BRAGGIN' IN BRASS

by

David Berger

The relationship between the composer/arranger/orchestrator and the performer is very special. Each needs the other to sound good. The greatest example we have of this is Duke Ellington's relationship with the members of his band. One of the most popular clichÆs about Ellington is "His band is his instrument." Simplistic on the surface, but very true.

It has been said that every great composer has been in love with the music of one of his predecessors. Not the case with Ellington; his love was for the players who worked for him. He prided himself on his ability to create settings that brought the best out of each of these highly individualistic musicians. Each player brought the spark of creativity with him when he joined the band, but it was Ellington who recognized the depth of their potential contribution and taught each musician through having them play his music. Clark Terry, who in Ellington's words was "one of the greatest soloists to play in the band," has said that Ellington taught you who you are.

In most bands and orchestras, individuality is suppressed for the purpose of creating an homogenous sound. In the Ellington band, individuality was encouraged in order to create a wider palette. The proper combination of these disparate sounds was left up to the Maestro. Consider the trombone section from 1932-1944: Lawrence Brown, "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Juan Tizol.

Brown was smooth as silk (listen to Transblucency -- 1946), blistering (Mainstem --1942) and incredibly swinging (Rose of Rio Grande -- 1938). He modeled his sound after Louis Armstrong, he was the most technically proficient trombonist of his day, he could sight read anything, he played lead trombone with the same urgency he brought to his solos, he had a phenomenal ear and was frequently called on for requests as he knew every tune and could play them in any key.

Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton combined raw energy, joie de vivre and a love of different colors. Nearly all of Nanton's solo work is played with a plunger and a Nonpareil trumpet straight mute. With this set-up he was able to create sounds that are almost indistinguishable from the human voice. He played simple diatonic and blues melodies entirely in the octave above middle "c." A great example is Harlem Speaks --1932. Two trombonists could not be more opposite than Brown and Nanton. Enter Juan Tizol.

Tizol was from Puerto Rico and brought with him the Latin American and concert band influences. He was not an improviser, but his playing had an unmistakable identity. He played a "c" valve trombone with a unique vibrato and legato phrasing well suited to cantabile melodies. Several great solos are Conga Brava -- 1940 and Flaming Sword -- 1940.

Lawrence Brown played most of the lead, but both Tizol and Nanton also take over the lead at specific moments. Cottontail -- 1940 starts with Brown on lead, switches to Tizol for the brass soli and again switches to Nanton for the shout chorus.

In the 50 year career of the band numerous personnel changes and temporary substitutions occurred. The most significant were as follows. Brown's role was taken over by Britt Woodman from 1951 to 1961. In the 60's Brown returned. Vince Prudente took over in the 70's. Nanton's role was relinquished to Wilbur DeParis, Tyree Glenn (vibes double), Quentin "Butter" Jackson, Booty Wood and Art Baron (recorder double). When Tizol left in 1944, he was replaced by slide trombonist Claude Jones. Tizol later rejoined from 1951-54, when he was replaced by slide trombonist John Sanders. Tizol had a "c" valve trombone made for him, and Sanders taught himself to play this unusual instrument. When Sanders left, Chuck Conners took over the role on bass trombone.

Each of these successors had their own personalities which Ellington exploited to the fullest. Their basic role in the band had been defined by their predecessors, but the interpretation was left up to them. When Britt Woodman joined, he knew all of Lawrence Brown's solos and proceeded to play them. After a night or two, Ellington summoned the new trombonist to his dressing room and explained to him that he was hired because he was Britt Woodman. Ellington looked forward to the challenge of incorporating Woodman's personality into the band's music.

The roles in the trumpet section are much more complicated. Precise and polite Arthur Whetsol was the trumpet player in the original Washintonians in the late teens through the early twenties. He dropped out to go to medical school and returned as lead trumpet from 1928-1937. He was not an improviser, but his paraphrase of Mood Indigo -- 1930 shows off his personality. Bubber Miley was the star of the band throughout the '20's. He was responsible for anything that was hot or blues oriented. He originated the plunger tradition in the Ellington band and taught it to Tricky Sam. His solos on The Mooche-- 1928, Hot And Bothered -- 1928 and East St. Louis Toodle-oo -- 1927 are some of the cornerstones of jazz. Third trumpet was played by Freddie "Posie" Jenkins from 1928 to 1935. His specialties were high notes, technical virtuosity and excitement always in a suave manner. His solos on High Life -- 1929 and Cotton Club Stomp -- 1929 are most representative. He left the band for health reasons, but returned briefly in 1937 where he can be heard in the four man trumpet section on Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue and I've Got To Be A Rug Cutter. On Rug Cutter rather than playing trumpet, he is heard to humorous effect stomping his feet in the intro and coda.

Whetsol was replaced by Wallace Jones, Shelton Hemphill, Cat Anderson, Andrew "Fats" Ford (aka: Andres Meringuito) and Money Johnson. Although Cat Anderson is best remembered for his extreme high notes, he was probably the most versatile of the Ellington trumpet players. Aside from his strong and accurate lead playing, he contributed many solos in different styles both open and in plunger (Charpoy and All Day Long -- 1967 and The Eighth Veil -- 1962).

Second trumpet was inherited from Miley by Cootie Williams (1929-1940, 1962-1974). When he joined, Williams was a Louis Armstrong style trumpet player and singer. He figured that since Ellington hired him to replace Miley, he should also play plunger. Tricky Sam taught him the techniques and sounds and Williams developed into one of the most individual stylists in all of jazz. His two concertos: Echoes of Harlem -- 1936 and Concerto For Cootie -- 1940 are probably his greatest records, but pieces like Harlem Airshaft -- 1940 and Braggin' In Brass -- 1938 also show his fierce sense of swing.

When Williams left to join Benny Goodman in 1940, he was replaced by Ray Nance. Nance's nickname was "Floorshow"; not only did he play trumpet and violin, but he sang, danced and juggled his trumpet throwing it six feet in the air and catching it just in time for his next entrance. Nance's solo on Take The "A" Train -- 1941 was so integral to the composition that he repeated it nightly verbatim. When he left in 1965, Cootie Williams continued playing his successor's solo.

In 1942 Harold "Shorty" Baker joined the trumpet section making four. He became the second trumpet, moving Nance to fourth. These seatings are fairly general, as Ellington frequently reassigned certain passages or entire charts so as to take advantage of the individual sounds. Baker's gentle, nonchalant sound can best be heard on All Heart -- 1957. In and out of the band throughout the '40's and '50's, the second book was taken over in 1951 by Willie Cook. With Baker and Cook in the section together, Baker played fourth, moving Nance to fifth. Cook was a fine lead player (taking over that role on many occasions) and soloist in a swing style that embraces bebop. Listen to Blues Ala Willie Cook -- 1957.

Third trumpet, Freddie Jenkins' chair was taken over by Rex Stewart (1935-45). Known for his jocular half-valve technique and high note screaming, Stewart was immortalized in Boy Meets Horn -- 1938. Stewart was replaced by Taft Jordan. In 1951 Clark Terry took over this highly individualistic chair and added the mixture of bebop, plunger and flugelhorn. Not to be missed are Perdido -- 1959 and Up And Down, Up And Down -- 1957.

The Ellington band has been compared to Shakespeare's stock company; the same cast performing new productions. The new roles are created for the same actors/musicians. When these fine individuals leave the company and are replaced, the new man is chosen for his ability to express his personality through the roles of his predecessor not for his ability to imitate. In the words of the Maestro, "It doesn't have to be identical to be good; it only has to be good."

About David Berger

David Berger is a composer, arranger and conductor who has transcribed some 500 jazz scores including more than 300 by Duke Ellington. Mr. Berger first played trumpet with some of the best big bands, but he has worked most often as a composer and arranger with Chuck Israels, Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich, Quincy Jones, Lee Konitz and Mercer Ellington.

Mr. Berger was conductor of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra since its inception in 1988 until 1994. This international orchestra of jazz greats, many of whom worked with Ellington, was assembled to showcase Ellington's work in the most authentic and genuine performance practice available.

Active in New York since the early Seventies, Mr. Berger has scored for numerous TV shows, commercials, industrial films, Broadway shows, motion pictures dance companies and recordings.

In addition to his many trascriptions of classic jazz recordings (available from Classic Editions c/o King Brand Products), Mr. Berger has dozens of compositions and arrangements available from Jenson/Hal Leonard and Advance Music. Charles Colin publishes Mr. Berger's Contemporary Jazz Play-Along series of books and cassette tapes. Mr. Berger is on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and also performs as guest conductor, lecturer and clinician with musicians of all ages.

Duke Ellington discography available upon request.

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