Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and One Night in New York City
Since the nineteen-sixties, there have not been jazz musicians as artistically significant and generally popular as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, or Bill Evans. Today, jazz music is a miscellaneous collection of wide-ranging and disputed genres that stands to the side of American culture. How did the train go off the tracks? A listen to Ellington and Evans both playing an Ellington standard, “In a Sentimental Mood,” on the same hot Thursday night in New York City—August 17, 1967—offers a few clues. Here is Ellington’s version, at the Rainbow Grill, with the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, along with John Lamb on bass and Steve Little on drums. And here is Evans’s version, at the Village Vanguard, with Eddie Gomez on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
Ellington, in the twilight of his career, had several long residencies at the Rainbow Grill, a restaurant and ballroom on the sixty-fifth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Ellington would work on new music during the day (with the passing of his collaborator Billy Strayhorn, in May, 1967, Ellington’s final decade would see a much higher percentage of original music solely from his pen) and, in the evening, would play for dinner, dancing, and listening. This functional gig was a different experience than the glamorous concert tours that the full band made during the year. Yet each night at the Rainbow Grill high society, music fans, and hangers-on came together to see Ellington. You never knew who would drop by: Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, a Rockefeller.
For the summer of 1967, Ellington brought in an octet with the legendary veteran Ellingtonians Cat Anderson, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Lawrence Brown, and Harry Carney, accompanied by a young, mainstream rhythm section. They played the hits and a few minor new pieces. (A bootleg of a complete set came out recently on the Gambit label—an imprint for collectors who don’t mind potential illegalities). Everything is enjoyable, but the highlight is the Gonsalves quartet and “In a Sentimental Mood.”
Ellington packs a whole history of composition into only two and a half choruses. The first chorus is piano in D minor/F major, the “old style,” fairly close to the first 1935 recording. After the “old-style” chorus, Duke modulates to Bb minor/Db major for Gonsalves’s entrance, the same key used for the “new-style” version of “In a Sentimental Mood” tracked with John Coltrane, in 1962. Gonsalves’s greatest fame was authoring twenty-six choruses of shouting blues on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the Newport Jazz Festival, in 1956, a moment that many credit with revitalizing Ellington’s career. However, Gonsalves was also one of the greatest ballad players, and his silky, furry, almost murky legato here is pure delight.
Gonsalves’s mastery is only to be expected, but the sixty-eight-year-old Ellington is still full of surprises. Playing with Coltrane, Ellington’s “new-style” arrangement had a mournful raindrop piano part that was dramatic and distinctive. At the Rainbow Grill, Ellington doesn’t play many of the raindrops but goes all out in rhapsodic style: heavy block chords, cascades, even a long left-hand trill underneath pointillistic right-hand stabs. It would be hard to find ballad accompaniment this busy anywhere else.
Downtown, the vastly influential keyboard artist Bill Evans was enjoying another run at the Village Vanguard. He was a regular at the club, with his 1961 LP “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” well on its way to canonization. When he was in residence, Evans would put a table from the front by the back stairs, come early, and drink coffee while reading the racing news.
In 1967, you could still get a hamburger or a turkey club sandwich at the Vanguard, but there certainly was no dancing. It was a nice, quiet audience for Evans that night. This recording of “In a Sentimental Mood,” which was released on the Verve double LP “California, Here I Come,” has less audience noise than “Sunday at the Village Vanguard.”
The current Evans trio was a mix of new and old. Eddie Gomez was a fresh firebrand in the tradition of Scott LaFaro (the extraordinary bass virtuoso on “Sunday at the Village Vanguard”). The drum great Philly Joe Jones was a familiar Evans associate from their Miles Davis days and the swinging 1958 trio session “Everybody Digs Bill Evans.”
Bill Evans recorded “In a Sentimental Mood” a few times over the years, usually as a ballad, but at the Vanguard that night it was a medium swinger. There are three different takes from three different sets on August 17th and 18th, but the piano part is consistent. Gomez and Jones make all the rhythmic hits and substitute changes with the pianist, but they are also free to offer tasteful commentary. Over all, this is a much more modern and interactive approach to the rhythm section than Lamb and Little with Ellington at the Rainbow Grill. Unlike Ellington’s unwinding scroll, conventional small-band jazz practice dictated an identical “melody in” and “melody out.”
It’s all very hip for 1967, but there was, nonetheless, a faintly homogenous and predictable air from Evans at this point. At the end of the previous decade, Evans essentially co-authored the luminous masterpiece “Kind of Blue” with Davis, but that sense of space and swing was seldom to be heard when he helmed later trios. Still, this comparatively unheralded set is one of the best of later Evans trio dates, simply because Gomez and Jones are so forceful and personal.
Exactly one month before, the jazz world was rocked by the sudden loss of one of its greatest practitioners. For some, the death of John Coltrane meant the death of jazz. Coltrane came from far back in the tradition—he walked the bar as an R. & B. entertainer and knew the bebop giants like Charlie Parker—but his final music was as avant-garde as anything ever recorded. There has hardly been an artist in any discipline who did so much and moved so quickly. When Coltrane died, a fundamental arc of African-American-based instrumental improvisation died with him.
1967 was, of course, a time of great change in American society: the Summer of Love, the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, everything else. The rise of rock, soul, and Motown had already put jazz’s relationship to popular culture on notice; the generation gap would seal the deal. A year later, Miles Davis would plug in and incorporate rock, paving the way for the most popular instrumental music of the seventies: fusion—a theatrical jazz-rock synthesis featuring backbeats, electric instruments, and jazz solos. Over all, the history of jazz becomes much more splintered and harder to assess, especially with the forceful trajectory of less popular—but arguably more influential—avant-garde figures who were less overtly concerned with swinging or playing the blues.
The straight-ahead acoustic jazz that generally espoused the values of Ellington and Evans held on mostly as an art music. Masters in that idiom would perform to shrinking audiences in clubs but to bigger numbers in concert halls, especially in Europe. However, the basics of straight-ahead jazz were also being taught to incoming freshmen at an increasing number of American colleges. The influx of students mandated digestible rules. During the mid-seventies, a lead sheet of “In a Sentimental Mood” appeared in “The Real Book,” the most widely disseminated jazz manual ever made, a “fake book” of tunes and chord changes produced by students in the powerful jazz program at Berklee College of Music, in Boston.
If a student wanted to sound like Bill Evans on “In a Sentimental Mood,” he or she could quickly start getting close with the help of a chart in “The Real Book.” The sheet begins with four versions of D minor, “D-, D-(maj7), D-7, D-6.” These aren’t wrong, exactly, but they are far closer to Evans than Ellington, and suggest ways of articulating harmony in a blocky and unmusical fashion, one divorced from the idea and emotion of the original song.
Lead sheets generally offer mildly complex added-note harmonies that imply a sequence of chord scales. A novice can start cheaply rhapsodizing scales through pastel harmony instantly, summoning a basic imitation of modern jazz in the Evans mold. The great pianist and provocateur Paul Bley joked that every European jazz promoter, after first relaxing with a drink post-gig, would inevitably sit down at Bley’s instrument and play just like Evans.
This is not to say that Evans himself wasn’t a devout master of harmony. He certainly was, with a strong claim to having done the most to integrate the polymodality and impressionism of Russian and French composers from fifty years earlier into jazz. To name just three obvious living examples, the work of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett stands squarely on Evans’s shoulders.
The problem is the influence of scalar thought at a introductory level. Some of jazz education has been excellent. Any time an actual master like Barry Harris is willing to talk nuts and bolts, a wise student will listen. However, much of jazz education— especially when it exploded in the nineteen-seventies—simply lacked depth. Many teachers and method books were inadvertently offering a way to sound like a European promoter, not like an American master.
“Kind of Blue” with Evans and Coltrane was the big shift away from Charlie Parker and bebop. Think of Parker as Bach and Coltrane as Beethoven. The basic impulse remains the same: the blues is the basic link between Bird and Trane in the way that the major-minor harmonic system of tension and release is the basic link between Bach and Beethoven.
The change was the shape of the container. Bach and Parker built structures based on internal counterpoint, where the melodic impulse was true in every dimension, while Beethoven and Coltrane offered fast-scale passagework over varied textures. The music of Bach and Parker is essentially at one volume and one affect, while Beethoven and Coltrane are able to go from quiet to thunder and back. While it would be foolish to proclaim that Bach and Parker are greater than Beethoven and Coltrane, it is true that Beethoven and Coltrane are easier to imitate (not to mention teach), simply because acquiring the essentially untheatrical craft of Bach and Parker is harder than that of the later, more theatrical masters.
To get back to 1967: if a student wants to sound like Ellington, there’s no point in looking at “The Real Book.” Ellington’s performance is too mysterious and detailed. Each of Ellington’s chords is its own universe. Some chords have added-tone harmony that fit a scale; some do not.
And to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with scalar improvisation, just as there’s nothing wrong with Beethoven. Eventually, Coltrane’s music with his fellow-scale genius McCoy Tyner would use this approach to create some of the very greatest music ever made.
The problem with so much of jazz education is that it teaches scales as the first and best option for improvisation, which has led to a profound homogeneity of jazz at the college level that persists to this day. However, Coltrane knew as well as anyone that permutations of a scale were just one element of improvisation. On Coltrane’s version of “In a Sentimental Mood” with Duke, he doesn’t play any scales. Instead, he declaims the melody in his profound and passionate style. Coltrane then leaves the star solo turn to Ellington, who offers one of the most perfect piano improvisations in the whole Duke canon: mysterious, searching, surreal. That surreal piano chorus is in stark contrast to Evans’s professional and clean chorus with Gomez and Philly Joe, where each note of attractive melodic improvisation in the right hand fits perfectly with the added-note harmony (and implied chord scale) beneath.
“Surreal” was a key element to the Ellingtonian palette, but it was almost always an accessible kind of surreality. There were dancers at the Rainbow Grill. Not many—not a swarm of hundreds, like when jazz was still popular music—but some. These dancers were also probably familiar enough with current Ellington to know to stop and listen when there was a cadenza. During the first Ellington chorus of “In a Sentimental Mood,” the floor is quiet, but when Gonsalves swoops in and the tempo falls into place one can almost see partners taking each other in their arms. It is so beautiful how radical and avant-garde Gonsalves and Ellington can be while also playing for dancers. It’s a kind of avant-gardism that prizes melody and beat first. It also aligns with mystery and even pop sensibility, or at least a way to make something unusual within a confining commercial marketplace.
Downtown, despite the élite audience, there was comparatively little radicalism, and the only pop sensibility is a kind of cheeky harmony. The pianist and composer Anthony Coleman, who followed the Ellington band in their last few years and heard them at the Rainbow Grill many times, told me recently that Evans’s approach makes “In A Sentimental Mood” dangerously close to the banal: “Those cutie-pie hits together forty seconds in, for example, send me into a reverie where Jamal degenerates into Ramsey Lewis, with Oscar Peterson nodding approvingly towards André Previn, and Johnny Mandel observing the whole thing.”
Then there is the bass solo. Bass solos can be wonderful, but bass solos usually can’t be done in the commercial marketplace. Eddie Gomez sounds great on “In a Sentimental Mood,” with fierce virtuoso improvisation in the tradition of LaFaro. This is certainly a valid approach, although many of the best bass soloists have tended to not be speed demons but earthier, songful players like Wilbur Ware, Charlie Haden, and Ron Carter. Arguably, the best solution for bass solos in the classic-jazz ensemble remains the one pioneered by Jimmy Garrison in the classic Coltrane quartet: Garrison took one solo a set as a theatrical unaccompanied cadenza.
At any rate, a busy bebop bass solo is mostly interesting to other bassists. It’s a dramatic error to have too many a set, as casual fans will lose interest. Ellington himself said, of jazz circa 1970, “These bass solos keep coming up like commercials on TV.” “Commercials” have dogged many straight-ahead jazz groups for decades. In many cases, the band or the leader gives the bassist a solo feature on every tune as kind of thanks for being the accompanist the rest of the time, even though the better and commercial-free solution is for the bassist to be an essential part of the ensemble at every moment.
Then again, the Bill Evans trio couldn’t have played for dancers. You can’t have this kind of bass solo at a dance! Dancers can be one of the toughest crowds. Of course, the audience at the Vanguard wouldn’t have wanted to get up out of their chairs and grab a partner. The Vanguard was becoming a kind of temple for the hippest jazz in town, where listeners needed to be educated about the music almost before going down the stairs.
Grandly extrapolating history from any given pair of gigs leaves plenty of room for argument. A critic of this essay might begin by noting that the entry fee for the club would have been much cheaper than uptown at Rockefeller Plaza. There’s also no doubt that, in 1967, many musicians would have found Bill Evans more relevant than Duke Ellington. A later interview with Lamb, the Rainbow Grill bassist, is telling:
“I was very young and very cocky. I thought I knew more than Duke at that time,” Lamb said, laughing at the memory. “The music to me is much more important now than it was then.”
Ellington could connect all the dots—the social, the modernist, the intellectual, the populist, the personally poetic—for a vision of American music truly epic in scope. As great as Evans was, he didn’t have that kind of command. Fifty years ago, the basic connection to a larger audience was slipping away. The integrity of the song was getting diluted by the scale. A kind of darker and mysterious undercurrent was giving way to something lighter in affect. For those concerned with the future of this esoteric art, it is always wise to go back and study Duke—“A flame that lights the gloom.” The answers are there if we remember to look.