On this day in 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. Unlike most children born in the nation’s capital, Ellington would rise to the rank of royalty. As “Duke,” he became one of jazz’s greatest stars, swing’s greatest bandleader, and perhaps America’s finest composer.
In our August 1984 issue, Francis Davis described Duke’s approach: “For Ellington, the big band was a blank page, upon which he wrote the most enduring body of orchestral literature in jazz history.” A decade earlier, in an Atlantic essay titled “Ellington in Private,” Irving Townsend detailed the bearing that earned Ellington his regal nickname:
And it did not take long to understand his pride. He did not underestimate himself and realized, of course, that nobody else did either. He could relish the turning of understatement into Ellingtonian exaggeration when he referred to himself as "the piano player." He alternated between the royal "we," the modest "we," and the plural "we" with ease, and often in the same sentence. He was fond of cliche, but only his own, and even the dialects of his conversation were polished.
Musicians like Ellington are too often praised but not listened to—many people can tell you that he is a jazz icon, some can name a hit (“Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Satin Doll,” “Mood Indigo,” etc.), but few truly delve into the work. This isn’t just to chastise listeners—I’m guilty of this as well. Hearing scratchy old transfers from 78-rpm discs, it’s hard to tell what’s really happening, or why fans and fellow musicians were so bowled over at the time. Some instruments don’t cut through, nuance is lost, harmonies are clouded.
Recently, however, a rare recording of “Hot and Bothered” has surfaced, along with a pair of Louis Armstrong tracks. The recording (embedded above) is from October 1, 1928, but it sounds beautifully clear—certainly better than the commonly available versions. (See the bottom of this note for a comparison.)
The provenance of these new versions is a little foggy. A man named Jonathan Holmes posted them on YouTube, saying they were digitized by his friend Nick Dellow, an audio engineer, who got them from metal “mother records,” which haven’t degraded or been scratched or worn down like the shellac originals. It’s unclear how exactly Dellow got the mother records, how many of them of survive, or whether listeners might be in for a long string of similar delights. Apparently these mother records were sent by Okeh Records, a once-leading (and recently relaunched) jazz label, to Germany for Odeon Records to press versions.
Here’s a delightful explanation of how mother records work, taken from the November 1918 issue of The Tonearm, a internal monthly magazine published by the Columbia Gramophone Company. (The issue also lauds the war effort and warns against the Spanish Influenza.)
This master record as already noted is a negative. The record which we play on our machine is a positive, the exact reproduction of the original wax disc, and, of course, must be pressed from a negative. There is no reason why records could not be made from the master record, except that it is much too valuable and would soon be worn out in the press. So from the copper master record there is cast still another, a positive, known as the mother record. Several of these are made from each master record, the material being an alloy of copper and nickel, harder than the master record itself. And from these mother records—positives—are cast the stampers, from which the actual records of commerce are pressed. The stampers, of a still harder metal than the mother records, are negatives. The final record which dispenses sweet music for you at home is, it will be noted, the fifth stage in the process...
I’m particularly struck by the guitar solo here. The guitar didn’t take much of a starring role in big-band jazz until the 1930s and the rise of the electric guitar; an acoustic instrument just couldn’t cut through the noise of a large swing group. But the guitar solo on “Hot and Bothered,” by the great Lonnie Johnson, comes through crisp and clear.
Here, for reference, is a recording taken from a standard record: