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In the beginning of July, Jack Chambers – professor of Linguistics at the University of Toronto and well-known jazz writer – published a new book. This time it is about Duke Ellington and entitled Sweet Thunder.
It is not a traditional biography but a book, which explores the music of the Maestro by tracing nine themes throughout his 50-year career as composer, orchestrator, pianist and leader.
It brings together into a comprehensive unity articles on Ellington topics that Chambers has published in Coda, IARJC Journal, Blue Light etc. or presentations given by him to the members of the Toronto Duke Ellington Society Chapter 40. They have all been revised and adjusted for the purpose of the book.
Each chapter is really a kaleidoscopically written essay full of information and reflections. Together they give a very rich perspective on Ellington’s music. Some of the themes are Ellington’s Harlem – Lotus Eaters Unite (about Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn) – Bardland (Shakespeare and Ellington) – Afro-Eurasian Ellington – Three Steps Into The River.
The references and playlists at the end of each chapter are also very valuable.
An advantage of Chambers’ approach with themes is that it gives different ways to read the book. It can be read chapter by chapter in chronological order. But the reader can also reshuffle the book and read the chapters in a personalised order.
Which is the targeted audience of the book?
It seems that it is as Chambers says, “relative newcomers to Ellington’s 50-year creative journey”. This kind of readers should get a lot from reading the book. However, a problem for them might be that the book right from the start gives a lot of names which might not mean anything to them. So they should possibly be advised to read David Bradbury’s Duke Ellington or John E. Hasse’s Beyond Categories before plunging into Sweet Thunder.
Should those, who already know a lot about Ellington read the book? Chambers hopes that “the organization into themes will bring new insights to listeners who already know Ellington’s music.” It did so for the web editor and this might also be the case also for others with good knowledge about Ellington and his music.
The Toronto Ellington Chapter has sponsored the book with a “generous grant”.
Also DESS has contributed towards the production cost to show its support for the book. Hopefully this will encourage many DESS members to buy the book.
Sweet Thunder can be bought on Amazon’s sites both in North America and in Europe. The web editor bought his copy on amazon.de for 28 euros (=300 SEK) but in Europe it is also available om amazon.co.uk and amazon.fr. Avoid buying it from Amazon.com. It is much more expensive with shipping and taxes.
Following the publication on June 26 of Jack Chamber’s article on Duke Ellington’s stockpile session in Toronto in 1972, two people, who attended that recording session, has contacted him and provided some additional information. Jack likes to share this information with the readers of the DESS website.
“In my DESS entry for June, I quoted an excerpt from Bill King’s interview with the late engineer George Semkiw, where he recalled setting up the studio for (what George called) “a secret session” with Ellington.
I inferred that the recording session must have taken place at RCA Studio Toronto, which was George’s main workplace.
However, Ted O’Reilly, the Toronto broadcaster who attended that session as Ellington’s guest, told me after he had read my article that he swears to the gods of jazz that the Collier stuff was done at Thunder with Phil. I am not putting down George’s recollection: he may have been Sheridan’s assistant, doing the setup at that session, as he would have done at others, but it was not at RCA.” Bill Smith, co-editor of Coda, who also attended the recording session, emphatically agrees.
Also George Semkiw thought the session took place on a Saturday or Sunday. But Ellington and the orchestra were playing in Seekonk, Massachusetts on Saturday June 24 and in Endicott, New York on Sunday June 25).
The Toronto recording sessions took place on Thursday June 22, the day before the orchestra performed at O’Keefe Centre in Toronto, and on Tuesday June 27, the day before they played a dance date in the town of West Lorne, Ontario, 150 miles west of Toronto (as in Stratemann, Ellington Day By Day and Film By Film).
So the venue for the sessions is Thunder Sound Studio, Toronto (not Toronto Sound Studio, as in most discographies, and also not RCA Studios Toronto, as I suggested in the previous article). The dates are June 22 and June 27 1972.
Ted O’Reilly and Bill Smith may be the only survivors of the many guests who attended the session. They also agree on a detail that partly explains the lack of contemporary documentation about it.
Bill Smith brought his camera, as always, but, he says, “I was asked not to take photographs of Duke as he was too scruffy.” O’Reilly also recalls “the unshaven and disheveled Ellington saying to [Smith], ‘No pictures – Duke doesn’t feel pretty today’, so he put his camera down.” As a result, the session is not documented in Coda magazine.”
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;