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Duke Ellington: the Washingtonians

Ellington’s first band didn’t sound great … but he and his musicians learned fast

At first, Duke Ellington showed more talent as a painter than a musician, and studied commercial art at college. He had a young family by 1919, and made a living as a sign-painter.

But music took over, and Ellington began playing at cocktail-parties and social functions, sometimes working with local musicians. He joined a band called The Washingtonians, led by banjoist Elmer Snowden. It was to be the prototype of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The Washingtonians moved to New York in 1923, and began to get regular work at the Hollywood and Kentucky clubs on Broadway. They played a rhythmically rather stiff kind of dance-music, influenced by a smattering of New Orleans jazz.

But Ellington had already heard the great soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet play in Washington, and called the experience ‘the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’ He later said: ‘I consider Bechet the foundation. His things were all soul, all from the inside.’

Here is Bechet’s amazing playing in the song Shag.

Bringing this kind of sound into the Washingtonians was the next move.

It began in 1924 with the arrival of James ‘Bubber’ Miley, a trumpeter who had heard King Oliver in Chicago and loved the voice-like ‘growl’ sound (produced by a wah-wah mute), and Oliver’s feel for the blues. Miley brought a new rawness and earthiness to the Washingtonians, drawing them away from what Ellington had called ‘sweet music’ and the smooth, ‘legitimate’ sounds of the dance-band players. In the same year, Sidney Bechet himself was briefly - but very significantly - a member. In that short time, Bechet’s driving swing transformed the group.

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