Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Duke Ellington: 1940 - Live From "The Crystal Ballroom", Fargo, North Da...

Dancing with the Duke: Ellington's Live Dance Albums By Steve Siegel

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Dancing with the Duke: Ellington's Live Dance Albums By Steve Siegel

With previous features on pianist Wade Legge, the Great Day in Harlem Photograph “Mystery Man” - William J. Crump, drummer Frankie Dunlop, vocalist Jimmy Rushing, critic and author Nat Hentoff, Jazz Party: A Great Night In Manhattan featuring the Miles Davis Sextet, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the September 9, 1958 fest that Columbia Records put on at the Plaza Hotel for its executives and guests, trumpeter Dupree Bolton, vocalist Helen Merrill, pianist Sonny Clark and bassist Doug Watkins, Steve Siegel has assumed the role of “unofficial” staff writer for JazzProfiles.

© -Steve Siegel copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“Though there are other live recordings of the Ellington Orchestral dances (both pirated and through approved sources) available, I have chosen three recordings for this article, all on the basis of excellence - both aurally and in performance. Their inclusion is musical but based upon when they were recorded, they further serve as historical markers or jumping off points for a broader discussion of Ellington's place in a changing culture of big band dance performances over a three-decade period.

The general public's modernist view of the Duke Ellington Orchestra was greatly formed at Newport in 1956 with Paul Gonsalves’ 27 choruses and Elaine Anderson's flying blonde hair and little black dress convincing many that if Ellington's music was cool enough for the “jet set" then it was cool enough for them. With Newport as the catalyst, a reexamination of Ellington’s work began in academia as well as within the world of jazz criticism. As Ellington’s musical stature increased, it opened new venues for his orchestra to appear—many where few Afro-American jazz contingents had ever had access to. In the coming years it meant appearing less at high school auditoriums, American Legion halls and county fairs and more often at jazz festivals, places of worship, concert halls and clubs.

Recording Dances

Despite this newfound international acclaim, Ellington continued to book dances throughout the country. In just January of 1957, Ellington was booked at 13 dances, including at: Rochester, MN, Grinnell, IA, Dubuque, IA, Rolla, MO, Lincoln, NE (at the Lincoln Public School Administration Building) but also at Springfield, IL for the Inauguration party for the newly re-elected governor—estimated attendance was 6,000 to 10,000 people.

Duke Ellington’s discography spans the six decades in which he was active as well as the numerous reissues and previously undiscovered material in the 50 years since his passing. It contains every subgenre of jazz from ragtime to post-modern; every instrumental configuration from solo piano to symphony orchestra with chorus; every venue from studio to concert hall and from nightclub to places of worship, as well as all his collaborative albums with other famous artists. But live recordings of dances fill a miniscule segment of the discography. 

The explanation for the dearth of live recordings made at Ellington’s appearances at dances is primarily based on technological constraints. Previous to the introduction of magnetic tape technology around 1948, recordings were direct-to-disc acetates. Each acetate held 3-4 minutes of music per side and then had to be flipped over – generally in the middle of whatever composition was being recorded, which created a gap in the music. In the studio this limitation could be addressed by keeping the length of the recording to the desirable 3-4 minutes or pausing the performance while the acetate was flipped or replaced by another acetate. At dances though, Ellington would often play longer versions of the pieces which could create much difficulty for the recordist and a gap in the finished record for the purchaser.    

Other limiting factors included the difficulty of microphone placement in very poor acoustic spaces such as school gyms as well as the narrowness of the repertoire dictated by what the dancers were familiar with and that familiarity most likely came from the material already available on recordings that they had heard. So expected commercial gain for the record label from the dance recordings was compromised.

But perhaps the greatest hazard that might await any record company trying to document an Ellington appearance at a dance was Ellington's penchant for imposing little or no discipline on his men. Ellington was of the mind that to demand conformity off the bandstand could very well lead to a certain musical stasis on it. In essence he was willing to tolerate occasional late arrivals or a less than satisfactory performance from a musician (or even a section) who might have over-imbibed between sets, in exchange for the possibility of a magical night where it all comes together and the band catches fire.

Recordings made at dances are unique. The sterility of the recording studio is supplanted by an intimacy both heard and imagined by the listener. On the recordings, we might actually hear attendees whose voices indicate that they were very near the bandstand, possibly just a few feet from their musical heroes, shouting out requests for tunes and the ladies cooing to Ellington that they love him madly.

Also, unlike concerts where attendees sit quietly through a performance with most expecting a rendition that sounds very much like what they heard on an album, dancers listening to a big band primarily crave a beat that triggers a different set of synapses in the brain—one that transcends a tapping foot and engages the movement of the entire body. Therefore, the band can dig in and wail!

But the listener of the live recording can also use their imagination – perhaps visualizing newly acquainted couples rushing out to the dance floor to take advantage of Johnny Hodges playing a sensual ballad and then sneaking out into the darkness to get further acquainted; married folks reluctantly heading out to their vehicle to rush home because the babysitter has a midnight curfew. An entire range of human interactivity compartmentalized into the 40-minute playing time of a vinyl record. 

Ellington, for his part, enjoyed playing dances. He obviously made a living at it but he was always into the exotic and the erotic. He must have enjoyed watching from his perch at the piano as couples paired off. He must have found satisfaction in his ability to bring couples closer together by sequencing the music selections, eventually turning loose his “secret aphrodisiac,” Johnny Hodges and his alto sax. 

In 1944, at a Carnegie Hall concert, Ellington premiered a new piece entitled “Dancers in Love”— most likely conceived by his viewing the remnants of his audience still present in the wee small hours of the morning, clinging to one another on the dance floor during the last set of slow numbers played by the band. He most likely offered that piece up at some point in the last set. 

The Road

Much has been written about the grind road bands encounter playing one-night-stands, night after night. The audience at the dances care little about that and expect a first-rate performance.  The “road” creates hardships that musicians whose lives lead them down that highway learn to tolerate.  Hardships such as family issues back home affected Black as well as White bands equally. But lack of a “just” society created a unique situation where Black musical congregations were oftentimes unable to easily attend to their basic needs. White bands could stop anywhere, even in predominantly Black communities, where they could find respite from the road, grab a bite to eat, use the facilities and wander around to stretch their legs; all basic needs that Black bands were oftentimes denied access to and could even lead to dangerous confrontations—especially in the South.  

Hard to create art when a few hours previously you were told “Haul out of here because we don't serve no “n____s here!” 

The Ellington band eventually was able to avoid most of these hardships because their primary means of transport was generally by private Pullman car on a train.

Once arriving in town, the musicians generally might scatter to reacquaint with friends, families or perhaps paramours. This interaction was an important factor in establishing a sense of community for these nomads.

The challenges to the musicians of a live recording at a dance venue are less than exists at a live concert recording. Unlike a concert where the passive audience is comprised of listeners who generally expect to hear carbon copies of what they heard on records, dancers are active participants and in many ways a component of the performance art. Spontaneous improvisation of the musicians and the responses of the dancers creates, if you will, a feedback loop where the dynamic is that both parties spur the other on to a state of mutual creativity, with both dancers and musicians being freed up to take chances. Musicians hitting “clams" or dancers with tangled feet are forgiven. The oftentimes copious and mutual consumption of alcohol also leads to a more tolerant disposition of dancers and orchestra towards each other. 

The Recordings 

 So, the question is: how does one explain, in the face of all the challenges the road presents as well as the demands of an audience who are aurally as well as physically engaged, that occasionally, for no easily explicable reason, a road band pulls into some small, dreary little town, sets up on the bandstand and lays down an evening for the ages?

That question cannot be easily answered but luckily Ellington has left us with some sublime recorded examples (non-pirated) that provide the listener with just such musical outcomes. We will look at three of these. Each of these performances stand out based upon the recording quality, the band’s performance and the interaction between the band and the dancers. 

The three recordings are:

  1. Fargo, N.D., November 7, 1940 - The Crystal Ballroom, Original release: Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940, Book-of-the-Month Records, 1978

  2. Carrolltown, Pa., June 1957 – The Sunset Ballroom, Original release:  Duke Ellington, All Star Road Band, 1984, Doctor Jazz, W2X39137

  3. Chicago, IL, May 31, 1964 – The Holiday Ballroom, Original release: Duke Ellington, All Star Road Band Volume 2, 1985, Doctor Jazz, W2X40012

Fargo 1940

Ever since the first high quality, readily available release of this dance in 1978 (it was released twice before, but in low quality with minimal distribution), this 1940 recording has justifiably been acclaimed as the definitive live dance recording of the Ellington band in peak form performing some of the finest compositions that Ellington had written up to that time. Why Fargo stands out among the many live appearances of Ellington’s various orchestral additions might be explained through the perfect alignment of a series of factors—some musical and some situational. 

The Place:

The band travelled from Winnipeg to Fargo by Pullman coach (225 miles). Jack Towers (more on him later) and Dick Burris were present with recording equipment. Between 600 and 800 people paid the $1.30 advance ticket price to see the show; they included North Dakota Agricultural College students. Burris had written to the William Morris Agency for permission to record the dance, and they okayed it if Ellington and the ballroom manager, Ralph Chinn, agreed. When Burris and Towers arrived, they saw the band members sitting around on-stage playing cards, not yet in their uniforms. They found Ellington who gave them permission, but couldn't understand why they would want it, saying the trumpets were in "bad shape." During the dance, band members propped their sheet music on satchels because there weren't any music stands. Lights reflected from the two-foot diameter glass ball hanging from the ceiling. (Martin Fredricks – Article in North Dakota State University Magazine, 2001)

The Time:

By late 1940 Ellington was in what has been described as an “Explosion of Genius" having completed most of the compositions that were to become classic pieces, many of which still hold up today as sounding fresh and modern. 35 compositions were released on the 3-record album (43 were recorded) with 17 of them being written between 1938 and 1940. Therefore, the material, though most likely played many times at other appearances, was well rehearsed but yet fresh enough that the musicians were not simply going through the motions as they might have done playing the “old war horses.”

Perhaps Ellington would have preferred to position more of his newer work into the dance. In the period 1938-40 he had recorded 96 new compositions for the Brunswick label, but much of the work from this period was not exactly “dance music" but music more appropriate for the concert stage. Therefore, in addition to the recent works, Ellington performed 26 older, more familiar pieces to appease the dancers.  

The Recording:

The primary recordist for the album was Jack Towers. Towers was to go on to be a much-lauded remastering engineer who specialized in taking acetates and tapes of older recordings and squeezing every last ounce of fidelity from them. But at the time of the Fargo dance, Towers was a young cooperative extension specialist assigned to North Dakota State University. He borrowed disk cutting equipment; this was about seven years before magnetic tape became feasible for recordings. Each acetate only held 4 minutes of music at best, that meant that he and Dick Burris had to flip the acetate over while the band was still playing. It was a remarkable effort on their part and the fidelity of the recording was rather amazing considering the technological limitations that existed in 1940. Part of the status afforded this recording must be attributed to Towers’ ability to clearly capture the event as well as his outstanding ability to so successfully remaster his original recording for the Book-of-the-Month and subsequent releases. You get the visceral impact of hearing actual instruments in a real acoustic place with the sounds of real people attending a dance.

Perhaps before or after Fargo, Ellington's orchestra may have played as well, if not better, at dances that were not recorded, but Tower was the right person at the right time in the right place to capture a representation of the Ellington band at its best.

Carrolltown 1957

The Sunset Ballroom was truly representative of the types of venues that the road had to offer Ellington. Carrolltown was a rather out of the way community located in central Pennsylvania about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh. The population in 1957 was approximately 1,500 with a great deal of the social and cultural life revolving around the Ballroom.

A Facebook page dedicated to the memory of the venue provides some history:

The Northern Cambria Railroad built the first building in Sunset Park which opened January 8, 1909. The building burned down November 2, 1967. During its heyday, the park was so popular that it had its own rail line into it and extra cars were added during special holidays and events. The place featured ethnic gatherings, sporting events, dances and all kinds of entertainment with people coming from miles around. It attracted big name bands such as Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo and the original Ink Spots. The ballroom was often transformed into a skating rink, a basketball court or gymnasium. The mammoth hall was 80 feet wide and 150 feet long with 150,000 board feet of lumber used." 

The recording was again engineered by Jack Tower and produced by Bob Thiele for his Doctor Jazz label. The 16 years since Fargo had resulted in a mass turnover of personnel. Old stalwarts Nance, Hodges and Carney were the only members left from 1940. The repertoire had also changed with only “Stardust” and “Sophisticated Lady” appearing on both albums—probably a nod to the last slow set of the evening.

This band rose to the occasion much as had the 1940 band and played well throughout. Jack Tower, now having magnetic tape at his disposal, again did his usual fine job capturing the goings-on with great clarity, presence and accurate intonation. The only flaw in the stereo recording is that in the mixdown they positioned Duke, most instruments and the soloists in the left channel, with some instruments and the audience hard right, occasionally leaving a bit of a musical hole in the middle. Stereo was a new technology in 1957, so Tower might have recorded in monophonic and the stereo mix down of the tapes could have created the anomaly. 

Chicago 1964

The Holiday Ballroom was located in Jefferson Park on Milwaukee Avenue and opened in 1956. It was owned by a rather interesting character named Dan Belloc. His other pursuits included: A leader of a dance band, owner of Fraternity Records, co-author of the Nat King Cole hit “Pretend” and co-produced the Buckinghams’ big 1966 hit “Kind of a Drag.” 

Unlike Carrolltown, where the attendees had heard of the band members but few had ever met any of them, Chicago was a frequent stop for Ellington. One of his favorite clubs to spend a week at was Frank Holzfeind's Blue Note. Therefore, this booking was like a homecoming for the band to renew old acquaintances and many requests were honored.

This was a very different band than the one that appeared at Carrolltown. The only holdovers were Sam Woodyard and the entire reed section of Hodges, Carney, Gonsalves, Hamilton and Procope. Fortunately, some wayward band members had returned to the band—Cat Anderson, Lawrence Brown and Cootie Williams.

The playlist was more of a “Greatest Hits" presentation with four pieces reprised from Carrolltown and only two new pieces written since Carrolltown—"Guitar Amour” and “Silk Lace”—were included. Highlights include Paul Gonsalves but not necessarily on the perfunctory “Diminuendo and Crescendo” (which he does play but truncates to 6 minutes from the 11-minute Carrolltown performance) but on “Happy Go Lucky Local.” Ellington also does a deep dive into country/soul with the Don Gibson written, Ray Charles’ 1962 hit, “I Can't Stop Lovin' You.”

The John Gill-engineered recording quality is excellent and probably brings the listener deeper into the “you are there" perspective than either the Fargo or Carrolltown recordings would. And oh, by the way, the remix engineer was Jack Towers – making his third appearance over a span of 24 years on an Ellington live dance album. 


Though Ellington may not have realized it at the time of Carrolltown but certainly did by Chicago, the time between the two recordings was, in some ways, representative of a continuation of a slow transition in Ellington’s fortunes (and his future itinerary) which began at Newport in 1956. This transition was driven by at least two forces at work. The first being the newfound relevance that Ellington gained coming out of Newport and the resultant contract with Columbia Records where he produced his best late period work and benefited greatly from Columbia’s promotional might and worldwide distribution.

The second factor magnified the impact of the first factor. 1957 was quite possibly the seminal year for the broad exposure and acceptance of rock and roll music. As such, the younger generation was quick to grab hold of their own music and, more substantially, their own culture. The music of their parents was not part of that new paradigm. Their parents’ generation, whose pre-television culture supported the idea of attending dances as fundamental entertainment, was growing older and were turning to television and perhaps listening to Ellington records on newly available console record players, instead of attending dances. 

By 1964, with the “British (rock and roll) Invasion” led by the Beatles in full swing, big band dances were becoming nostalgic re-creations of pre-war America.

As was previously mentioned, in January 1957 alone, Ellington appeared at 13 dances. By the Chicago recordings in 1964 the total of his appearances at dances in the first six months of the year was only five. Within the next year, booking dance gigs became increasingly rare.

So, the Doctor Jazz label recordings that Bob Thiele did with the Ellington band in 1957 and again in 1964 actually provided the bookends to the beginning of the end as well as the final curtain to the Ellington dance canon.

But Ellington was well fortified to survive these changes. Following the Newport triumph, Ellington was able to gradually shift away from dances and more into classy night clubs, upscale jazz clubs, places of worship (sacred concerts), concert halls, movie soundtracks, television, private parties, grand balls and commissions. No more school administration building gigs for Duke.

By 1965, the nightly grind of dances in small town after small town had virtually ended. The log for January 1965 reveals a very different daily routine than what had confronted the band even a year previously.

January 3 – Ellington receives the Musician of the Year award from the Philadelphia Academy of Music.

January 4 – The band plays a private party at the toney Delmonico's in NYC, described by Dorothy Kilgallen in her syndicated column as hosting “Celebrities by the score.”

January 5 – A taping session for The Bell Telephone Hour television program. For this appearance Ellington was compensated $11,000 ($109,000 in 2024 dollars).

January 11 – Inaugural Ball for Illinois Governor Otto Kerner

January 14 – Dance, Swallows Restaurant, Ashtabula, Ohio

January 25 – Orchestra flew out of JFK Airport bound for Paris for a one-month tour of Europe.

And so it went for Ellington for the next nine years of his life, as accolades poured in and honorary doctorate degrees were bestowed upon him. 

Change was always a constant. From the ragtime he heard as a child to hearing The Original Dixieland Jass Band's recording of “Livery Stable Blues” in February of 1917, when Ellington was 17 years old. Next, moving to NYC at age 26 for the Kentucky Club gig with his band, The Washingtonians, which led to his Cotton Club gigs. What eventually followed had an influence on the entire evolution of American music as he and his band traveled the world engaging people of all cultures and languages through his music and abundant curiosity of their way of life.

One must wonder if in his later years in a nostalgic mood, in his private thoughts, how he might have done a reassessment of the grind of the one-nighters. 

Sitting in Harry Carney's Imperial automobile, riding through the Midwestern Plains in the beauty of the early morning, manuscript paper often in hand for composing his next piece, bound for the next dance in some small town, might seem to us to possess a great deal of romanticism. But after all the years of struggle to keep his instrument, which was the band itself, alive, money and fame must have offered a special kind of allure for Ellington. I wonder if Ellington ever had cause to speculate, if a choice must be made between the endless “one-nighters” or the life he actually lived in the post 1964 period, which one might he choose? I’m not entirely sure that the choice would be as easy as one might think.”

A special thanks to all the researchers who contributed to the outstanding website, “The Duke - Where and When.” http://tdwaw.ca/



Friday, July 12, 2024

Jim Rotondi , Peter Bernstein, Chris Potter.. - John Force (from ”New Vi...

Jim Rotondi's dedicatory original to John Force, "the Michael Jordan of funny car drag racing."

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

We'll Be Together Again - Jim Rotondi

For all of us missing Jim, this one seems appropriate.

King Of The Hill - Jim Rotondi

Mike LeDonne - Saying Goodbye to Jim Rotondi [1962-2024]


“When an old friend or family member passes away I usually go through 3 stages of mourning, grief, anger and acceptance. First I feel the weight of losing someone's spirit and soul from this earth. There are tears but also wonderful memories that come bubbling to the surface. Most of all the feeling of loss from never being able to see or speak to them again.

Then comes the anger. That stage is more complex. It can be anger at the cosmos for taking a person away who was one of the few truly good people that you knew. Someone that was kind and thoughtful to the people they knew.  Someone whose music you admired and will never hear them play again.

By now I've had so many of the people I loved and admired both in and out of the music business leave the planet I'm very familiar with these stages of mourning but this time I thought I would ease my anger by writing about my dear friend Jim Rotondi the way he should have been written about during his lifetime.

First of all Jim Rotondi was a trumpet master of the highest order. He was without a doubt one of the greatest trumpet masters of this era. I remember working at Augies way back in the day and hearing some recording during the break that I knew had to be Freddie Hubbard but when I checked it was a very young Jim Rotondi. I'm no slouch when it comes to blindfold tests so it really knocked me out and I immediately had great respect for Jim. He kept himself on that high level his entire life. He had a sound that could be fire on fast tempos, get greasy on middle tempos and absolutely beautiful on ballads. He had one of the nicest flugelhorn sounds I've heard from anyone throughout the history of this music.

His writing was also on a par with his playing. He was a true melodist with a talent for thinking of just the right harmonies and rhythms to make those melodies sound both super hip and soulful.

He should have been at the top of all the polls and playing in every top venue in the world with a talent like that. Not that he wasn't doing well, but it's always a mystery when someone  who is truly the real deal with such a unique style and an incredible sound gets ignored by the people that could have put him where he truly belonged. Don't misunderstand because he was very happy with his life in Graz and he loved his life with his wife Julie in France so he was not what you'd consider a suffering artist by any stretch. I'm thinking more about his earlier years because he was already fully formed at 25. That's when things start to happen and when the chosen ones, for one reason or another, get the break that places their careers in that top 1% level. 

I know the term "it has nothing to do with music" is the most obvious answer but please allow me to say this, when someone like that leaves us suddenly and too soon the chance to give them the opportunities they truly deserved end. THAT is what angers me. Who are these people that are in charge and WHY DON'T THEY MAKE IT ABOUT THE MUSIC?? How long are we going to continue to shrug our shoulders at that idiotic phrase like it's somehow OK and we just have to accept the fact that ignorance steers the boat. Wouldn't it be nice if the people in charge really KNEW something about music instead of basing their embrace of new talent on a guessing game using IG metrics as their main tool?  And that's only the latest "jazz for dummies" tool that's been created for them. When a true great leaves us it's too late and "they" have blown it again!

OK - that's the anger part, then acceptance sets in and I know that Jim loved his life and all of that dumb music biz stuff had no affect on his playing nor his happiness. If anything I think he far surpassed any of the expectations he had about where he'd wind up in his life and that gives me comfort when saying goodbye to him for the last time. Success is not something like playing at the Village Vanguard as a leader, it's to love and be loved. From all the posts about Jim on FB he had made it to the top of the "highest mountain" which is what Clifford Jordan called friendship. Again my heart goes out to his wife Julie who Jim loved from the very first time they met.

RIP Tunj! I bet when you saw God after walking through the pearly gates you gave him a big smile and said AND HOWAYOU!”