The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is about to undertake a five-city tour devoted to the music of the peerless Duke Ellington. I doubt there has been this much Ellington activity in Scotland since the great man was here himself for the very first time. He made five visits to my home town of Glasgow; one in each decade from the 1930s until his death in 1974, and all but the 1940s one with his legendary band.
I’ve researched all his visits to Glasgow, but the one that most thrills and intrigues me the most is that first one, which lasted six days in July 1933. Why? Well partly, of course, because of the music that was played – I can tell you that Ring Dem Bells was Scotland’s introduction to the wonders of Ellington – but also because the band was here for a residency, and I’m tickled by the idea that some of the original Ellingtonians (including Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Sonny Greer etc) , all of them young men at the time, walked the same streets I walk, and possibly stayed in the hotel which my great-grandfather managed.
Best of all, I love the fact that – according to a series of adverts that appeared during his stay – Duke Ellington actually came to Scotland for non-musical reasons. In an advertising campaign for McKeans shops, a photograph of Ellington is printed above the legend: “I came to Scotland to taste McKean’s Haggis … I have, it was worth the trip!”
The Ellington Orchestra came to Glasgow’s Empire Theatre fresh from a sensational final night in Liverpool which was attended by none other than the Prince of Wales whose cries for an encore did not go unnoticed by the band – or the press. The Glasgow papers were not sure, beforehand, what exactly to expect – but they did recognise that this was a major event, the first appearance by a major jazz orchestra playing work by a major composer. So much so that The Glasgow Herald, a broadsheet which didn’t usually deign to review Empire shows, sent a critic along, and there was coverage in the local papers throughout the week.
At the Empire on Monday, July 3, the band went down a storm at the packed houses for their two, hour-long, shows. According to the Bulletin reviewer, “thrilling” was the only word to describe them. “Those strident, scarlet-toned trumpets and trombones, those thrumming banjos [sic], those reedy, imperative saxophones, working together in a stream of wild, insistent, rhythmic harmony, set the blood tingling.” It must have been utterly exhilarating to hear this young band, with its dynamic and charismatic leader, playing music familiar only from records..
The Daily Record review pointed out that “one of the trumpeters was taken straight to Glasgow’s large heart right from the first sight of his cheery non-stop grin. The whole place wanted to give him a cheer all to himself, and they got their wish when he blew strange noises in the approved Louis Armstrong method. His grin grew wider and wider, and the cheering rose in volume.”
Indeed, Glasgow seems to have gone suitably nuts for the show which featured Ivie Anderson – memorably described by one reviewer as “a sort of Gracie Fields of the negro metropolis” – who sang Stormy Weather and (bizarrely, since it was Cab Calloway’s hit) Minnie the Moocher, and various dancers including Bessie Dudley.
And as for Ellington himself? Well, the dashing and dapper 34-year-old made a strong impression on Glasgow audiences, and reporters with whom (at the height of a heatwave) he discussed his idea of taking some rolls of Harris tweed home as presents for his family. The journalist sent to interview him for the Evening Times wrote: “The Duke of Harlem has a grin and an effervescent personality that project themselves across the footlights – and at close quarters he is no less charming.
” ‘No, I don’t take my compositions from negro melodies,’ he said in intervals of signing the books of dozens of autograph hunters who were waiting outside the theatre. ‘The negro folk-tunes that are known the world over are negro in name only, written and altered into conventional form by conservatory trained musicians. Real negro music was never meant to be written down – it is just sound that comes from the heart to express a particular mood.’
“His own compositions, he told me, are evolved on those lines. ‘We compose – it is always we – to express a mood. There are no improvisations in the finished composition, every note being scored.’ ”
Nevertheless, as another article noted, none of the tunes from the band’s 500-number repertoire are played from printed music; they are all memorised.
The Sunday Mail’s reporter grilled him on the “distinctive Harlem slanguage” that was exchanged onstage during the shows, and in particular Ellington’s habit of shouting “Every tub!” during particularly “forceful” numbers. The ducal explanation was: “It’s another way of saying ‘Let go!’ We’ve got an expression, ‘Every tub stands on its own bottom’. In other words, ‘Every man for himself!”
I can’t find any information on whether he fulfilled his stated desire to hear bagpipes being “properly” played during that first visit to Scotland, but can report that among the other tunes performed on the opening night of the Empire residency were Mood Indigo, Black and Tan Fantasy, Whispering Tiger and Rockin’ in Rhythm.
That last tune can be heard – along with Stormy Weather, also played in Glasgow – on the short film Bundle of Blues which the band filmed in New York just before coming to Britain. This classic soundie gives us a flavour of what the Glasgow Empire audience experienced – right down to the vocals of Ivie Anderson and the loose-limbed dancing of Bessie Dudley. As for the haggis? You’ll have to imagine that for yourself….