There is absolutely buckus going on at work today; my emails are going unreturned; nobody is showing up for scheduled meetings. I’m guessing everyone is hiding under their desks waiting for this new Trump-imposed world to go all super nova since rumor has it that scientists have been trying to figure with computational models how in the sweet sam hell we ever managed to end up in this predicament but in each case, the world simply blows up. What a merry time of misrule it’s going to be.
Now, before all you women’s libbers out there jump down my throat, don’t shoot the messenger. I didn’t name the album, nor do I think the Duke anticipated this album name to advocate domestic violence. This is Ellington’s fanciful tale of Carribee Joe and his drum, which evolved into a woman known as Madam Zajj (and a very abstract telling of the evolution of jazz) and became a television special in the late ’50s.
There. Feel better?
During his long and prolific career, Duke Ellington composed music for concerts ranging from the most prestigious venues to dance halls. He also wrote for the theater, for movies, and, of course, for records. This just happened to be for a TV special.
Through music, vocals and narration, this album tells the story of Madam Zajj and her relationship with a mysterious man called Carribee Joe. Ellington called it “a tone parallel to the history of jazz”. It uses a variety of musical styles: New Orleans jazz, calypso, Ellingtonian swing, bebop, etc. – and it takes the listener from Africa to the Caribbean via Congo Square and 52nd Street to the moon!
If this sounds strange, it is. Duke’s narration is often puzzling and may be marred for modern listeners by the old-fashioned attitude towards women in the title-track (“It isn’t civilized to beat women, No matter what they do or say, But will somebody tell me What else can you do with a drum?”). Despite being a confirmed devotee of Ellington’s music, I find it hard to regard this as one of his major works. It’s bitty incomprehensibility militates against its success, and the mysterious words might have been better replaced by more music from the wonderful band. At times, Ellington’s words sound more like a private meditation than a narration (Duke’s son, Mercer, says that “Madam Zajj” became a composite nickname for many of the women in Duke’s later life).
There are, of course, some moments of superb Ducal music, such as Clark Terry and Ray Nance’s evocation of Buddy Bolden in ‘Hey, Buddy Bolden‘, and some glorious Johnny Hodges saxophone on the title track, backed by a range of remarkably varied chords. The use of voices anticipates some of Ellington’s later work in his Sacred Concerts, while the emphasis on percussion prefigures 1959’s Malletoba Spank.
It’s definitely more swinging and enjoyable than what’s more than likely on offer at the Devil’s luncheon that’s currently going on at the White House.