Duke Ellington & John Coltrane: A Collaboration Between the Generations

World-renowned jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington regularly partnered with other acclaimed jazz musicians during the early sixties. John Coltrane was no exception. In 1962, the pianist and the tenor saxophonist recorded the self-titled album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. The recording got released in 1963 and would become the most successful collaboration Duke Ellington undertook during the early sixties. It’s a display of two jazz musicians from a different generation who, despite having a divergent background and relationship with music, communicate politely.

The recording was an opportunity for Duke Ellington to play with a quartet rather than with his usual big band arrangement. Ellington invited drummer Sam Woodyard and double-bassist Aaron Bell, who were both members of his orchestra in 1962, to support this studio session. John Coltrane invited two members of his Classic Quartet, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison.

The album features acclaimed Ellington standards such as In A Sentimental Mood and some of his new compositions like Take the Coltrane (plays with his track Take the A Train). John Coltrane also added a new composition to the album’s track-list. His work titled Big Nick is a tribute to saxophonist George Walker “Big Nick” Nicholas who influenced Coltrane during his time with Dizzy Gillespie. “In thinking back,” Coltrane said, “it seemed to have something that would suit the style he likes to play in. But maybe not?”

“I was really honored to have the opportunity of working with Duke. It was a wonderful experience. He has set standards I haven’t caught up with yet.”

John Coltrane

In the early sixties, John Coltrane’s career and technical abilities peaked. For several years, he would release various historical jazz albums including Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1960) and My Favorite Things (Atlantic 1961). Coltrane was a perfectionist, carefully exploring harmonic progressions and multiple rhythms. He was confident in both playing and arranging. Still, while playing with Duke Ellington, he felt honored, imperfect, and challenged. Duke Ellington is a legend from an older generation, and his contributions to jazz were paramount. Pianist Benny Green once said that “Duke was put into the jazz world to separate the men from the boys.”

John Coltrane (left) & Duke Ellington (right)

John Coltrane’s Soultrane

The second half of the nineteen-fifties defined John Coltrane’s career and helped him come into prominence as a musician and arranger. Underlined is the time as a member in Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet and later sextet, and the period working aside Thelonious Monk. Many recordings featuring Trane‘s support on the tenor saxophone got listed as the most acclaimed and influential jazz albums in history.

Coltrane’s legacy before moving to Atlantic Records in 1959 got well documented by Prestige. The record company released a couple of acclaimed studio albums, including Coltrane’s first album as a leader titled Coltrane (Prestige, 1957), and his recording with pianist Red Garland named Soultrane (Prestige, 1958). In 1957, Coltrane also recorded the album Blue Train with the record label Blue Note while he was still under contract with Prestige.

The album Soultrane got described as a demonstration of Coltrane’s late nineteen-fifties “sheet of sound” (Ira Gitler, DownBeat Magazine). The term is dedicated to John Coltrane and represents the unique improvisational style he developed while working with Thelonious Monk. He loosened up the demanding chords and harmonies of hard bop while maintaining loyalty to its traditional values. Coltrane was given the freedom to improvise when playing along with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

Thelonious Monk, Nellie Monk, and John Coltrane (image courtesy of T.S. Monk)

Soultrane” originally refers to a ballad written by pianist Tadd Dameron. The song appears on the studio recording Mating Call (Prestige, 1957), an album featuring Dameron on the piano and Coltrane on the tenor saxophone. However, the song was not added to the track-list of Soultrane. Prestige Records titled the album merely because it plays with the name and could represent a collective work.

The album got recorded together with Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Art Taylor (drums). The songs featuring on the album are Good Bait (Tadd Dameron, Count Basie), I Want to Talk About You (Billy Eckstine), You Say You Care (Leo Robin, Jule Styne), Theme for Ernie (Fred Lacey), and Russian Lullaby (Irving Berlin).

Previous articles about John Coltrane’s albums:

Buddy Bolden, The First Jazz Musician

Who played a key role in the birth of New Orleans jazz, and is considered the first jazz musician, is Buddy Bolden (born Charles Joseph Bolden). Buddy Bolden was an American cornetist who learned to play music at school and in church. Unique is that, unlike many other musicians, Bolden didn’t start his career by joining a brass band what was usual for musicians in New Orleans. Instead, he joined a string ensemble and earned money by playing at dancehalls.

Buddy Bolden (second row, third from the left)

Buddy Bolden

At the turn of the twentieth century, his band got noticed thanks to Bolden’s use of syncopation, his ability to improvise, and his use of blues structures. I like to think that Bolden’s focus on blues was the biggest contribution to jazz until Louis Armstrong changed the course of the genre. Bolden was an example for many other musicians and one by one all of them start experimenting with syncopation and improvisation. The growing pool of musicians doing this is described as the birth of jazz in New Orleans. Using syncopation in melodies from different music genres caused styles to blur and blend. The music would get more similarities in rhythm and structure what was another important milestone in the creation of jazz.

Buddy Bolden was known for playing loud. He played so loud that he was not allowed to practice inside the house so instead, he practiced on his porch. Neighborhood children would gather around them to listen and start calling him “The King“. Hence the nickname Buddy ‘King’ Bolden. He would often play at a concert hall in New Orleans called Odd Fellows and Masonic Dance Hall (or Eagle Saloon). Before the concert, Bolden would stick out his cornet and do what he called “calling his children home”. He played so loud and, his reach was so far that people from the surrounding streets gather at the building to listen. This became his trademark and, the habit got also described in the lyrics of Buddy Bolden’s Blues (also called Funky Butt):

“Thought I heard, buddy bolden shout, Open up that window, and let that bad air out, Open up that window, and let that stinky air out. Thought I heard buddy bolden say”

Lyrics to Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Buddy Bolden’s career was short. He had a drinking problem and struggled with his mental health. He was arrested multiple times and was placed in an asylum after he was declared mentally insane. Unfortunately, there are no recordings in existence. There are some rumors that Bolden made some phonograph cylinder recordings. So far, none surfaced. Thirty years after his death, his music appeared in print and, musicians started to record his work. However, the sound of jazz evolved and, the question is if these later recordings correctly represent how Buddy Bolden’s music originally sounded.

If Buddy Bolden was the inventor or creator of jazz music is up for discussion but, we can conclude that he was an important and decisive figure in the transformation.

Hugh Laurie – Buddy Bolden Blues

More on New Orleans jazz:

Little Mummy – A Rarity on Federal Records

Little Mummy, whose real identity is unknown, was a rhythm-an-blues singer who recorded only two songs with Federal Records in New Orleans. The songs were officially released decades after being recorded and, both tracks are true rhythm-and-blues dance floor fillers.

The titles “Where You At Jack” and “Oh Baby Please” were distributed by Federal Records as a 45rpm dee jay promo in 1960. Before recording a full album, record companies would first record a single. The single was sent to radio stations and, depending on the success, artists were offered a contract. For many of them, the success was too low to record and release a full album (songs may have been released on later compilation albums). This probably was the case for Little Mummy.

Federal Records has got a long list of artists and 45rpm recordings that never gained any success. What caused their vaults to be filled with various rhythm-and blues rarities from the fifties and sixties. Songs like “Where You At Jack” and “Oh Baby Please” never gained the attention of the wider public but are now a treasure for dee jays and music collectors.

The competition in 1960 was top-level. So was there James Brown and His Famous Flames who recorded and released several singles on Federal Records, including the hit “Think!” which turned into a full-length album that same year. Their popularity most likely outshined Little Mummy.

Here you can explore the vaults of Federal Records yourself:

Robert Glasper Shows Off His Jazz Chops With “Canvas”

Robert Glasper showed off his jazz chops long before he released the Grammy-winning album Black Radio in 2012. His Blue Note debut album titled Canvas was released in 2005 and features the pianist in a jazz scenery influenced by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Bill Evans.

It’s no surprise that Blue Note Records signed the young pianist. His earlier album Mood, released under the Robert Glasper Trio on the Spanish label Fresh Sound New Talent, was the studio debut that placed the young pianist on the radar of the major record labels.

Canvas is a convincing display of Glasper’s remarkable piano technique. The New York Times wrote that Glasper’s trio, with Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums, is a “strong enough entity to make any performance seem ambitious and vital.”

Robert Glasper’s affinity with hip-hop called for a natural transition. The pianist bridged and influenced multiple music genres. In 2012, he released the album titled Black Radio. The album was a crossover and achieved success in different music genres. In 2013 it won a Grammy for best R&B album and, it got simultaneously listed in the top 10 charts for hip hop, R&B, and jazz.

Robert Glasper at Blue Note Jazz Club