sweet as you could want a horn to be, seemed to croon the melody; then the saxes: I could almost see the whole row of them, bending, fingering, swooping as they made their friendly musical comments and then graciously retreated. Duke Ellington. To a kid growing up in Kerrvillewhere at summer noon “The Lightcrust Doughboys” were on the neighborhood radios and at night drive-in cafe customers fed nickels into the jukebox for Ernest TubbDuke Ellington was like nothing I had ever heard before. His creations were so new to my small-town ears that they seemed like exotic calls from a rain forest. The singers sounded like instruments; . the instruments sounded like voices. I played them in a kind of trance: “Caravan,” “Solitude,” “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “In a Sentimental Mood.” I listened to the strange, haunting harmonies, the deft distortions of sound, the notes that drifted dreamily and then faded. It was like watching wavy images underwater or sinuous dancers in masks swaying, leaning, collapsing, rising, throwing arms here and there. On “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” Cootie Williams’ muted trumpet growled through a chorus, then ended with harsh, slashing wha-acks, as if from metallic whips. On “Creole Love Call” ethereal-sounding Kay Davis sang not a song but a sustained, mournful, effortless, wordless cry. On “Black and Tan Fantasy” Barney Bigard’s clarinet kept rising like a sleek bird soaring higher and higher .until it burst and showered sound like a Roman candle. On “The . Mooche” the open-and-shut waa-waa sound of Bubber Miley’s muted trumpet was matched by vocalist Baby Cox’s own amazing waa-waa scat singing. I probably had not seen a Picasso drawing while in high school, but if I had come across one I surely would have looked at it and thought, Man, this is Duke Ellington. Significant Others: Mel Torme, “The Velvet Fog,” gliding breathlessly through “A Stranger in Town;” Johnny Hodges’ elegant alto sax on “Warm Valley;” Billy Eckstine’s big, barrelround sound on “Everything I Have is Yours;” Benny Goodman’s almost surgically precisioned sextet and his stomping, swinging explosive big band; the incomparably sweet trumpet of Harry James \(“I Had the Craziest and Coleman Hawkins blues-ing away on “Mean to Me” and “Body and Soul;” Gerry Mulligan blowing up his own baritone sax storms; Sarah Vaughan’s lyrical, pure-as-spring-water “Autumn in New York” and “The Touch ofYour Hand;” Billie Holiday with a voice so special, so haunting that, like the soloists of the Ellington band, she too seemed more like an instrument than a voice-“Strange Fruit,”‘”Travelin’ Light,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Good Morning, .Heartache”..:. And the almost endless roll call of still other great groups: Les Brown, Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Lunceford,. Count Basie, Elliot Lawrence, Charlie Barnet, Claude Thornhill. Finally, Glenn Miller. On how many ballroom floors did hands reach forth to clasp and faces come together to touch as, at midnight, the dancers heard the first familiar notes of “Moonlight Serenade”? “Moonlight Serenade.” Can anyone who never heard it understand what that slow Glenn Miller theme song meant to middleclass America in the 1940s? It was the essence of sentiment and romance: the perfect melody for the end of a memorable evening. And, as the ’40s came to a close, it served, too, as a kind of benediction: an offering of elegiac notes to end the remarkable era of the big bands. Frequent Observer contributor Elroy Bode lives in El Paso.
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