Premiered by Ellington part 2

The 2nd article about the little known Duke Ellington album Premiered by Ellington, and the following two, will focus on the music itself. Part 1, written by Ulf Lundin, is an introduction to the Capitol period in general. If you haven’t read it, it is available here:

Premiered by Ellington consist of 8 songs, none of them written by Ellington or his associates. Instead we get new arrangements of familiar pop songs that were all introduced to the public by Ellington. It’s quite an impressive collection of tunes that is still well known today.

The following is an attempt to analyse the tracks one by one and compare them to previously recorded versions by Ellington. I do not have access to the original scores, so all is done by ear. To make it easier to follow, I have made charts that shows the overall form of the arrangements. It’s not possible, of cause, to put an Ellington recording into a simple chart, but they serve the purpose of giving you, the reader and listener, a general overview of the recording.

The music has been embedded into the articles for easy access, but is also available as playlists on YouTube and Deezer. The album itself has never been reissued on CD in it’s original form, but is available on the streaming services. Be aware that this version has the songs in the same order as the french pressing of the LP. I have decided to follow the original US release in this article. Happy listening.

#1: My Old Flame is composed by Arthur Johnston with lyrics by Sam Coslow, and was first performed by Mae West in the film Belle of the Nineties from 1934. Apart from being the main actress, she also wrote the original story that the film was based on. According to Fred Glueckstein’s article in the DESS Bulletin, it was also West who insisted on having the Ellington orchestra accompany her, instead of a white studio orchestra with colored actors faking on the screen.

In February and March that year, the band was in Los Angeles to record the music. On the same occasion, they also recorded music for Murder at the Vanities, which I will return to later. In May they were in LA again for more film recordings. On that occasion, a recording for RCA-Victor was also made, this time sung by Ivie Anderson.

Comparing the versions from 1934 with the 1953 recording, the first thing you notice is how much Ellington has developed in those 19 years! It is by no means just a simple remake of the song, but rather a completely new and much more modern interpretation. The changes that jazz went through in those years are clearly audible, both in the orchestra’s playing style and in the arrangement itself. The same can be said about all the other songs on the record, although there are also many similarities as we will discover along the way.

My Old Flame is a standard 32 bar AABA song. The Mae West version has a very simple two bar piano introduction, and then she sings one chorus, with Barney Bigard on clarinet and Lawrence Brown ontrombone, either ad-libbing behind her or doubling the melody. As an ending, the orchestra plays the A section again, this time in 3/4 time and at a faster tempo.

Ivie Anderson‘s version of the song is much more subtle. The introduction is based on the ending from the Mae West version, but here adapted to work in 4/4 time. After that, Ellington plays a short piano transition, and then Ivie Anderson enters. This time the ad-libbing is done by Lawrence Brown alone. Notice also that the saxes doubles the melody, while at the same time providing an interesting countermelody now and then.

The first two A sections in the 2nd chorus (1:46) is a duet between Cootie Williams on trumpet and Johnny Hodges on alto sax. On the B section and the last A the saxes plays the melody in unison accompanied by the brass. Basically this version is just the AABA form played twice with an intro on top.

The 1953 version is not as straight ahead. Here is an overview of the first chorus. The arrangement is, according to Walter van de Leur’s book: Something To Live For, written by Billy Strayhorn.

My Old Flame 1953, 1st chorus

Intro (5 bars) (0:00)A1(0:16)A2 (0:42)B (1:09)A3 (1:35)
Duet between Hamilton and CarneySolo: Gonsalves Sustained chords background.
Key: Bb major
Saxes plays countermelody
Tutti, Hamilton ad-lib (4 bars)
Gonsalves returns (last 4)

The introduction, much more harmonically advanced than in the previous versions, is a duet between Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet and Harry Carney on baritone sax, accompanied by the orchestra. Then tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves enters with the melody, phrasing much more freely than the singers did. The band supports him with sustained chords. Such a background could easily get boring. What makes it work in this situation, is first of all Strayhorns unique harmonic language! These mysterious sounding chords that instantly grab your attention and make you want to listen more. But also listen how he varies the instrumentation, adds a few rests at unexpected moments and varies the rhythm slightly.

On A3, the full band plays a variation on the melody, suddenly changing the dynamic from soft to very loud. Hamilton is soloing again, and then Gonsalves plays the last 4 bars.

My Old Flame 1953, 2nd chorus

B (2:02)A (2:28)
Melody: Hamilton
Tutti accompaniment (4),
trombones (4)
Key: Bb
Tutti dbl. time feel
Key: Db modulating back to Bb

In the 2nd chorus, Strayhorn breaks the AABA form by going straight to the B section. This time, Hamilton is playing the melody accompanied by some very advanced harmonies! Then the trombone sections takes care of the accompaniment for the last 4 bars.

But Strayhorn has more tricks up his sleeve. After the unexpected B section, he modulates up a minor third from Bb major to Db for the last A section! This time the melody is stated by the trumpets accompanied by the orchestra. After 4 bars he goes into double time feel for the climax, and then brings it down with Hamilton and Gonsalves ad-libbing, ending in the key of Bb where it started.

It’s quite interesting that Strayhorn chose to change the texture and dynamic so radical at A3 in the first chorus. When combined with the removal of A1 and A2 in the 2nd chorus, A3 now sounds more like the first A in the 2nd chorus. In other words, it feels more like: “AAB, ABA” instead of the usual “AABA, BA” that is often used for ballads.

#2: Three Little Words is composed by Harry Ruby with lyrics by Bert Kalmar, and was premiered in the film Check and Double Check in 1930. In the movie, we see the Ellington orchestra performing with the three trumpet players doing the vocal part. According to the discography, it was actually played by a studio orchestra with The Rhythm Boys singing. Ellington did record the tune for the movie, but it ended up being used in the film The Lady Refuses (1931) instead. He also recorded the song on disc several times in 1930, but I will focus on the one from august 26 with The Rhythm Boys on vocal.

The song is also written in the standard 32 bar AABA form, but apart from My Old Flame, there are many similarities between the two versions of Three Little Words. A detail worth pointing out about the melody itself, is that the last phrase in each section is constructed in such a way, that it leads to the next section. This makes the AABA structure less clear, but instead gives the song a sense of constant momentum.

Three Little Words 1930, 1st chorus

Intro (4 bars) (0:00)A1 (0:07)A2 (0:18)B (0:29)A3 (0:41)
Solo pianoLow clarinets in harmonyMuted trumpetsSaxesSaxes

After the piano intro, the theme is stated in legit style by the three low clarinets playing in harmony. The melody is, very interesting, in the middle voice most of the time. On A2, muted trumpets takes over, and on B and A3 the saxes takes the lead.

Three Little Words 1953, 1st chorus

Intro (8 bars) (0:00)A1 (0:12)A2 (0:25)B (0:37)A3 (0:50)
Piano and bassMuted trombones
Countermelody: Saxes
Sim.SaxesSim. to previous A’s

The 1953 version also begins with a piano intro, but much more harmonically advanced. Then the muted trombones states the melody on the first two A’s, also in legit style, and with the two beat feeling preserved. The saxes adds an unison countermelody, and then takes over the melody on the B section with the bass in 4.

Three Little Words 1930, 2nd chorus

A1 (0:52)A2 (1:03)B (1:14)A3 (1:25)
Muted trumpets
Bigard answers
Sim.Sim.Saxes with baritone lead.
Brass plays bell-chords

On the 1930 version, the tune is stated again for the second chorus. Muted trumpets on AAB with fills by Barney Bigard on clarinet, and then the saxes takes over on the last A. Notice the baritone sax lead, and the bell-like chords in 3 beat groupings. The third chorus is sung by The Rhythm Boys with only the rhythm section and Bigard.

On the 1953 version, we get a beautiful trumpet solo by Willie Cook on the second chorus (1:03), accompanied by the rhythm section. The third chorus (1:53) is a tenor sax solo by Paul Gonsalves, heavily backed by a shouting brass section on the first two A’s. On B, Gonsalves is alone with the rhythm section, and then the brass returns on A3 for the ending.

The 1930 version has a fourth chorus (2:20), and it is a very interesting one. It’s the climax of the arrangement with the full band doing variations on the tune. Here, Ellington finally loosens up the rather rigid rhythmic interpretation of the song he has stuck to until now. Also notice how drummer Sonny Greer prepares this final chorus using only the hi-hat.

To sum it up: The first chorus of the 1953 version is quite faithful to the 1930 version. The very simple rhythmic interpretation of the melody played in parallel harmonies is preserved, along with the two beat feeling. The countermelody by the saxes add’s a modern touch to the arrangement. Apart from this, the two versions are very different. The 1930 version sticks to the melody all the way through, and only in the last chorus does Ellington vary the rhythmic interpretation of the song. In the 1953 version, the theme is only stated in the first chorus, and instead we get two choruses of improvised solos.

Author: Rasmus Henriksen