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Daybreak Express: Reuben Jackson on Duke Ellington

Many Vermonters know Reuben Jackson as the host of Vermont Public Radio’s Friday Night Jazz. He hosted that program from 2013 until 2018. Before that, Jackson served as archivist and curator with the Smithsonian Institution’s Duke Ellington Collection.

In this talk, Jackson shares some evocative Duke Ellington recordings, and discusses Ellington’s love for trains. He also describes the Ellington orchestra’s work in the segregated United States. 

This talk was recorded at the Rutland Free Library on February 5, 2020, for our First Wednesdays series of free lectures.

Episode Transcript

Reuben Jackson: There’s a documentary called “On the Road with Duke Ellington.” They are in this limousine, and they pass this luxury high rise, and he says to the filmmaker, “If you gave me X number of thousand dollars a month and put me up in a suite like that overlooking the ocean and said, ‘Just write whatever you want.’” He said, “You know what I would write, baby?” The guy says, “What?” “Nothing.” Because he had to be where the trains were, where the motion was. Someone said, “What’s the music of your people?” He said, “The people are my people.”

Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.

 Many Vermonters know Reuben Jackson as the host of Vermont Public Radio’s Friday Night Jazz. He hosted that program from 2013 until 2018. Before that, Jackson served as archivist and curator with the Smithsonian Institution’s Duke Ellington Collection.

 In this talk, Jackson shares some evocative Duke Ellington recordings, and discusses Ellington’s love for trains. He also describes the Ellington orchestra’s work in the segregated United States.

 This talk was recorded at the Rutland Free Library on February 5, 2020, for our First Wednesdays series of free lectures.

 Here’s Reuben Jackson.

Reuben Jackson: Good evening. Thank you all for coming. First thing I want to say is I grew up in D.C. but in so many ways, Vermont is my home, like in here [gestures to his heart.] So I’m so happy to be with my people. All y’all, as we say in the South.

Reuben Jackson: Let me just give you a brief overview of what we’ll be doing tonight. When I had the great honor of hosting Friday Night Jazz, I was interviewed twice, and in both cases I told the interviewer that the show was a high-tech version of what I did on Friday and Saturday nights as a kid. Which means I was the kid who would bug his friends. Like we’d all listen to the hit records. But my parents also loved classical stuff. They loved big band records. So we’d listen to the Supremes and then I’d say, that’s really cool. But let me play something for you. And then I’d play maybe a composition by Duke Ellington featuring the cornetist Rex Stewart, “Boy Meets Horn” and such. Listen to this. And my friends would go, Oh, Lord. Here he goes again. So that’s an extension of the thesis, if you want to call it that for tonight. I’m still in the basement. You all are with me. Our basement would have had to have been a lot bigger. But we’ll get you all in there.

Reuben Jackson: And what I want to do is have us celebrate Ellington’s skill as a couple of things. A master of form. And maybe you all knew this: before Duke Ellington became a bandleader, he got a scholarship to go to Pratt Institute in New York as a visual artist. And I am not the first person who will tell you that in many ways, I think he translated the canvas to the aural canvas. And I have never seen or heard anyone who could do more with the blues form than Edward Kennedy Ellington. He once told someone he took the energy he would have used to pout and write blues. But he was just as the rappers used to say, he had mad skills. So we’ll celebrate Duke Ellington’s mad skills.

Reuben Jackson: We’re just going to go to the music here. Think about musical color, think about creativity. I think Ellington was really great in terms of making innovative leaps within compositions, but also making those things accessible. And that is a tough thing to balance. You can know a lot, but it’s like how do you make those things appealing to the ear? He often said he wrote for the people with the ears. So here we are tonight. Just thinking again about form and quote, “the jazz tradition.” Even though Duke Ellington did not like the word “jazz” because he found it too confining. And I can understand. But there are elements of an old jazz vehicle called Tiger Rag within this piece. But what you’ll hear…well the train station’s down the street. We can think about Amtrak or what have you. So example one is from 1933, it’s called Daybreak Express.

[Daybreak Express plays]

Reuben Jackson: Just a couple of things to think about. The use of orchestra members, as if you would use colors on a palette. You hear the trumpeter, you hear the beautiful voicings for the ensemble. That wonderful meshing of those elements. How do you again, capture the motion of a train? Of course, before airplanes became a big thing, trains were the way to go in so many respects and there was that romance of wheels, and so that’s one example of his genius.

Reuben Jackson: The other thing I would say before we go to the second example is that they would just go. Maybe they play Rutland, maybe the next night they play Kansas City. And you think, how did they do this? You know, just constant moving, constant moving. And of course, the motion, ties into trains and getting places.

Reuben Jackson: This will maybe also serve as something of an intro for the next piece. Consider the societal tensions which existed at the time. One way Ellington dealt with Jim Crow accommodations was to have Pullman cars and rent them so that the band members could play and have someplace to stay and not deal with the indignities of being turned down in hotels and rooming houses, etc. But this piece we’ll be hearing shortly, Across the Track Blues, he said he wrote it because he was thinking about the fact that the band would often play somewhere and, you know, they’re in a club or a ballroom or what have you. And then they would have to go back across the tracks to sleep.

Reuben Jackson: But listen to it. And I don’t want to taint your listening with my interpretation. But it’s not a lament or woe is me. Well, it’s Duke Ellington. It’s mastery of form. It’s up to us to interpret it or just enjoy it as we will. So give me a second here, Across the Track Blues.

[Across the Track Blues plays]

Reuben Jackson: 1940. Maybe you know this as Ellingtonians or lovers of Ellingtonia, but Ellington fans defend to not the death, but to the, well, the ideological death, their favorite incarnations of the orchestra and the group from 1940 to 1943, people tell you that’s it. By 1940, Billy Strayhorn comes on as Duke Ellington’s arranging and composing partner. The orchestra’s theme song changes to Take the A Train, which many people think Duke Ellington wrote, but it’s Billy Strayhorn.

Reuben Jackson: Think of all-star teams. You know, you’ve got Charles Cootie Williams on trumpet. You got Tricky Sam Nanton, trombone. Ben Webster, Sonny Greer for a brief moment, just so many…Johnny Hodges. You take that team on the field and the opposition just runs the other way. Ellington and his sideman often had beefs, as the kids say now, often over money and credit. But even the ones who said he got on their nerves sometimes would tell you, when they’d left, “Where do you go when you leave a band like this?” Well, you hear this piece. It’s got this nice, you know, beautiful tempo. But the colors for me and I’m a harmony fiend. You listen and you think again, looking at a canvas like this by Fran Bull is this is for the ear. And I do think it’s another great example of that transference or translation of the brush and the canvas to Johnny Hodges or whomever.

Reuben Jackson: I worked with the sound recordings, primarily with the Duke Ellington collection, but I would look at these scores in his hand. He wrote on everything, you know, in addition to this movement the trains provided, there was constant mental movement. You might see four or five bars to a piece of music on hotel stationery. And I looked at this cluster, this chord, and thought, what does this sound like? And we had a little keyboard in the archives where you could try to figure out something if it had no title on it. And I played it and it sounded like Jackson Pollock in pen, and I thought, wow.

Reuben Jackson: But Ellington knew the rules well enough to break them and to maybe take the car down another highway. But it was still part of the tradition. People would ask, “What’s your favorite piece?” “The next one.” I think this, too, amplifies the question of movement. He wasn’t stuck in the past. Constantly creating, constantly creating, constantly moving.

Reuben Jackson: Ellington, of course, along with Billy Strayhorn, is known for many things, among them extended works like the Such Sweet Thunder, This Experience Suite, the Far East Suite, the Perfume Suite. You know, I could go on and on.

Reuben Jackson: This piece is from the Deep South Suite from 1950. Now, I’ll tell you a bit more about it before we play it. What I’m about to talk about we won’t hear tonight, but you may know a piece. It’s called Night Train and it’s like bum-bum-da-ba-bum-da-da. That was originally part of the piece we’re about to hear, Happy Go Lucky Local. Jimmy Forest, who played tenor saxophone in the orchestra at that time, took that piece, made a hit out of it. Ellington’s associates tried to get him to sue Jimmy Forest for purloining this. But Ellington did not. This is Happy Go Lucky Local Part One. Now, this to me is my mom used to say, and my mom was pretty discreet about things she said, “That train’s kind of sexy.”

[Happy Go Lucky Local Part One plays]

Reuben Jackson: So that’s part one of Happy Go Lucky Local. From there, it goes to the piece we know as Night Train. Now, I just want to say something else, too, about Ellington and the cause or the struggle, not just because it’s Black History Month, but this is part of a story. Ellington was at San Francisco State in the late 1960s. He played like a week. And at a press conference or Q&A a student stuck up his hand and said, “What have you done for your people?” And Ellington said, “Well, I’ve done it in my music my whole life.” Ellington did not wear an afro. He never changed his hair. But people would ask him this question and he wouldn’t push it much because I think he was confident enough to know what he had tried to do and what he continued to do. When you think of someone with compositional titles like Sepia Panorama or Portrait of Florence Mills or Black Butterfly, Black, Brown and Beige, you know, and he knew what was up in terms of the continuum. And the reason he didn’t like the word “jazz:” he found it confining, but he said the music is African. Now, this certainly falls in line with a lot of that which was being espoused during that time. He said the highest praise for any artist was that he, she, or they were beyond category. And I think that’s true for him. But I would listen to these home tapes, he’s playing on the piano. And it’s just like the funkiest, hanging out with your friends, do-rag on your head, drinking a beer kind of stuff. And he could play pieces with very complex harmonies, not to show that it was serious…he was just…he was bad, but good bad. You know what I mean?

Reuben Jackson: People would say, Duke, where do you see jazz going? And he’d say, well, we stopped using that word in 1943 and he would explain why. And then the next reporter would say, Duke, what about jazz? But he would always answer with such calm and such grace.

Reuben Jackson: I want to give you a sense of the person behind what we’ve been listening to. And I hope what you’re hearing is the variety, how he used the orchestra, and the uniqueness of his contribution. There is so much to consider and there’s so much that we know the standards and those are great. Take the A train, you know, again, Billy Strayhorn. Mood Indigo. There is so much.

Reuben Jackson: OK, enough of my preaching. We go from 1950, Duke Ellington dies in 1974. By this time, he has outlived Billy Strayhorn, his arranging and composing partner. The great alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges has died. He still has longtime geniuses like Harry Carney on baritone saxophone. But he keeps on pushing. This, from 1972, so two years before his passing. He did a week at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. By this time, a lot of his pieces, they had four letter titles. OK, so for the University of Wisconsin suite, the first movement is UWIS. Then there’s a polka in that suite, and it’s KLOP, which is polka fell backwards without the A. The closing movement, again, a nod to his love for trains. It’s a piece called Loco Madi, as in Mad about Locomotions. Another thing that’s a little different here. There’s an electric bassist on here. I don’t want to tell you what to listen to, but listen to the piano. I do want to say that. And you think about people like Cecil Taylor, quote unquote, avant garde players. And I mean, Ellington could just…well, so much of it came from him and through him. So that you hear bits, like you might hear a lecture and you hear a reference to something from the 30s, something from the 60s. It all came out in the music and I’m looking at scores at work going, that’s something from 1947, but not in a nostalgic way. How he could use the tradition to make it new, as the poet Ezra Pound would say.

Reuben Jackson: So the last piece is Loco Madi.

[Loco Madi plays]

Reuben Jackson: All right. There it goes down the track. 1972, Duke Ellington, the orchestra from the UWIS, University of Wisconsin Suite and Loco Maddie. My father used to say…my father was like Calvin Coolidge. He’d give you like three words every six months? You know, he’d say to you, nice scarf. That’s February. He might see you in May. You still got that nice scarf? That would be a long sentence for him. But he said, son, Duke Ellington is no joke. That’s like a lot of verbosity from my father. And I think that’s true. I was just enjoying this.

Reuben Jackson: I hope what this brief encounter with this tiny, tiny, tiny corner of the neighborhood known as Ellingtonia, I hope it gives you some sense of what else there is. Langston Hughes’ autobiography was in two volumes, The Big Sea, and I Wonder as I Wander. I would argue that that which we heard tonight is maybe an example of wondering as one wanders and pulling upon one’s talents to try and create something, as Duke Ellington would say, worthy of the plateau.

Reuben Jackson: I can’t believe in retrospect I had this job, to work with and organize the materials of someone so integral, not just to our society, but to society at large. He was a musician, and then some. And with that, if you have any questions or comments, don’t be shy.

Hi, this is Ryan again. Because the questions from the audience are hard to hear, I’ll summarize them. First, a man asked to hear a little more about Reuben’s interpretation of Ellington.

Reuben Jackson: There’s a documentary called “On the Road with Duke Ellington.” They are in this limousine, and they pass this luxury high rise, and he says to the filmmaker, “If you gave me X number of thousand dollars a month and put me up in a suite like that overlooking the ocean and say, ‘Just write whatever you want.’” He said, “You know what I would write, baby?” The guy says, “What?” “Nothing.” Because he had to be where the trains were, where the motion was. Someone said, “What’s the music of your people?” He said, “The people are my people.”

Then someone asked Reuben how he first got into Duke Ellington’s music.

Reuben Jackson: There was a theater amphitheater in Washington, D.C. called Carter Barron Amphitheater. “The in-town summer place,” they called it. My parents, bless them, took myself and my older brother to hear music a lot. And I think like four years in a row, Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald would come for a week. And my father was also very thrifty. So for him to take us three times in a week, which he did each time they came, was a big deal. We liked a lot of the band members names, so we would call—you know how siblings call each other names, sometimes they’re not that nice. But my brother would say “It’s time for dinner, Cootie Williams,” who is a trumpeter. Or I’d call him Shorty Baker. So we were soaked in this music particularly, but music in general.

Next, someone asked him to compare Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

Reuben Jackson: You don’t always find innovators who are enormously embraced. And those groups like the Hot Fives, the Hot Sevens, pieces like West End Blues, I mean, they really changed, or they kind of extended a notion of what jazz could be or what it could sound like. Those things, first and foremost, strike me: that they were immensely loved and consistently creative. I think they were misunderstood in some ways. I think they were deep without being pretentious. It wasn’t like, oh, come see us way up here on the mountain where we’re making these great artistic efforts. It’s like, you know, like strutting with some barbecue. Lewis Armstrong could be profound and strut with some barbecue.

Reuben Jackson: Thinking about what you said about Lewis Armstrong. Somebody said to him, “Do you like folk music?” “What other kind of music is there? We’re folks.” I mean, that’s a little funny, but Ellington, as you may know, said there were two types of music, good and bad, which is kind of typical.

Finally, there was a question about how the group travelled, and the image they presented on the road and on the stage.

Reuben Jackson: You know, there’s the romance of the stage, the spotlights come on. And they hit the tuxedos and everybody’s elegantly [dressed]. And Duke Ellington would say, “Everybody look handsome,” and he’d say, “We love you madly.” That band had like kleptomaniacs and people with substance abuse problems and just summa cum laude curmudgeons. But he was able to get this excellence from them consistently. And I think that is undervalued. For 50 years to do this. 50 years!

Reuben Jackson: But he took care of that orchestra as best he could. Trumpeter Cootie Williams said, “Whether I was like sick or broke or tired or mad we got on that stage and boom.” And the last thing I’ll say, in the late 50s trombonist Monsignor John Sanders said, “We came out and that spotlight hit the stage. And Ellington’s at the piano.” He said he turned and smiled at us. And he said what the smile said to him was, “Here we are again.” So, again, this is a bit of what they played.

Reuben Jackson: And I thank you so much for coming out. I cannot tell you how happy I am to be here with, citizens of the 802.

Thanks for listening to The Portable Humanist. Visit our website at www.portablehumanist.org for a transcript of this episode, and for more information about Vermont Humanities.