Promoting Swing Dancing
and Live Swing Music
in the Triangle Region

Duke Ellington

Contributed by Sarah Ovenall, Hostess of Divaville Lounge, Sundays 2-4pm, WXDU 88.7 FM (listen online at


Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington at the Hurricane Club, New York, NY, 1943 Library of Congress

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington at the
Hurricane Club, New York, NY, 1943

One of the greats of the swing era, Duke Ellington began recording in 1924 and was a major force in the jazz world until his death in the 1970s. His songs are DJed, used in film soundtracks and performed by live bands to this day. While his work covered a wide range of styles over several decades, many feel that Ellington’s Orchestra was at its best in the early 1940s. Nicknamed the Blanton-Webster Band after bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor sax Ben Webster, that time is considered a golden era for Ellington. He recorded a wealth of songs for swing dancing in the early 40s (click to see YouTube videos of each): “Five O’Clock Whistle,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Perdido,” “’C’ Jam Blues” and “Never No Lament (Don’t Get Around Much Anymore)” to name just a few, were all recorded during the Blanton-Webster era.




Duke Ellington’s success as a bandleader was not just due to his musical talent, but also his skill as a manager. Ellington attracted top talent to his orchestra and inspired unparalleled loyalty: musicians stayed with him for decades, sometimes their entire professional careers. For instance Johnny Hodges, one of the greatest alto sax players of the swing era, worked with Ellington from 1928 until Hodges’ death in 1970. Ellington was famous for sensing when his musicians felt creatively stifled and might be thinking about leaving to start their own band. He would encourage them to create their own orchestras as side projects, using members of the Ellington Orchestra. This gave star performers like Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams and Barney Bigard a creative outlet, so that they would not feel frustrated working as sidemen for Ellington.


 In these side projects the musicians were able to experiment creatively and these sessions often yielded songs that, while not as well-known as Ellington recordings, are excellent for swing dancing, such as Johnny Hodges’ “Squatty Roo” or Cootie Williams’ fun swing arrangement of “Ol’ Man River.” Ellington was so supportive of his musicians’ side projects that he often played piano for them, although many bandleaders of the era considered it demeaning to perform as a sideman in someone else’s band. It was so rare for a musician to leave Duke Ellington’s organization that when Cootie Williams left (after 11 years) to work for Benny Goodman in 1940, Raymond Scott wrote a song about it: “When Cootie Left the Duke.”


Sam Nanton

Sam Nanton

One key contributor to the Ellington sound was trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton. Nanton joined Ellington’s orchestra in 1926, and (together with trumpeter Bubber Miley) developed an innovative plunger technique known as the “growl” that helped define Ellington’s sound. The growl effect used two mutes: a straight mute inside the horn and a plunger outside. Ellington’s son Mercer described it: “There are three basic elements in the growl: the sound of the horn, a guttural gargling in the throat, and the actual note that is hummed. The mouth has to be shaped to make the different vowel sounds, and above the singing from the throat, manipulation of the plunger adds the wa-wa accents that give the horn a language.” You can watch Nanton growling with his horn at 1:43 of “’C’ Jam Blues”. It can be heard throughout work of this era including “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, the opening notes of “Five O’Clock Whistle” and slower songs like “Mood Indigo” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.” Unfortunately Nanton was extremely protective of his style and would not share his technique with anyone, even his own bandmates. When he died unexpectedly in 1946, no one knew how to recreate the growl effect as Nanton had done it, and that element of the Ellington sound was lost.


Bubber Miley

Bubber Miley


Trumpeter Bubber Miley began working with Ellington in 1926, and played an important part in the development of Ellington’s sound. Miley’s use of the trumpet was as innovative as Nanton’s with the trombone; his trumpet solos were featured prominently in early recordings like “Creole Love Call” and “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Miley struggled with alcoholism which made him at times difficult to work with, and contributed to his leaving the Ellington Orchestra in 1929. Miley’s life was cut short by alcohol-related illness; in 1931 as his condition worsened, Ellington wrote a song in his honor using Miley’s personal motto as the title. Miley died a few months later of tuberculosis, and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was penned into swing era music history.



Composer Billy Strayhorn was also essential to Ellington’s organization. Strayhorn joined Ellington as a staff arranger/songwriter in 1939 and wrote some of Ellington’s most enduring work, like “Satin Doll,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The latter was one of the first songs Strayhorn ever wrote for Ellington. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story that when Strayhorn was first hired to work for Ellington, he wanted to make a good impression by presenting his new boss with a song on his first day. Strayhorn had to travel from Pittsburgh to take the job, and Ellington had provided directions to his apartment in the prestigious Sugar Hill neighborhood in Harlem. Strayhorn took the first line of the directions – take the A train – and inspired by the rhythm of the train from Pittsburgh to New York, wrote “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Strayhorn worked for Ellington for the rest of his life, and they collaborated so closely that in compositions that they wrote together, even scholars who have studied Ellington for decades sometimes can’t tell exactly which of them wrote a particular passage.


Duke_Ellington_starDuke Ellington’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (from Wikipedia)


In a career that spanned fifty years and over a thousand compositions, Duke Ellington created a unique sound and countless swing dance recordings. When you are at a DJ dance, chances are you will hear at least a song or two by the Duke. Listen for the growling trombone to give it away; you’ll know you’re hearing Tricky Sam Nanton play his famous growl for you.