On the centenary of Duke Ellington’s birth I find myself thinking, to my surprise, of Rex Harris. Rex Harris wrote a book called “Jazz” which, when I discovered jazz as a boy, I thought was the Bible and gave me my early grounding in its history. What I didn’t really realise was that it was very like the Bible indeed, or like the Bible would be if it stopped halfway through the Old Testament. Rex Harris was a fundamentalist who believed that when jazz stopped being New Orleans jazz in the late 1920s, it stopped being any good. Indeed, he maintained that it stopped being jazz. That meant that anything after 1930 was pretty wicked unless it was a repetition or reshaping of the good things that had gone before.
Rex Harris hated big bands, with all their written down arrangements, he hated modern jazz and above all he hated saxophones. Saxophones had not been used in New Orleans and were therefore beyond the pale. They muddied up the clean textures of the trumpet/clarinet/trombone front line. They were nasty and wicked. He stopped short of saying that they would stunt your growth and turn you blind, but he did say that the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins might have been all right if he had stuck to the clarinet, which is a bit like saying that Mozart might have been OK if he had stuck to the harpsichord.
I was young and impressionable and a convert and I believed all this. So I only bought records recommended by Harris, until one day I actually used my initiative and bought an LP called Leonard Feather’s Encyclopaedia of Jazz, Volume One, “The Twenties”, an anthology which I thought Rex Harris would approve of, even the track featuring violinist Joe Venuti. (I think Rex Harris thought violins were all right, because there were very early photographs of black violin players in New Orleans bands.)
But right at the very end of one side of the LP there was a band whose listed personnel included not one but TWO saxophones, and I just knew that this was not for me and Rex, so every time I played the record I carefully lifted the needle off the vinyl BFORE we got to that track to prevent the blasphemous sounds from reaching my ear drums, for all the world like a Buddhist monk in Burma averting his eyes from the face of a woman.
I blush now to think of my prudery, but being a believer is a serious business. It certainly went on for nearly a year, this business of me playing the record, me rushing over to pluck the stylus from the LP before I heard the horrors, me being saved from damnation. Then one day I forgot all about it and let the record play on. I finally came to hear the forbidden music. And do you know what? It was wonderful. It wasn’t barbaric, or debased dance music, or syrupy or anything. It was just wonderful. It was far better than anything else on the LP.
What it was, was 1927 recording by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra of “East St Louis Toddle Oh”, which in three minutes not only presented a real composition (different sections and key changes and everything) but had great jazz soloing and wonderful writing, full of atmosphere and colour. Rex Harris didn’t think much of Duke Ellington, but suddenly I didn’t think much of Rex Harris any more, and set off without hesitation on a lifelong spree of discovering Duke Ellington’s music. I may have lost my faith in poor old Rex Harris but I had gained all jazz since 1930 in return. What a bargain!
What was odd, looking back, was that although Duke was still alive when I discovered him, and indeed still had twenty years ahead of him, I never thought to find out what Duke was doing NOW. I wanted to catch with up the intervening years, so I came through the records he made in the 1930s (great years) and the 1940s (maybe even greater) and the 1950s (up and down) until it all came together and I finally got to see the great man in person some time in the 1960s. He was even more wonderful than I had hoped.
And I was privileged to see him one last time, near the end of his life, in the unlikely setting of St Mary’s Church in Cambridge, where The Times had let me go to review one of his concerts of sacred music. Duke became very religious in his last years and wrote lots of music to the glory of the Lord, which seemed a shame to us jazz fans who just wanted more of the real Duke, but in that tiny church his band was so powerful that you couldn’t help but be swept away by anything he did. And I couldn’t really blame him for discovering religion. After all, years ago he had been the noise on the road to Damascus for me.
The Independent Thursday Apr 29 1999