I consider myself a musician first, and human being second. I don’t even remember when I first heard of Duke Ellington, but know it had to be before the fifth grade, when I picked up the clarinet.
To this day, I, and probably most others, associate Duke Ellington with swing and big bands. When I hear “Duke,” I think of that huge, glorious, Ellington orchestra, those Strayhorn compositions, that thousand-plus songbook (post for another day: is Lil’ Wayne the new Duke?). Most of all, I imagine a dapper middle-aged man, dandy enough to be nicknamed “Duke” in his youth, grinning at the piano, who might not be too averse to a “play it again, Sam!”
That said, my favorite Ellington album is, far and away, Money Jungle. It is amaaaaaaaaazing! I found it at Amoeba/Haight, and couldn’t resist Ellington AND Mingus! (No offense, Roach.)
It’s short — feels like less than 45 minutes? — and yet is a flipbook of emotion, switching from raucous to silent to joyful to pensive to threatening to romantic, and often, somehow, exhibiting all of these moods at once.
I grew up with “Caravan,” as its straightforward chord changes, simple melody, and instant recognizability made it a staple of my middle school jazz bands’ repertoires.* I’ve heard it enthusiastically bungled in big bands and combos (although I swear I thought we sounded pretty good at the time), rapped by The Roots, smoothed and squealed by Coltrane, chanted by Mingus Amungus, sexed up by vocalists left and right, even laugh-serioused by Dave Matthews. I’ve even heard many, many Ellington big band recordings. However, the version on Money Jungle stands apart, stanza by stanza, highlighting the combo’s flexibility and virtuosity.
It begins ANGRY – angry angry angry – that famous first chord just slammed, the notes you play when your mom’s forcing you to practice that day. All the while, Mingus teases, taunts, at his highest registers, his strings barely perceptible, mirroring Duke all the while. The second round comes in lighter, Ellington mocking you to your face, and then we get some drums joining in on the joke, Roach playing the straight man to Ellington’s thinly-veiled fury – that calm hysteria before shit hits the fan. It progresses into Gershwin-esque dancing and arpeggios, punctuated by piano masquerading as horns, before transcending the familiar melody, Duke singsonging his way up the keys. They go into one last round of the melody, and actually end ambiguously. AMBIGUOUSLY! I’m just amazed that one could take a tune so familiar and turn it into something…open-ended. It’s almost as if they decided, “hey, let’s give this 300 seconds, and just get up when our time elapses.”
“…and, like that…he’s gone.”**
On this note, I’d like to pause and honor Don Ramsey, longtime Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School teacher. I have no idea where he is now, as he retired eight? years ago, but I want to publicly thank him for everything he ever did for me and every other crazy aspiring musician. He always had faith in me and supported me, musically and emotionally, and was an amazing teacher and mentor. Thanks, Mr. Ramsey!
*For the record, Juan Tizol, not Duke Ellington, composed “Caravan”
**last spoken line of The Usual Suspects — the end of this track evokes the feeling you have when you finish this movie for the first time