Jack Chambers – member of the Toronto Chapter of the Duke Ellington Society – has contributed this article about Ellington’s stockpile session in Toronto in 1972 to the DESS website.
In addition to being a distinguished Professor of Linguistics, Jack is the author of books and articles on jazz.
In 1983 and 1985 he published his two volume groundbreaking biography on Miles Davis. It is now available in a single volume paperback (Da Capo 1998). In 2008 he published a biography of the pianist Richard Twardzik called “Bouncing with Bartok”.
Jack was a frequent contributor to the Canadian Coda magazine until it disappeared in 2009. Recent articles of him include “Ellington’s Three Steps into The River” (IAJRC 2017) and “Panther Patter: Ellington at the Piano” (Blue Light 2017).
At the Ellington conference at the Royal Conservatoire in Birmingham, England he presented “Celebration— Duke Ellington’s lost symphony”. A pdf version of his presentation is available for download at the Toronto Duke Ellington Society website in its “Archives”.
“Duke Ellington’s private recording session in Toronto in 1972 has been fraught with misinformation.
I have recently come upon a reminiscence by the recording engineer at that session that leads to a few more corrections. Bill King, the redoubtable jazz pianist and promoter, published an interview with George Simkiw, the recording engineer and producer, by way of commemorating George’s death in June 2018. I cite the excerpt from Bill’s interview involving Ellington, with Bill’s permission. The entire interview may be found at:
Following the excerpt below from Bill’s interview, I point out the ways in which this interview and other sources clarify this recording session.
Bill King: When you were there [at RCA Studio, Toronto], you did a recording with Duke Ellington.
George Simkiw: The Duke Ellington thing was like a crime mystery. I get a call during the day. It was on a Saturday or Sunday and I get a call saying, listen we need to do a session at 7 o’clock this evening. Can you be there? He said, ‘set up’ for about 25 pieces. I said give me a rough idea. He says, four trumpets – I say just give me a rough sketch, so I did a rough set up for them. Around a quarter to seven, musicians crept in. I didn’t recognize any of them. I usually know every musician in town. Then Duke Ellington walks in. They are doing this secret session. I remember Ron Rully was there. He was part of that whole thing; the jazz drummer. There were some heavyweight people there and my jaw dropped. I actually went out and talked to the Duke as he was having some problems with his music stand. I helped adjust it for him. He thanked me, broke another pencil and never used the same pencil twice. It was like surreal.
BK: What was the session all about?
GS: I never heard anything more about it.
BK: Did it sound good?
GS: I thought it did. I think the music was something Ron Rully wrote, or a local guy wrote.
Two of the charts played on that day were by Ron Collier (not Ron Rully).
Ron Collier was indeed a “local guy,” a trombone player, bandleader and composer based in Toronto. From 1969 until 1972, after Billy Strayhorn’s death, Ellington hired Collier for several projects: in 1969, Collier wrote two charts for Duke Ellington’s Reader’s Digest commission (“Mañha de carnaval,” “A Taste of Honey”); in 1970, Collier orchestrated The River, Ellington’s masterwork of his last years, premiered by the American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Centre; in 1972, besides arranging for this “secret session,” he orchestrated Ellington’s symphony, Celebration, premiered that year by the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.
It is not surprising that George Simkiw recognized Ron Rully. As he said, “I usually know every musician in town,” and Rully was a prominent drummer in Toronto jazz circles. He was, for instance, the drummer in Ron Collier’s quintet for the two decades of its existence, and his close friend. He was in the studio that night, beyond a doubt, at Collier’s invitation. Ellington, as is well known, enjoyed having a crowd at his recording sessions, and it would not be surprising if Collier had invited other musicians as well.
It is surprising that Simkiw did not remember Collier and confused him with Rully (though we should keep in mind that he was recalling one evening more than 45 years earlier). The phone call asking him to set up the studio must have come from Collier. In his presentation at the Duke Ellington conference in Toronto in 1996, Collier recalled, “Ellington’s sister Ruth called [from New York], ‘Book a studio and bring some charts’.” It was almost certainly Collier, who called Simkiw to book the studio and give him the set-up.
A few tracks from this Toronto session were released on a cut-rate Laserlight CD in 1992 (Cool Rock). Stanley Dance wrote the liner notes and probably selected the tracks, which come from two different stockpile recordings made in different cities. Dance is presumably the source for the discographic details. He was probably working with frugal documentation, but in any event they are mainly wrong.
The studio was originally listed as “Toronto Sound Studio” and the recording engineer Phil Sheridan; Sheridan’s studio was actually called Thunder Sound. Sheridan was the leading jazz producer in Toronto, and if you were guessing where this session took place, he would be the best guess. But it turns out that the studio was RCA Toronto, and that the engineer was George Simkiw.
Fred Stone, the Toronto flugelhorn player who was in Ellington’s orchestra in the first half of 1970, is listed with the trumpets at this session. Cootie Williams is conspicuously absent in the listing, and it may appear as if Stone was another “local guy” brought in to replace him. However, Cootie Williams was definitely there. In 1996 Collier talked about Cootie as the soloist on one of his charts played that day, “Vancouver Lights,” and remembered a mild rebuff when he started preparing for another take after Cootie announced, “That’s a take.” Collier said, “Duke gets up from the piano and he comes over, puts his arm around me, says, ‘Ron, when Cootie says that’s a take that means he’s not gonna play it any more.’ So that was it for that piece.”
If Stone was also there, that makes five trumpets though Simkiw specifically remembers the set-up called for four.
The date for the session is given as 22 June 1972. That was a Thursday, and Simkiw recalls getting the phone call “on a Saturday or Sunday… for a session at 7 o’clock this evening.” That sets the date at 24 or 25 June.
Finally, only one of Collier’s two charts was released on the Laserlight CD. It is identified as “Vancouver Lights,” but Collier pointed out that it is actually his other chart, “Relaxin’.” “Vancouver Lights” remains unissued. When Collier asked Dance about the mix-up, he said, “When we got the boxes, it was rather confusing.” In more ways than one, apparently.
The discographical listings that rely on Dance’s liner information (Timner and all others I have seen) should be revised as follows:
“Relaxin’” 3:11 RCA Studios, Toronto. 24 or 25 June 1972. George Simkiw engineer
CD: Cool Rock . Laserlight 15 782 .
Money Johnson tp, voc (on “Hello Dolly”), Cootie Williams, perhaps Fred Stone, Johnny Coles, Mercer Ellington tp; Vince Prudente, Chuck Connors, tb; Russell Procope as, clnt; Norris Turney as, fl; Harold Minerve ts cl fl; Harold Ashby ts; Harry Carney bs, cl, bass cl; Duke Ellington, p; Joe Benjamin b; Rufus Jones d, Ron Collier comp, arr;