The Duke's Men

Duke Ellington composed for his orchestra as a unit and for his most skilled improvisers as individuals. Beginning in 1934 and up until 1941, miniaturized editions of the Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded under the nominal leadership of four master musicians: trumpeter Cootie Williams & His Rug Cutters, cornetist Rex Stewart & His 52nd Street Stompers, clarinetist Barney Bigard & His Jazzopators, and saxophonist Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra. Each man shared the responsibilities of composing, arranging, and leading the band with Duke, who usually sat in at the piano. With few exceptions, the recordings suggested a distillation of the larger ensemble, with the combined advantages of artistic autonomy and cooperative collaboration. In 1955 and 1956, selected examples of small group swing played by these Ellington offshoot bands during the years 1936-1939 were issued on two different LPs under the heading of The Duke's Men. This billing was invented by executives working for the Epic record label. None of these groups ever recorded under that name. The 1956 album bore the title "Ellington's Sidekicks." As an umbrella term "The Duke's Men" would reappear during the '90s when Columbia reissued most of the small band material dating from the '30s in two double-disc sets. While each of the four small group headliners would subsequently record as a leader under many different circumstances, the taproots of those later developments led directly back to the recordings they made before the Second World War as leaders under the influence and direct supervision of Duke Ellington. ~ arwulf arwulf

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