Duke Ellington's Azure

Jan 7, 2019

My brother David, who lives in Paris, took this photograph during a trip he made to Sardinia after Christmas. His email subject line read “Azure,” which immediately brought to mind Duke Ellington’s song of that name. Ellington described Azure as “a little dulcet piece which portrays a blue mood.” Blue was Ellington's favorite color. When his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, was published in 1973, its dust jacket was brown. That had been his least favorite since 1935, for he was wearing a brown suit on the day his mother died. He banished brown hues from his wardrobe ever after, and 38 years later insisted that his memoir be recalled and republished in royal blue. But even before he was overcome with grief over his mother's passing, blue was prominent as an Ellingtonian song title, tonal color, and mood. For example, there's Blue Harlem; Blue Feeling; Blue Goose; Blue Light; Blue Ramble; Blue Serge; Blue Pepper, not to mention numerous Blues.

Duke Ellington in blue for a 1973 BBC television appearance
Credit BBC

Ellington recorded Azure on May 14, 1937, in an orchestration by Joe Lipman, a 22-year-old Boston-born pianist who went on to arrange the lovely suite of Bix Beiderbecke tunes that Bunny Berigan recorded in 1938, as well as landmark dates for Charlie Parker (Big Band; With Strings) and Sarah Vaughan (In Hi-Fi). Azure was recorded at the session that also produced Ellington's first orchestral recording of Caravan. San Juan native Juan Tizol’s Latinized original had been introduced a year earlier by an Ellington small group led by clarinetist Barney Bigard.

Gunther Schuller compared Caravan to Tchaikovsky’s Arab Dance from the Nutcracker Suite, and expressed regret that “no one ever asked [Duke] to compose a substantial ballet comprising, like Tchaikovsky’s ballets, a number of ‘exotic’ cameo set-pieces, like Caravan or Mood Indigo.” In fact, Ellington composed The River, a twelve-part work, for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in 1970. But Schuller was considering Duke's work in the pages of his monumental study, The Swing Era, where his thesis emphasized how neglected Ellington was by elite cultural organizations in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Schuller had scandalized his classical music-devoted parents with an “epiphanal experience” he had in 1939 when he heard a 15-minute radio broadcast by Ellington. At the time, he was a 13-year-old fully immersed in music, and hearing Duke suddenly convinced him “that in the hands of a master like Ellington jazz was as great and important as any classical music.” Schuller remained devoted to both forms of music from thereon, and throughout his career made major efforts to bring jazz into the academy and the concert hall.

In The Swing Era, Schuller addressed Azure in even greater detail than Caravan and said it “might have been another movement in such a ballet.” He described the work as a “uniquely Ellingtonian ‘blue’ piece…in the lineage of pastel-colored pieces like Mood Indigo, but remarkably advanced in its harmonic language…The instrumentation is that of Mood Indigo, with the trumpet and trombone now in close thirds and the clarinet an octave and a fourth below in its chalameau register…Harmonic clashes appear frequently throughout the piece, reinforcing the basic harmonic ambivalence with bitonal spicings, or moving further into extensions of tonality, as the weirdly chromatic trombones, or the downright atonal background for [Harry] Carney’s [baritone saxophone] solo.”

We’ll hear several renditions of Azure in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode (click here to hear the show On Demand through January 14), including the 1937 Ellington original and later recordings by Herbie Mann and Phil Woods (the late saxophone player and clarinetist recorded the song at least twice); the Cecil Taylor Trio (the late pianist recorded Azure on his 1956 debut, Jazz Advance; and the singers Ella Fitzgerald and Gretchen Parlato. Ella recorded Azure when she was with Chick Webb in 1938; sang it in a duo with guitarist Barney Kessel on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook; and on this appearance with the Ellington band in 1966.  Tony Bennett sang the tune on his Ellington Centennial album, Bennett Sings Ellington Hot and Cool.  Parlato's breathy version, which features guitarist Lionel Loueke and pianist Aaron Parks, is my favorite of her recordings. 

Addendum Since posting this last night, word arrived of the death of the Ellingtonian John Sanders at 93. Monsignor Sanders, who was raised in Harlem and served in the Navy during World War II, was 48 when he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1973. Before his "late vocation," he'd attended Juilliard and played trombone with Lucky Thompson at the Savoy Ballroom. He worked with Ellington for six weeks in 1952, then succeeded Juan Tizol  permanently in 1954. Sanders, who often spoke of the glorious experiences he'd had a young teenager seeing Ellington, Count Basie, and Jimmie Lunceford at the Apollo Theater, was with the Ellington band when it made its historic appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, performed with Mahalia Jackson at Newport in 1958, recorded the Shakespearean suite, Such Sweet Thunder, and the film score, Anatomy of a Murder. He was a good source on Duke for Ken Burns, NPR, and the Duke Ellington Society of New York, often testifying to the spiritual dimensions of Ellington's music. I was impressed to read this morning of the prominence Sanders gave to Azure in Janna Tull Steed's "spiritual biography" of Ellington. He said that in watching Duke play Azure, "I had the feeling he was talking to somebody, feeling somebody out...There may not have been anybody who was physically present...Still it was a colloquy...Maybe it was with God. Wouldn't be off for him. He was a believer." Sanders left Duke in 1959, but expressed gratitude that Ellington attended his ordination 14 years later in Bridgeport, CT. (Click here for the Jazz Museum of Harlem's feature on Sanders' address to the group in 2006.)

Monsignor John Sanders
Credit Jazz Museum of Harlem