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On November 10 last year, the website published an article by Joe Medjuck on an unabridged version of Chelsea Bridge issued on vol. 12 in the Storyville DETS series.
The website followed it up by publishing a broadcast from Casa Mañana in Culver City, CA on Feb. 20, 1941.
These two articles, the audio material that came with them, plus an upcoming big band project of Strayhorn music that he will direct, prompted DESS member Hans Doerrscheidt, to do a little research of his own. Here is the result.
“As it turns out, not only one, or two, or three, but actually four complete recordings of Chelsea Bridge have survived! How so?
The broadcast announcer says: “And now, as our dancing continues, we hear another Billy Strayhorn number: The Duke’s [sic] distinctive arrangement of ‘Chelsea Bridge’.”
With that mis-attribution starts what appears to be the first ever documented performance of the song. Regrettably, the audio quality is not quite what one would wish for. But – it is a copy of a historic broadcast, so why complain. Until we hear…
“This, ladies and gentlemen, is music by Duke Elligton and his orchestra, via the Mutual Network […] And now, as the dancing continues, the Duke features ‘Chelsea Bridge’…Duke?”
Talk about ‘fidelity’! The audio quality is pristine; every last instrument is audible like you are dancing right in front of the bandstand. Wonderful! Now, fast forward 4 years to…
The announcer says: “Next, Duke Ellington features a group of three Billy Strayhorn compositions, beginning with ‘Chelsea Bridge’.”
This is the “second” full recording that Joe Medjuck pointed out in his article last year. As shown above, in chronology it is actually the third. Fidelity is good, and by now the irritating wrong last note played by Tizol and Carney in 1941 at the end of their respective middle sections (a.k.a bridge) appears to have been corrected in the parts (it’s G natural, not G flat).
Then another 7 years go by, and we hear a familiar voice back in the band: It is Juan Tizol, who plays the unannounced pickup notes to…
the fourth unabridged version performed at a dance date at an unidentified location in Northwestern U.S.A. in March 1952 [iv]
This is a personal sleeper, as I have had this 3-CD set ever since it came out about five years ago; not until now did I realize that it contains this rarity. The sound quality is quite acceptable for what appears to be a private tape; we hear Tizol repeating his original role, Paul Gonsalves paying tribute to his mentor Ben Webster, and my favorite rhythm team Marshall/Bellson providing a solid beat.
The three studio recordings from 1941 all have one thing in common: 32 bars of music were cut to make the original 5-minute arrangement fit one side of a 78. However, what is cut is different on all three takes. See my structural analysis below for more details.
And a last note, for all you jazz ensemble directors out there: Alfred Music has two versions of this arrangement published: The transcription of the 1941 RCA master take as well as the unabridged version.
Both editions have their pros and cons; neither one can be taken without a grain of salt, unfortunately. So if you think your band should play as many right notes as possible on this one, feel free to get in touch for my view on things….”
The different versions of Chelsea Bridge mentioned in the article can be found on
Author: Hans Doerrscheidt (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chelsea Bridge was one of the songs Billy Strayhorn wrote in 1940 when he and Mercer Ellington were called upon by Ellington to write new material for the band following the boycott by the radio stations of songs licensed by ASCAP.
In his biography on Strayhorn, David Hajdu describes “Chelsea Bridge” as “more Debussy than Ellington. It is classical’ in its integration of melody and harmony as an organic whole.
Strayhorn himself has said that “Chelsea Bridge” was “an impressionistic miniature composed with a painting by James McNeill Whistler in mind.
The first appearance of “Chelsea Bridge” in the Ellington discography is the dance date at Casa Manana in Culver City, California on February 16, 1941 but probably it was performed several times during the engagement there from Jan. 3 to Feb 20 1941.
Chelsea Bridge, Febr. 16, 1941
Chelsea Bridge was recorded for Standard Transcriptions on September 17, 1941 and for RCA-Victor on September 26 and December 2, 1941.
In his quite wonderful book “ Something to Live For, The Music of Billy Strayhorn”, Walter van de Leur laments that there is no readily available recording of the Ellington band playing the full score of Chelsea Bridge.
In a note on page 207 of his book, he mentions that an “unissued broadcast from the Casa Manana, Culver City” is “the only known full recording of Chelsea Bridge by the Ellington Orchestra.
Later recordings … use different parts of the manuscript. The recording of June 30, 1945 (“Your Saturday Date with the Duke” broadcast issued on Duke Ellington Treasury Series 12) moves after the bridge of the third chorus into Something to Live For.”
Chelsea Bridge June 30, 1945
Since I didn’t have the unissued recording, I decided to listen to the DETS recording. I went to my cd collection and pulled out the Storyville DETS Vol. 12.
Indeed there is a version of Chelsea Bridge as part of a “group of three Billy Strayhorn compositions” wherein the band does go from Chelsea Bridge to Something to Live For but with a bond promo in between. However, Chelsea Bridge is quite long. It lasts 5 minutes and sounds a lot like van de Leur’s description of the complete composition.
Chelsea Bridge Sep. 8 1945
I then realized that I had been listening to a different version of “Chelsea Bridge” than the one van de Leur was referring to in his note. When he said “DETS Series 12”, he meant LP no. 12 in the original LP series, not Vol. 12 in the Storyville series. The one Walter was referring to is on Vol. 7 in this series and is much shorter than the one on Vol 12.
So I decided to contact him and ask for his comment. Here is what he replied.
“Thanks for this. Indeed, the full score, fantastic. Duke opens, but Strays takes over from the first chorus. It confirms that he had some composed piano parts as I had figured.”
So small misunderstandings can sometimes lead to something interesting.
Author: Joe Medjuck