Duke Ellington: C Jam Blues

Duke Ellington wrote “C Jam Blues” as a simple way to showcase his musicians. Its first appearance was in a “soundie”, a short film made for a video jukebox. In it, Duke walks into a café, sits down and starts playing. Gradually, more and more Ellingtonians show up (naturally with their horns in hand) and join in on the jam session. By 1959, when the present version was made for the LP Blues In Orbit, the tune had been in Ellington’s band book for 18 years. Yet, this version still manages to include a few surprises. Duke starts off the proceedings as usual, followed by the band playing the head in unison. Ray Nance steps up to the microphone with his violin, and something must have surprised the band members, because you can hear them laughing in the background. Nance makes effective use of double-stops both at the beginning and the end of his solo. When the break comes up (traditionally used to introduce the next soloist), Nance keeps playing! He takes up a figure from Ravel’s “Bolero” and Hodges joins in. Oddly, neither Nance nor Hodges plays the next solo. Instead, Britt Woodman plays on open trombone, and he is followed by Paul Gonsalves on tenor (Woodman’s and Gonsalves’ solo turns were cut for all releases except the expanded CD reissue above). Booty Wood was a specialist on plunger-muted trombone and his jocular solo is backed up by the saxes playing a fairly standard background riff. But what is Jimmy Hamilton playing back there? Just a set of octaves with the top note trilled, but those octaves are on D, which is the ninth of the chord, and they certainly sound strange in this setting! Hamilton drops the octaves in Wood’s second chorus, and then the clarinetist takes the final solo, soaring over the band in the final bars.

September 01, 2009 · 0 comments


Oscar Peterson: C Jam Blues

In a sense, Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” is the jazz equivalent of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Both pieces are based on a pair of pitches, but the miracle is how much music is created from those two pitches. Oscar Peterson’s version of “C Jam Blues” is from his LP Night Train, and like the title track of that album, Peterson makes an arrangement for his trio rather than just blowing through a few choruses of blues and going on the next tune. The arrangement is rather modest, since Peterson solos through the entire track save for an 8-bar intro by Ray Brown. Peterson incorporates Ellington’s original 4-bar breaks at the start of his first four choruses (which is actually two more than we really needed—the effect gets a little tiresome). After a couple of choruses of straight playing, he incorporates a shout chorus figure which is quickly picked up by Thigpen. Peterson takes two more solo choruses then goes back to the tune, played first in block chords and then in single notes.

September 01, 2009 · 0 comments


Charles Mingus: C Jam Blues

Jazz composers usually bring their most polished and ambitious scores when they are invited to play at Carnegie Hall. Not Charles Mingus. He organized the loosest, most free-wheeling jam on the simplest changes for his January 1974 concert, and I'm confident no one demanded their money back after the show.

When the back room cutting contests are translated to the concert hall, they usually come across as hollow and staged, lacking the spontaneity that is essential to these kinds of performances. But not on this track, which ranks among the finest recorded jam sessions in the jazz annals. Handy starts out hot, and sets the bar high for the following soloists with a 15-chorus excursion over blues changes. Hamiet Bluiett takes a few steps outside the changes, but George Adams makes the plunge with an ear-scorcher of a solo that is a panzer attack on the authority of the tonal center. You may think that there is nowhere else to go at this point, but then Rahsaan Roland Kirk steals the show by dipping into Adams' own bag and playing it better than Adams himself. And that is just the appetizer for a whirlwind solo of heroic proportions. . .

If you had any doubt that this was a real cutting contest, the blood on the reeds should dispel any doubts. Rahsaan was notorious for these kinds of in-your-face attacks. Two years before this concert, he had pulled off a similar stunt at a Radio City Music Hall event amidst a high profile cast that included Dexter Gordon and Zoot Sims. "Rahsaan could be competitive," Steve Turre has commented. "Don't mess with him at a jam session because he didn't play just one way. He could shift gears on you and take it in another direction. He could destroy people at a jam sessions if they tried to get competitive."

Faddis and McPherson try to pick up the pieces and bring some decorum back to the blues. But by the time you get to the end of this 24 minute track, all hell has broken loose. C Jam Blues is done broke and don't wanna to go back to the key of C no more. Yet I'm sure the composer, who always brought his big scores to this hall, would have been on his feet screaming and clapping along with everyone else.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: Duke's Place (aka C Jam Blues)

If you ever get the Blues in Paris, a visit to Duke's Place ("love that piano sound") will drop you off in Harlem, with azaleas and cottontails ya just can't forget, and the Satch master of trumpet to scat and snap and blow you smack out of those dull drums. Beginning to see the light? Feeling like a lucky so-and-so again?

Well, you owe it all to the Ellington-Armstrong lovefest that's come to be known as The Great Summit: those two perfect jazzmen together in a New York studio for several hours over two days in April 1961, crafting 17 classic performances amid a group of Armstrong All-Stars, the late-career recordings clearly not the elders' all-time best but timeless nonetheless. Especially notable are Louis's vocal adlibs on "Drop Me Off in Harlem" and his take-charge trumpet work on "The Mooche" (and the alternate version of "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So" found on a surprisingly listenable second CD of outtakes and false starts); the Ducal pianistics on "Cotton Tail" and, indeed, supporting Armstrong everywhere; mellow-toned musicianship and meaningful swing from Trummy Young and the others; above all – the very antithesis of any mooche's mood indigo – Satch ushering you over the riffs into that C-jammed scene Chez Ellington, where saxes do their tricks, fellas dig their chicks, and everyone gets their kicks. As Duke ticks the keys to his note-limited, swing-limitless tune, the band climbs aboard the society-wide bus, and Louis... ah, Louis... the inimitable Satch takes you to a world where jazz conquers all. (If only we lived there.)

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Gerry Mulligan with Marian McPartland: C Jam Blues

At this stage of his career, Gerry Mulligan was best known for leading a quartet without a piano. Yet here he is at the legendary 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, sitting in with a trio led by the future hostess of NPR's long-running Piano Jazz. As part of a day-long Ellington tribute, Mulligan and Marian McPartland jam on "C Jam Blues," a jam session staple since jamming originated, which was shortly after the note C was discovered. (It had been left unattended in a cave next to the Dead Sea Scrolls by a wandering harpist who, having tired of C, moved on to what she hoped would be the greener pastures of D. Little did she suspect what heathen dangers lurked therein!)

Unlike some bandleaders, who prefer the comfort zone of their own steady group, Mulligan relished playing with other musicians, and obviously delights in the present company. This happy-go-lucky 10-minute track also affords plenty of solo space for McPartland and bass giant Milt Hinton. (Drummer Ed Shaughnessy contents himself with swinging his butt off and occasionally rattling sleigh bells in quirky punctuation. Can you imagine the dedication required to schlep sleigh bells from New York City to Rhode Island in mid-summer?) If you're looking for an exemplar of the distinctively mid-'50s style that encompassed both traditional and modernist strains, go directly to M&M's "C Jam Blues." Melts in your ears, not in your hands.

May 25, 2008 · 0 comments


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