Early Ellington in Chicago
by Richard Wang
In May, 1998, the Sixteenth Annual Duke Ellington International Conference convened here in Chicago at the Ramada Congress Hotel. This was only the second time the Conference has been held here; the first was in 1984 when the Duke Ellington Study Group coordinated a Conference which was hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago. The return of the Conference offered an opportunity to review the earliest appearances of Ellington in Chicago and to re-examine them in the light of current scholarship.
The first published notice announcing Ellington’s presence in Chicago appeared in the Chicago Defender of June 26, 1930, stating that Ellington would be at the Savoy Ballroom (on South Parkway Blvd. near 47th St.) for a two-day stay beginning July 26th. To make this engagement possible, Ellington booked this stop-over on the way from Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom to Hollywood, where the band was to appear in the Amos ‘n’ Andy film, "Check and Double Check."
A more significant early Chicago appearance began on February 13, 1931, when Ellington opened at the Oriental Theater for a one-week stay. The band had closed its long New York residency at the Cotton Club in early January, and had embarked on an 18-week nationwide tour for the Paramount-Publix theater circuit. Ellington’s CBS broadcasts from the Cotton Club, his recordings, and his film appearances had given him a national audience and his arrival in Chicago was eagerly anticipated.
Of special importance during Ellington’s five-week residency in the greater-Chicago area was the addition of vocalist Ivie Anderson. Anderson had been singing with Earl 'Fatha' Hines in a long-term engagement at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Cafe. She was supposed to join Ellington only for the Chicago-area tour. However, she stayed on until 1942—the longest tenure of any Ellington vocalist. She left the band the year after Duke’s musical, "Jump for Joy," closed in Los Angeles, where she stayed on to open her own restaurant ("Ivie’s Chicken Shack".)
On the stage of the Oriental Theater and elsewhere, her performance of "Stormy Weather" was a show-stopper. Another show-stopper was Ellington’s "Creole Rhapsody," supposedly composed and premiered here in Chicago. The facts are somewhat different.
According to Ellington, while the band was at the Oriental Theater in early 1931, his manager, Irving Mills, announced to the press, "Tomorrow is a big day. We premiere a new long work—a rhapsody." Ellington’s response was, "So I went out and wrote 'Creole Rhapsody'."
It was Ellington’s first piece of absolute music, as the title "Rhapsody"” implies. He wrote of it, "That was the seed from which all kinds of extended works and suites later grew." "Creole Rhapsody" was not a functional dance number or a production number for the Cotton Club, but a unique composition which was the earliest and most important forerunner of Ellington’s 1943 suite, "Black, Brown, and Beige."
In fact, "Creole Rhapsody" was first recorded on both sides of a ten-inch Brunswick issue of January 20, 1931. A second and longer version (8:33 min. vs 5:57) was later issued on both sides of a twelve-inch Victor recording of June 11, 1931. These recordings represent Ellington’s first attempts to record beyond the time limits of the single side of a ten-inch 78rpm record and reflect his growing need to express himself in ever larger forms.
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