The other night I felt like listening to some Ellington before bed, so I picked out a CD pretty much at random. It was a recording of the Ellington band playing a dance in California in 1958. The gig was recorded by the great west coast engineer Wally Heider; the tape was later found in Duke's archive and issued on CD.
As I listened, I was struck by what an amazing occurrence this was: these well-dressed couples, out for a pleasant evening of dancing, had their dance music provided by the greatest jazz orchestra of all time, led by one of the country's most original and accomplished composers. Amazing! I mean, I knew that the Ellington band, as well as all the other big bands, played for dances all the time. Somehow, though, it had never stuck me just what an odd and, well, amazing (to overuse the word) thing this was. I think it really hit me when the first piece the band played at this dance was "Main Stem," which I have always considered one of Ellington's minor masterpieces. To have this music at your dance! Amazing.
Sure, the band also played lots of standards and ballads that Ellington knew the dancers would enjoy, but mixed in plenty of great Ellington music like "Stompy Jones" and "Such Sweet Thunder." "Mood Indigo" was practically required at every dance, as well as every concert or club date that the band played. But Ellington kept changing the arrangement to keep it fresh. At the 1958 dance I listened to, it featured Shorty Baker on trumpet; at other times it featured a trio of two trombones and bass clarinet.
There are several CDs of Ellington dance dates out there. One of the best is the album first issued on two LPs as All Star Road Band; the CD title was changed (for some reason) to All Star Road Band Vol. II. This might be my favorite Ellington album from the 1950s, although I would hate to have to make that choice. The band is playing for dancers in the booming metropolis of Carrollton, Pennsylvania in 1956; they are in good spirits, the piano is in tune, and Ellington calls an interesting mix of tunes.
The most astounding Ellington dance recording is, without a doubt, the famous 1940 Fargo, North Dakota album. This is almost the absolute greatest lineup of the greatest jazz orchestra of all time. I say "almost" because Cootie Williams had just left the band; it was apparently Ray Nance's first gig with Ellington. This was the period when Ellington was turning out a masterpiece every other week, as one commentator has said. At Fargo, the band played "Ko-Ko," "Harlem Airshaft," "Warm Valley," "Never No Lament," "Rockin' in Rhythm," and "Conga Brava," among others. Two outstanding pieces of Ellingtonia, "Sepia Panorama" and "Across the Track Blues," are twice as long as the studio versions. And then there is "Stardust" - four and a half minutes of stunning Ben Webster saxophony.
Did the patrons of these dances know how luck they were? At least some of them did, apparently. By all accounts, every Ellington dance attracted a crowd who didn't dance at all, but just hung around the bandstand and soaked it all in. Karen's aunt Dorothy was one of the lucky ones - she attended a dance in California a month after the Fargo date. The band was Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra.