Click here to listen to The Mooche
For people who like music from the 1920s, there are often a handful of artists who first drew them into the era. For me, one of them was Duke Ellington — or, specifically, ersatz Ellington, via the notorious Cotton Club movie, the Francis Ford Coppola jazz-and-hoodlums saga set at the 1920s nightclub where Ellington held residency..
I remember catching The Cotton Club on a cold night early in 1985 with my roommate Sean at the Varsity Theatre near the University of British Columbia. I can’t remember the story making much of an impression on me, but it looked drop-dead cool and the music was love at first listen. I recall loitering by the exit as the credits rolled, looking back at the screen and listening as Mood Indigo played on the soundtrack. It was probably the first time I’d heard the song, and it gave me scalp prickles (still does!)
Click here to listen to Mood Indigo
It wasn’t real Ellington, but like most of the Duke-intensive movie score, it was a creditable imitation, with terrific performances and respectfully authentic-sounding arrangements by Bob Wilber, Sy Johnson, David Berger and Randy Sandke.
The Cotton Club today is remembered mostly as a symbol of 1980s Hollywood excess, behind-the-scenes drugs, sleaze and shady financing. But for me, what still stands out about the film is that unlike 99 per cent of all other movies set in the Jazz Age then and now, it actually took the trouble to get the music right. It sounded like the 1920s: no electric basses, overmiked drums or Tonight-Show-style arrangements.
Later, my girlfriend Sue gave me a tape of the soundtrack — I still have it — and later still I started picking up Ellington 78s. This week I’m posting a couple of them, the stirring and evocative The Mooche (wisely used as the opening track of the Cotton Club movie), and Mood Indigo. This music speaks for itself; I will only add that, as fond as I am of that movie soundtrack with its make-believe Ellington, nothing beats the real thing.
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
New York, Oct. 1, 1928
Duke Ellington – p – a / dir. Bubber Miley – Arthur Whetsel – t / Joe Nanton – tb / Juan Tizol – vtb / Johnny Hodges – cl – ss – as / Harry Carney – cl -as -bar / Barney Bigard – cl – ts / Fred Guy – bj / Lonnie Johnson – g / Wellman Braud – sb / Sonny Greer – d / Baby Cox – v
Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra
New York, Oct. 17, 1930
Duke Ellington – p – a / dir. Arthur Whetsel – Freddy Jenkins – Cootie Williams – t / Joe Nanton – tb / Juan Tizol – vtb / Johnny Hodges – cl – ss – as / Harry Carney – cl -as -bar / Barney Bigard – cl – ts / Fred Guy – bj / Wellman Braud – sb / Sonny Greer – d /