Duke Ellington: Jack the Bear


Jack the Bear


Duke Ellington and His Orchestra


The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA Bluebird 5659)

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Duke Ellington (piano), Rex Stewart (cornet), Cootie Williams (trumpet), Wallace Jones (trumpet), Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (trombone), Juan Tizol (trombone), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Otto Hardwick (reeds), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Harry Carney (reeds), Johnny Hodges (reeds), Jimmy Blanton (bass), Sonny Greer (drums).

Composed by Duke Ellington


Recorded: Chicago, March 6, 1940


Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Ask most people about great bass records from the early 1940s, and they will probably tell you about Joe DiMaggio getting safely on base with his 56-game hitting streak. But jazz fans will point to a different bass record, released a few months before the Yankee Clipper started his prodigious run. From the opening notes of "Jack the Bear," you can hear that Ellington has found the greatest jazz bassist in the world.

This song was named after a Harlem bass player, known to Ellington, who also ran a tailor shop at the corner of St. Nicholas and Edgecombe. But another J. the B. is the real hero celebrated in these grooves. Jimmy Blanton was only 22 years old, but he had a swing as memorable as DiMaggio's, a huge sound, and a facility that the jazz world had never heard previously from the bulky contrabass. Everything changed with Blanton's arrival on the scene, and one could hardly imagine the later work of Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Ray Brown and so many others without the precedent of Blanton and his brilliant bass work.

The whole Ellington band reached a new level of excellence with the arrival of Blanton and tenorist Ben Webster, and even Duke gets into high gear. "Jack the Bear," with its peculiar juxtaposition of blues choruses and a 32-bar song form, is one of Duke's most ingenious compositions. Blanton, for his part, would be dead from tuberculosis two years later.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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  • 1 luke // Apr 09, 2008 at 09:24 PM
    wasnt jack the bear a harlem stride pianist?