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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Concert review: The City Musick, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and all that jazz...

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

In his programme note for The Count and the Duke: A Renaissance Big Band, William Lyons said:

‘The mercurial presence of David Munrow flared for an almost inconceivably brief time from the mid 1960s until he took his own life in May 1976 at the age of just 33, an age at which most people have barely begun their life and career paths, but by which time Munrow had achieved an extraordinary breadth of musical achievements, creating a vital and far-reaching legacy… The two recordings that have inspired this programme are the Early Music Consort of London’s Praetorius – Dances and Motets (1973) and Two Renaissance Dance Bands (1975) featuring the dances in Michael Praetorius’ Terpsichore of 1612 and the 1551 publication Danserye by the Flemish trombonist Tielman Susato’. He goes on to say:

‘The dance tunes in this programme that were harmonised by Praetorius and Susato originated for the most part as single melodies played on a dancing master’s pocket fiddle or the one-man band of pipe and tabor.’

Here is The City of Musick’s programme, and bloody good it was too.

So, the Terpsichore and Danserye are harmonised arrangements by Praetorius and Susato of original instrumental, popular dances but the instrumentation is not specified. The Munrow recordings are realisations? of the said Praetorius and Susato arrangements, which are… And the Lyons presumably different instrumentalised responses to the Munro arrangements with his own rebranding or ‘modern twist’.

Obvious, really. Now to the Count and the Duke…

William James ‘Count’ Basie (1904 – 1984) was an American jazz pianist, composer leader of his Count Basie and his Orchestra.

‘If you play a tune and a person don’t tap their feet, don’t play the tune.’ Count Basie

Now one of Basie’s iconic albums is The Atomic Mr. Basie. However, it was American jazz trumpeter, composer, and arranger Neal Hefti* who actually wrote and arranged all the original release’s eleven tracks, including L’il Darlin’, Flight of the Foo Birds, Whirlybird and Splanky — all of which have become big band standards.

*Hefti wrote the music for the terrific The Odd Couple movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and for the Batman TV series. I just love Basie’s account of their first meeting:

‘Neal came by, and we had a talk, and he said he'd just like to put something in the book. Then he came back with Little Pony and then Sure Thing, Why Not? and Fawncy Meeting You, and we ran them down, and that's how we got married.’

April in Paris (1957) just must be one of Basie’s greatest albums. Not that I am much of an authority, obviously, just a huge admirer… The classic title track was composed by Vernon Duke (no relation) with lyrics by Yip Harburg (for the Broadway musical Walk a Little Faster in 1932) and arranged for the album by Wild Bill Davis. This recording includes trumpeter Thad Jones ‘brilliant Pop goes the Weasel solo and trombonist Benny Powell’s excellent ‘bridge’ passage. A bonus, as if we need one, is Basie directing the players to repeat the ‘shout chorus’ (a tutti where the whole band plays together): “one more time” and then “one more once.” Here’s the track: April in Paris.

The album features real quality performers - Joe Newman on trumpet, Frank Foster and Frank Wess on alto saxes, Freddie Green on guitar, Benny Powell on trombone and Sonny Payne on drums. As well as the popular title track there was Foster’s Shiny Stockings, Wess’ Magic, Green’s Corner Pocket, and Ernie Wilkins’ Sweetie Cakes. The mono sound is terrific.

Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington (1899 –1974) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and leader of his Duke Ellington Orchestra.

‘Jazz has always been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.’ Duke Ellington

Masterpieces (1950- 51) was one of the earliest 12-inch LPs to take advantage of the extended time available and consisted of four tracks, three of them concert arrangements of Ellington standards and one, The Tattooed Bride, a recent tone poem. I don’t know if this is the Duke’s greatest album, but it has to be there or thereabouts.

‘The album features full-length versions of Ellington's classics Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady and Solitude. No longer constrained by the limitations of 78s, these arrangements range from 8 to 15 minutes in length. The first two feature vocals by Eve Duke, recording under the name Yvonne Lanauze, and the third includes a climactic solo by trombonist Lawrence Brown. The newest composition, The Tattooed Bride, gives extended space to clarinettist Jimmy Hamilton in almost concerto-like fashion. The lengthy arrangements were created by both Ellington and his long-time collaborator Billy Strayhorn.’ (Wiki, probably.)

Let us look in more detail at the ‘composition’ of the classic Mood Indigo. Ellington said it was ‘the first tune I ever wrote specially for microphone transmission…the next day wads of mail came in raving about the new tune, so Irving Mills put a lyric to it.’ (In a 1987 interview Mitchell Parish claimed credit for writing the lyrics.) I just love the term wads of mail. However, the main theme or tune was originally called Mexican Blues and written by Lorenzo Tio, Barney Bigard’s clarinet teacher. So, this tune ‘written’ by Ellington for ‘microphone transmission’ was in fact an arrangement of Barney Bargard’s tune which was actually written by his clarinet teacher Lorenzo Tio to lyrics by Irving Mills which were claimed to have been written by Mitchell Parish. On the album, Mood Indigo, is credited to Ellington, Bigard and Mills.

Just as we noted the importance of Neal Hefti’s contribution to the early Basie albums we should acknowledge the creative input of Billy Strayhorn. He composed and arranged two other major tracks on the album, Rock Skippin’ at the Blue Note and Smada. The superb 1967 album The Far East Suite acknowledges that all the compositions are credited to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn except Ad Lib on Nippon (Ellington).

Inspired by a world tour which didn’t actually get to the ‘Far East’, this terrific album is a wall-to-wall treat. Standout tracks include Blue Pepper, Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah) and Isfahan.

Strayhorn’s Bluebird of Delhi (originally titled Mynah) is a tribute to a mynah bird that often visited his room while the band was in India. Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet evokes the sound and spirit of the bird, with Hamilton mimicking the ‘pretty lick’ (in Ellington’s words) that the bird used to sing. According to Duke, the bird never answered Billy’s banter until they were leaving, and ‘then it sounded off the low raspberry you hear at the end of the number.’

I have focussed on Strayhorn’s Bluebird of Delhi in the next, follow-up blog.

So, What’s it all about, Alfie? Well on the face of it we have dances, tracks and so forth labelled as Munro, Basie, Ellington, Praetorius and Susato. Yet as we have seen in these albums, the works or God help me, end products, are harmonisations, arrangements, responses, interpretations and regarding Basie and Ellington, often collaborations and acknowledged as such.

I’ll leave the last part of this blog-essay with the inspired, and inspiring, William Lyons:

‘On the basis of the above [programme note], why then bother revisiting this phenomenon of the Renaissance ‘big band’? For my part, this concert is more than just a straightforward recreation of those remarkable recordings by David Munrow. The historical performance world has become mainstream, and much of the music being taught and performed is motivated by the existential necessity to produce acceptable, marketable product that out of necessity conforms to a model of classical music reception. The instruments used in this programme are nowadays rarely taken up by students, and conservatoires operate within parameters that offer little scope to explore the sonorities, textures, and the wealth of pre-seventeenth century repertoires. The wind and reed instruments in this concert were common elements of an incredibly rich and abundant musical milieu in the early modern period and their latter-day consignment as exotica, suitable only for the amateur fringes of music-making, or for occasional effect in concert performance should be regarded as a great shame. Also, these instruments were integral elements of the fabric of early soundscapes, and the lack of acknowledgement of that means that so called historic recreations are no such thing, more anodyne mirrors of modern sensibilities than true attempts to explore sound worlds of the past.’

The review is published at

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