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Keep (it) Swinging: Oscar and the Duke: An Encounter In Paris, 1933

Keep (it) Swinging: Oscar and the Duke: An Encounter In Paris, 1933


Oscar and the Duke: An Encounter In Paris, 1933

Some time ago I received an article about the encounter between Oscar Alemán and Duke Ellington in Paris, 1933. The article is written by Luis 'Tito' Liber and is published below. It puts focus on Alemán's reactions and has quotes from interviews in Argentine printed media, here available in English for the first time.

Illustration in Gani Jakupi: Le roi invisible (Futuropolis, 2009)

One thing is that fans and collectors of today claim that Oscar Alemán is one of the best jazz guitar players, but another thing is the opinion of one of the greatest personalities in jazz history. The great Duke Ellington, and the members of his band, affirmed that Oscar Alemán was not one of the best, but THE BEST guitarist in 1930s Europe… Here is the story.

Concert ad (source: Luis Liber)

In July 1933 Ellington`s band arrived in Paris to play at the Salle Pleyel(Thursday 27th) and at the Casino de Bauville, in a tour promoted by Jack Hylton. Music-hall star Josephine Baker, convalescent at home following a car accident that had injured her hand (the driver was Oscar Alemán, and the car was seriously damaged), welcomed Ellington and introduced him to Alemán. Ellington, who was very impressed by the skills of the "chaqueño", tried to persuade Md. Baker to ‘lend’ him Alemán as a guest musician of an upcoming USA tour, but the "Venus" declined and retained Oscar as a member of her staff which impossibly could have a substitute.

Josephine Baker and her car – June 1935 (photo ABC Madrid)

Oscar Alemán later recalled in an interview:

"I met Duke Ellington by the time I had an accident. One day I was driving my car to my work at the Casino de Paris, with Josephine Baker. They crashed me. I stayed for ten days at the hospital, and later at my hotel. The first visit I made when I got out of the hotel was to see my friends from the Casino. I arrived at Josephine`s dressing room. Everybody came to salute me. She had an injured knee and some scratches on her face. I was patched  all over and walked with a stick. While I stayed at Josephine`s dressing room Duke Ellington entered with his two trombonists. One of them was Juan Tizol, the author of "Caravan", he was a Puerto Rican; he made myself understood by Duke Ellington, because Tizol spoke in Spanish. With them also was Freddie Guy, Ellington`s guitarist. The four were good "orejeros" (in Argentine: they had good ears for music). In a certain moment Duke told Josephine: "I came to greet you and to hear a recommended guitarplayer" (…) Next I asked one of the dancers to go to the second floor and bring me my guitar. The kid went running. I opened the case, took the guitar and began to play for Duke Ellington. When I finished, he told Juan Tizol to ask me if I wanted to go with him to North America (…) "You are not going as a staff guitarist, but as a soloist." Josephine objected: "No. Where am I going to find another guy who plays all the styles Oscar do: dancing, tapping, singing? Besides, I have seven suits and shoes made for him, all of the same colour. And those costumes aren`t useful to another person. And his substitute has to be black." Because of that I didn`t go to the USA and I had to stay in France." (Ardiles Gray, Julio. Historias de artistas contadas por ellos mismos. Ed. Belgrano, Bs.As. 1981, pp. 285-297).

Another Alemán comment about the encounter with Ellington in Paris, 1933:

"I should be angry with Josephine because my life would have changed. Ellington had offered me the triple than she paid me and he was going to present me better" (cited by Espinosa, R. Oscar Alemán. Hablando con Dios. 2002)

Further, Oscar later has an interesting remark on Duke`s ability for "stealing"/memorize the tunes heard for the first time. Alemán’s theme song Hombre Mío could have had the same fortune as Juan Tizol`s Caravan"Juan Tizol was present, the Ellington`s trombonist, now already dead, who is the true author of "Caravan". Duke Ellington insisted me to play my own composition, called "Hombre mío", by that time not registered neither recorded. Tizol advised me not to play it, because he (Duke) was going to steal it from me." (El tenedor y el cuchillo. Pelo. Julio 1978).

Yet another quote of Alemán’s remembrance of his meeting with Ellington in Paris, 1933:

"What an immense emotion the day that, without expecting it, I have him in front of me, ready to juzge my guitarplayer skills! Can you imagine my nervousness?… Even today I don`t know how I had the nerve to play all the pieces he asked me and some I knew he was going to like (…) Getting up of his seat, he came to congratulate me. That ment to me the greatest honour I ever received." (Oscar Alemán tiene un galardón que es orgullo. Es amigo de Duke EllingtonMi Cine, 22-05-1947).

Ellington Band at Cotton Club 1933

As a demonstration of fondness and admiration, the members of Ellington’s band presented Oscar with a photo similar to the shown dedicated at the reverse side by all of them.

Handwritten dedications to Oscar (click to enlarge), wrongly dated 1932

Some of the dedications read: “Muchos recuerdos para el mejor guitarrista que hemos oido” (Juan Tizol), "To my good friend Oscar Aleman, the greatest guitar player we heard in Europe" (Art Whetsol), “To Oscar, to me the greatest guitarist of today” (Fred Guy), “To the greatest guitarist in the world” (???)


During that same 1933 tour through France and the UK, Ellington`s banjoist, Fred Guy (b.1897 – d.1971), adopted permanently the guitar as part of the rythm section of the big band. Maybe the Duke had made this change after hearing the sound of the instrument in the hands of Oscar. So, the rythm section (tuba, banjo, piano, drums) changed from tuba/banjo to double bass/guitar. It is worth mentioning that Guy (who was with Ellington for 24 years: 1925-1949),after changing to guitar, became almost inaudible and a less important member of the orchestra (it was prior to electric amplification), while the loud volume of the banjo had allowed him to be heard clearly.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra at Palladium, London, July 1933 – 
Notice Fred Guy is featured with both banjo and guitar

The years of Alemán’s success in Argentina during the 1940s and 1950s passed away and he came into a dark period in the 1960s. He would, however, meet Ellington again in September 1968, during Duke`s tour through Argentina. A turning point in Oscar's career. But that is another story.

Luis 'Tito' Liber



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