Duke Ellington's "All Star Road Band" album was recorded live at a dance in the Sunset Ballroom, in Carrolltown, PA, in June 1957.
It is not among his most famous, but is interesting in several aspects.
-- The Music --
There are relatively few albums of the Ellington band performing at dances, the most famous being "Duke at Fargo", recorded in 1940. Fast-forward 17 years and we have with the "All Star Road Band" album another dance date, but with a more "modern" version of the Ellington band. The band features:
* Harold Baker, Willie Cook, Clark Terry - trumpet
* Ray Nance - trumpet, vocals
* Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman, John Sanders - trombone
* Johnny Hodges - alto saxophone
* Russell Procope - alto saxophone, clarinet
* Jimmy Hamilton - tenor saxophone, clarinet
* Paul Gonsalves - tenor saxophone
* Harry Carney - bass clarinet, baritone saxophone
* Duke Ellington - piano
* Joe Benjamin - bass
* Sam Woodyard - drums
Dance dates gives us the opportunity to hear the band in a relaxed setting, away from the recording studios and concert halls.
One of the outstanding numbers is "Stardust", a feature for the trumpet of Harold "Shorty" Baker. Many of you may not know of Baker. Miles Davis was a big fan. Here is what Eddie Lambert writes about Harold Baker in his book "Duke Ellington - A Listener's Guide":
"Harold "Shorty" Baker was a first-class musical craftsman held in the highest esteem by his fellow musicians. As a lead player he was without peer, his superb tone and finely judged phrasing making him an ideal first trumpet. On ballads Baker's rich, golden sound allied to his lyrical phrasing and impeccable musicianship made him an instantly recognizable soloist. So radiant was Baker's tone that it seemed like a form of sacrilege whenever he played with a mute. Yet even muted Baker's sound had a certain indefinable "class." He was also quite adept in the growl manner, although Ellington did not use him in this style. His recorded solos reveal immaculate craftsmanship in their construction which typifies the excellence of all aspects of this admirable musician's work. He had several spells with Ellington, and in each his contribution was of great value. His solos have a special distinction and their own kind of rather gentle swing."
There is little material available on the internet about Baker. A lengthy piece published by the Duke Ellington Society of Sweden is available here: https://ellington.se/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Bulle-19-2.pdf
Some other highlghts of the album are: the rarely recorded "Frustration" with Harry Carney on baritone saxophone; a very soulful Johnny Hodges in "Jeep's Blues" and "All of Me"; Paul Gonsalves rocking it out on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" as he probably was requested to do in every concert since the famous Newport Festival performance a year before; Clark Terry's trumpet on Perdido...
Stanley Dance's liner notes provide information on the soloists of each track. They can be consulted on the internet archive (https://archive.org/details/lp_all-star-road-band_duke-ellington), and I have copied them here below.
-- The Recording --
Jack Towers, who famously recorded the "Fargo" dance in 1940, as a young student, is also credited as the "Engineer" for this album. Unfortunately we don't have any details of how it was recorded (mikes, placement), as I would be curious to know. The sound quality is quite good, very dynamic, giving the listener the impression he is really in the front row and center (if not in the middle of the orchestra).
-- The Venue --
The Sunset Ballroom was located in "Sunset Park", on the outskirts of Carrolltown, Pennsylvania, roughly an hour and a half east of Pittsburgh.
The population was 853 in the 2010 census (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrolltown,_Pennsylvania). I assume it was not much different back in 1957. The park and ballroom must have attracted visitors from miles around as many famous acts performed there over the years.
Nothing remains of the ballroom or the park today, and very little information is available on the web. This is what I found on a Facebook page dedicated to the history of the area:
"The Northern Cambria Railroad built the first building in Sunset Park which opened January 8, 1909. The building burned down November 2, 1967. During its heyday, the park was so popular that it had its own rail line into it and extra cars were added during special holidays and events. The place featured ethnic gatherings, sporting events, dances and all kinds of entertainment with people coming from miles around. It attracted big name bands such as Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, Guy Lombardo and the original Inkspots. The ballroom was often transformed into a skating rink, a basketball court or gymnasium. The mammoth hall was 80 feet wide and 150 feet long with 150,000 board feet of lumber used."
Unfortunately, I could not find any photos of bands performing in the ballroom.
View of the park with the ballroom in the background:
The dance hall/ice rink:
The dance hall, with branches on the ceiling put up as christmas decorations:
-- Liner Notes - Stanley Dance --
For forty-five years Duke Ellington and his men traveled enormous distances in pursuit of their daily bread. Because they were popular, they never had much time off. But they were also human, so some nights they might be tired, morose or irritable, and other nights, often inexplicably, full of joie de vivre. Discipline was not Ellington’s forte. He was prepared to sacrifice consistency for the effervescence of spontaneity that, to him, was the essence of jazz.
We may never know now why the band was in such good spirits when, in June 1957, it played a dance in Carrolltown, Pennsylvania. Nearly two hundred miles west of Philadelphia, Carrolltown was a small agricultural centre in the Alleghenies. No doubt the dance was patronized by more than the townsfolk and that people came from miles around. The people, the promoters, and their hospitality, probably had more than a little to do with the way the band felt. Particularly at a dance, there was always a two-way tide of affection and admiration. And by 1957, of course, Ellington and his men had friends in every part of North America and, it is not too much to say, in every part of the globe.
The excerpts from the performances this joyful night begin, as Ellington programs so often did, with the band’s theme, Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train. It features Ray Nance’s cornet in a role he virtually created for himself and his successors. The recording catches the warmth of his sound especially well. Then, as the sae dies, Ellington turns him loose again in a hilarious, quote-filled version of the same number. Besides the audience, the band gets a big kick out of this, not least Sam Woodyard, whose energetic, propulsive drumming proves a big inspirational factor all night. By 1957, of course, drummers were relinquishing provision of the main pulse to the bassists. But not Woodyard. He always kept in mind that this was a “heavy” band, and that it was his duty to provide a beat that could be heard and felt.
Next is Such Sweet Thunder, the theme for Othello from Ellington’s Shakespearean suite. It is a brave, martial piece and once again Ray Nance has a chorus to himself, his phraseology and tone explaining why his colleague, veteran trombonist Quentin Jackson, liked to refer to him as “Mr. Soul.” The précis histories of jazz do immense injustice by ignoring marvelous individuals like Nance, who was vital to the Ellington enterprise for so many years. The unique sound of the reeds is worth noting on Such Sweet Thunder. This saxophone section stayed together longer than any other in jazz, and much of its strength and character derived from the two men from Boston, both powerful blowers, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney. The perspective of the live recording makes it possible to hear details of the voicing differently from those on studio recordings. Rarely heard as a soloist, John Sanders is responsible for the valve trombone statement.
Frustration is a number Ellington wrote in 1948 for Harry Carney, whose big, full tone normally anchored the whole ensemble. Here it is in theforeground, rich, velvety, and distinguished by his inimitable phrasing.
Cop Out is one of the numbers Ellington sometimes used to “punish” Paul Gonsalves for misdemeanors. The more exhausted he might appear, the more solo choruses would be demanded of him. But in this case he takes an almost nonchalant five-chorus ride on the sixteen-bar theme at a fine, swinging tempo.
Perdido, at this period, had become the prerogative of Clark Terry, the great trumpet virtuoso, whose double-timing reflected contemporary practice, but whose style remained intensely personal. Like Paul Gonsalves, he had assimilated the bebop message and could reinterpret it while maintaining an agreeable tone.
Mood Indigo was an inevitable request, but at dances it was usually subjected to wry twists. Here, surprisingly, the trio responsible for the theme statements seems to consist of Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman and Harry Carney, the last on bass clarinet. Russell Procope perpetuates Barney Bigard’s style in two mellow clarinet choruses, and Willie Cook follows with two more on muted trumpet that are full of sensitive intelligence. Then Ellington takes three on a piano that had undoubtedly seen better days, but it is clear that this was an occasion when he felt like playing.
Bassment, also known as Daddy's Blues and Discontented, is a blues that features the leader and introduces Joe Benjamin on bass. Benjamin, later to become the band’s regular bassist, was here substituting for Jimmy Woode.
Sophisticated Lady was another invariable request and it had become Harry Carney’s most famous showcase, one on which he demonstrated his great “bottom” notes and ever-increasing mastery of the circular-breathing technique. Ellington announces him as the “All-American Number One Baritone Sax,” a humorous reference to Carney’s many victories in those magazine jazz polls that once had a certain publicity value.
Stardust features Harold “Shorty” Baker, the fourth member of what was one of the most brilliant trumpet sections of Ellington’s entire career. Within the profession, Baker was among the most respected musicians on trumpet, both as lead and soloist, but not being an exhibitionist he received less recognition from the public. A melodist, as his two beautiful choruses show, he was originally inspired by Louis Armstrong and Joe Smith. His music also has a quality that brings to mind a predecessor in the band, Artie Whetsol.
In the opinion of those who heard him often in person, Johnny Hodges was not merely Ellington's greatest star, but the greatest of all alto saxophonists. He could play ballads superbly, and he could also play the blues at all tempos with the utmost authority. All his recorded performances of Jeep's Blues seem like masterpieces, but this eight-chorus version is outstanding, a supreme example of what “telling a story” once meant to musicians. All of Me illustrates his relaxed, melodic artistry on a familiar standard. He makes it sound so simple and easy, right down to the humorous vaudeville ending.
Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue had been the sensation at the Newport Jazz Festival the year before when the original 1937 composition was performed with a long “wailing interval” of blues choruses by Paul Gonsalves. It put Ellington on the cover of Time and it typed Gonsalves as an extroverted tenor stylist just when the tenor saxophone had become the dominant jazz instrument. Although he was a marvelous ballad player, he was obliged to play this exacting tour de force nearly every night for the rest of his life. The present version is well recorded and rhythmically it is extremely exciting. There are shouts of encouragement from the band and the audience, all egging him on, and he responds with the generosity of spirit that made him so well liked by everyone who knew him. Ellington comes back in on piano to set up the crescendo finale, during which the band and all those present go wild with excitement.
To cool down the dancers, Hodges is brought back to swing two pretty songs, I Got It Bad and On the Sunny Side of the Street. There is some indecision on the band’s part while Ellington announces that the bar will be closing at one o'clock, although the band will pay until 1:30. He suggests that the patrons may need to “fortify” themselves. The musicians had no doubt been doing that during intermissions. Johnny Hodges even emits a couple of reed squeaks on the last tune, something that very rarely happened.
So now there would be hurried goodbyes to old and new friends. The music stands, the music library, the bass, the drums, and the larger instruments are loaded on the bus. The musicians, having changed leisurely despite urgent cries of “Rollin’” from the band valet, finally get themselves out to their jealously reserved seats. The World’s Greatest Navigator, as Duke Ellington terms himself, gets into the front passenger seat of Harry Carney’s big Imperial. He may be thinking about breakfast a few hundred miles away, but he stops to exchange some banter with his men. Then they’re all gone, the All-American Road Band, rolling through the night to another city and the next engagement. Before all the famous heads nod, someone probably says, “We sounded pretty good tonight.”