Publisher Profile

Duke Ellington Orchestra Live

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Stellar Ellingtonians

Having a stable roster of outstanding soloists allowed the composer to tailor custom materials for his gifted virtuosi.  He crafted music highlighting their instrumental voices and personal motifs.

The Fargo session, and surviving live recordings in general feature Ellington’s most popular stars at their best. Because musicians often remained in the orchestra for decades, it was said that you could still be “the new guy” after five years.

Eager to let his thoroughbreds run, Duke and the record labels launched a series of spin-off groups led by his most illustrious stars: Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard and Rex Stewart. The so-called Ellington Small Bands waxed 140 studio recordings between 1936-41.  Generating exquisite masterpieces consistently, the sessions were usually seven instruments (but ranged from 6-9 pieces) with Ellington or Strayhorn on piano, written, arranged and staffed by Duke.

Johnny Hodges, Fargo 1940

Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges (1907-1970) was arguably the biggest star of the Famous Orchestra.  A major stylist, he practically invented the alto as an instrument, bringing unprecedented eloquence, articulation and lyricism to the saxophone.  He was incomparable for emotional expression, economy of phrase, melodic creativity and exquisite tone, influencing listeners, critics and generations of saxophonists from Ben Webster to John Coltrane.

Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra was the most successful of the Ellington spin-off bands, waxing some 50 sides between 1937-41.  After his departure in 1951 Johnny enjoyed international stardom but returned often to partner in creative endeavors.

Hodges and Duke devised endless, luscious melodies highlighting Johnny’s superlative, sensuous interpretations of blues and ballads.  A couple such mini-concertos for alto were captured at Fargo: “Never No Lament” (also the melody for “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”) and “Warm Valley.” The latter is included despite the intrusion of an off-mic broadcast announcer assuring us “a swell evening’s entertainment at the Crystal Ballroom in Downtown Fargo” with dancing until 1:00 am.

Never No Lament – Fargo 1940.mp3


Warm Valley– Fargo 1940.mp3


Ben Webster, Fargo.

Deeply influenced by Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster (1909-1973) was the first tenor saxophone star of the Ellington orchestra.  A dynamic soloist,he was a catalytic force, galvanizing the saxophone section during three stints at productive peaks in 1935-36, 1940-43 and 1948-49.  Nicknamed “The Brute,” he was said to be pugnacious when drunk– yet was a protective mentor for young bassist Jimmy Blanton.

Emerging from Kansas City in the mid-1930s, Webster was a leading stylist of the tenor saxophone.  Known for his seductive sound and rich smoky tone, he was in steady demand for studio sessions and accompanying singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, quitting the Cab Calloway Orchestra to join Duke in 1935.

The call and response structure of “Cottontail” seems intended to feature his rhythmic momentum, muscular tone, assertive lead and capacity to carry the whole band on his broad shoulders.  Note that as the disc ran out, Ben was set-up for yet another solo chorus.

Cottontail – Fargo 1940.mp3

The unrivaled baritone saxophonist Harry Carney (1910-1974) was the foremost early jazz stylist of the baritone instrument.  He joined the orchestra in 1927 and remained until his death– shortly after Duke passed away in 1974.  The Ellington saxophone sections was second to none, setting the pace at the cutting edge of jazz for nearly 40 years.

Ivie Anderson with personnel similar to Fargo 1940.

Singer Ivie Anderson (1905-1949) performed for a decade with Ellington.  She was the first to sing “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing)” on record in 1933. Her warm personality and effervescent scatting made her very popular with audiences.

Ivie’s blues-inflected singing, depth of emotion and rich lower range brought her critical acclaim and favorable comparison to Billie Holiday.  Her bubbly and flirtatious “Oh Babe, Maybe Someday” dates back to the Cotton Club era.

Oh Babe, Maybe Someday– Fargo1940.mp3


Wallace Jones, Barney Bigard and Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Fargo 1940. Source unknown.

New Orleans-born clarinet player Barney Bigard was hugely popular with audiences, retaining his Creole heritage and training during 15 years with the Famous Orchestra.  His spin-off group,Barney Bigard and his Jazzopators, was yet another successful Ellington Small Band that cut two dozen excellent sides. After leaving Duke in the late-1940s, he worked intermittently for a decade and a half with Louis Armstrong.

“Clarinet Lament” was a feature for Bigard co-composed with Ellington.  An extended variation on “Basin Street Blues,” it was also known as “Barney’s Concerto.”

Clarinet Lament – Fargo 1940.mp3


Rex Stewart, Fargo 1940.

Rex Stewart (1909-1967) was a horn-playing star (cornet actually) in his own right before, during and after his mere eleven years with Ellington. His nuanced and original style utilized cup-mute effects, upward rips, baritone growls, flutter tonguing and his famed “half-valve” technique for bending, squeezing and smearing notes. About twenty very good Ellington Small Band sides were issued under Stewart’s name.

Among his professional pursuits after retiring from music were working in radio and television and writing about jazz for publications like DownBeat and Playboy.  He subsequently owned a 100-acre dairy farm in upstate New York, operated a restaurant in Vermont, attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school in France and dedicated his life to fine cuisine.

Stewart and Ellington jointly conceived dozens of tunes exploiting his personal tonal vocabulary.  The classy “Boy Meets Horn” is a tasting menu of Rex’s sauces and seasonings for horn– and was the title of his posthumously published autobiography.

Boy Meets Horn – Fargo 1940.mp3


Chatterbox – Fargo 1940.mp3


Lineup similar to Fargo. L to R: Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Otto Hardwick, Harry Carney, Rex Stewart, Sonny Greer, Wallace Jones, Ray Nance. Photo by William Gottlieb.

3 Responses to Duke Ellington Orchestra Live

  1. Dick Karner says:

    Some great Music from the Duke! Thank You, Dave!

  2. Girish Trivedi says:


    Great historic videos of the great Duke.

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