimitable style. The close professional and personal relationship changed both lives for the next 30 years.
Flattery, humor, charm, and deflection of personal attention kept The Ellington Orchestra in check. When asked what particular gimmick he used, The Duke said, “I pay my musicians.”
A terrific “Mood Indigo” (Duke Ellington/Barney Bigard) dances in slow wearing padded shoulders, wide pants, a snood. Bass clarinet is longlined, sinuous, cool; clarinet, a musical shoulder shake and shimmy. On upright bass, Neal Miner closes his eyes and leads with his chin. Piano exhales.
Things were rough until The Ellington Orchestra was invited to 1956’s Newport Jazz Festival where a younger audience rediscovered it. Given a brief solo between two traditionally connected pieces, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves instead soared 27 minutes playing way after curfew. The crowd went wild, press coverage noted. Many star soloists who had exited for more secure pastures returned.
The orchestra’s most tenured member (47 years) was baritone sax player Harry Carney who doubled as his driver. The musician was bereft when Ellington passed. Will Anderson has been gifted his instrument, selectively passed from hands to talented hands.
Leave it to the Andersons to find 1958’s “Single Petal of a Rose” written for Queen Elizabeth II’s 33rd Birthday. Until 1976, only two pressed copies existed, one in the Duke’s collection, one belonging to the Queen. It’s just beautiful; a languid dream ballet, sunlight on water with a dragonfly or two. The piece is delicately played by piano and Peter on bass clarinet.
Duke Ellington won 14 Grammys and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Music. He always closed telling the audience “You are very beautiful, very sweet, and we love you madly.” The Andersons follow suit. An able tribute by two young men with as much heart as talent. The Duke would smile.
* The title refers to the then-new A subway service that runs through New York City, going at that time from eastern Brooklyn into Harlem.
Photos by Geri Reichgut
Opening: Peter Anderson and Will Anderson
Songbook Summit: The Anderson Brothers Celebrate Duke Ellington
Peter and Will Anderson: saxophones, clarinets, flute
Molly Ryan: vocals
Jeb Patton: piano, Neal Miner: bass, Chuck Redd: drums, vibraphone
NEXT: Songbook Summit: The Anderson Brothers Celebrate Louis Armstrong
August 21, 22, 23 at 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.