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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