Archive for the ‘Duke Ellington’ Tag

Barney Bigard Chose The Clarinet   Leave a comment

Regular visitors to the GMC might remember that I once played the clarinet myself, and that probably contributes to my fondness for spotlighting clarinetists from the past. (The real thing, not hapless amateurs like me.) One of the best was Barney Bigard, whose career began in the 1920s and stretched for a half-century — even though he didn’t begin it as a clarinetist.

Bigard was yet another musically-inclined New Orleans native, a member of a prominent Creole family who studied music with Lorenzo Tio Jr., the legendary clarinetist who barneybalso taught Sidney Bechet. But by the time he reached adulthood and began appearing professionally, Bigard was mostly playing tenor sax, and he was very good — good enough to move to Chicago in the 1920s and play alongside some of the best of the early jazz era, including Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton. But within a few years Bigard had landed a job that would be a turning point in his career — playing in Duke Ellington’s band.

For a fifteen year period that ended in 1942 when he tired of the rat race involved with a touring band, Bigard built his reputation with Ellington’s renowned orchestra. Laying aside his sax and mostly playing clarinet, he became a featured part of the band, not only as a soloist but also as a composer and arranger on some of the group’s biggest hits, including “Mood Indigo.”

After leaving Ellington, Bigard found plenty of work with other groups, but in the post-war years he found himself on the road again, this time touring the world with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, an outfit that would find a lot of success for a number of years. Bigard was on board for a lot of that time, although he did take a couple of breaks from the grind to work with others, but by the 1960s he was slowing down. In his later years he remained active, sometimes leading small groups or just working alongside other pros, but was closer to semi-retired. He was 74 when he died in 1980.

Barney Bigard – “Farewell Blues”barn


Fantastic Foursome – Happy New Year   Leave a comment

Along the lines of our recent Christmas post, I’m combining the New Year’s post with another one of our Special Features, in this case Fantastic Foursome. You might remember that it’s the one that offers up HappyNewYearfour different versions of the same song and then allows you to vote for your favorite.

This isn’t the first time that “Auld Lang Syne” has shown up on the GMC so I won’t go into a lot of detail about it, but if you want to know more about the history of the song you can always go back and look at this earlier piece.

On the other hand, this is certainly the first time we’ve posted four different versions of the song for you to hear. They range from the traditional to the modern and from slow to fast and jazzy. You can vote for your favorite below the video, which is a little bit of added nostalgia.

Duke EllingtonGuy LombardoThe PlattersRod Stewart


Cat Anderson Soared Above The Rest   Leave a comment

In the world of jazz, high-note trumpeters are much admired — not just for their skill, but for their audacity. It takes a lot of courage to specialize in a type of playing that is very appealing to most listeners but is reminiscent of fingernails on a blackboard to others. One of the best at staying on the right side of that equation was Cat Anderson, who was for many years a mainstay of the Duke Ellington band.

William Alonzo Anderson grew up in an orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina, but as tough as that might have been — and it was there that he picked up the nickname ‘Cat’ for his fighting style — it also gave him the opportunity to learn to play the trumpet. By the time he was in his teens he was already beginning to use that talent professionally.

By the mid-1930s Anderson was showing up in bands led by established stars like Claude Hopkins, Erskine Hawkins, and eventually Lionel Hampton, but the biggest break of his career came along a little later. It occurred during the war years, when he joined up with the Duke Ellington band for the first of what would be several stints. Ellington enjoyed writing songs that showcased Anderson, who was a master with a muted trumpet in addition to his high-note skills.

In the post-war years and later, Anderson would occasionally venture out and lead groups of his own, and some of the records he made during those periods are still available, but he returned to Ellington’s outfit again and again. However, by the time the Duke died in 1974 Anderson was into the later years of his own career, and his increasingly erratic behavior was later proven to have a legitimate cause — he died of a brain tumor in 1981.

Cat Anderson – “The Prowling Cat” 

Did Betty Roché Miss The Duke’s A-Train?   5 comments

Although the legendary Duke Ellington is remembered for a number of his own compositions, Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The A-Train” is considered by many to be the Duke’s signature song. But it’s a piece with an interesting history, one that includes a young singer who seems to have mis-timed the train’s biggest moments.

When Wilmington-born Mary Elizabeth Roché won an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in pre-war New York, she knew it would give her a chance at a musical career. What she didn’t know was that it would lead to her getting a job a couple of years later with Duke Ellington’s immensely popular and respected orchestra.

Betty arrived just in time to sing at the Duke’s successful Carnegie Hall concert, performing in part of his “Black, Brown and Beige” to great reviews, and was also onboard later when the band appeared in the movie, Reveille With Beverly.  It was her first chance to make a statement with “Take The A Train” (video below). The song had already become a standard as an instrumental and had previously been vocalized by others, including Joya Sherrill, who had written some of the original lyrics. (The song’s lyrics often differed from singer to singer, and even from performance to performance, and was a scat-singer’s delight.)

But the timing was off for Betty to make a record of the song, at least in part because of war-time restrictions. She later moved on to jobs with other bands, but she did team up again with the Duke in the early 1950s and recorded a very good version of the song. However, it had by then been covered by a number of bigger stars, including Ella Fitzgerald. Betty would also record an updated version a few years later (below) backed by a group that included vibes master Eddie Costa and trumpeter Conte Candoli, but by then the song was in every vocalist’s songbook.

Betty continued to record with moderate success into the 1960s but eventually retired from music. She didn’t die until 1999, but her epitaph might have been written years before when the Duke described her in his autobiography: “She had a soul inflection in a bop state of intrigue, and every word was understandable despite the sophisticated hip and jive connotations.”

Betty Roché – “Take The A-Train”

The Sweet Sound Of Johnny Hodges   4 comments

Although I don’t think of myself as a serious music critic, during the first few years of this blog I did review over two hundred new albums. During that period I learned that what I liked was not always in tune with the cutting-edge crowd, especially when it came to jazz. While many modern critics seem to search out the newest — and sometimes strangest — sounds around, I’ve always loved the melodic and purely gorgeous tones of guys like Johnny Hodges, the alto sax legend who helped make Duke Ellington’s orchestra one of the best around.

This isn’t Hodges’ first appearance here — he was mentioned in an earlier piece about Lawrence Welk, of all people — but his is a story that needs expanding. Always musically inclined while growing up in the Boston area, he began as a drummer and pianist but switched to sax while still in his teens. In his early years he worked with icons like Sidney Bechet, but his key career move was becoming part of Ellington’s band during its Cotton Club years.

Hodges soon became a solo star and would spend over two decades with Ellington, during which he’d make many memorable appearances. One of those was when selected members of the orchestra joined Benny Goodman for his famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. (Benny — no slouch as an instrumentalist himself — would say of Hodges, ‘by far the greatest man on alto sax that I ever heard.’)

In the 1950s Hodges spent a few years leading his own groups, but with mixed results. He eventually rejoined Ellington, where he was welcomed with open arms and was again a featured star. Although he would continue to occasionally work with other musicians, especially in the recording studio, he would be a vital part of the Duke’s group until his death in 1970.

Johnny Hodges – “I’ve Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good”