Author Archives: jaybrandford

In His Own Words

Duke Ellington in his own words from Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey Cohen 2010 University of Chicago Press

  • “Sometimes they’d tell me to write for current modes and not for myself. I’d get the feeling that maybe I ought to listen to them and then I sit down and talk with Billy [Strayhorn]. He’d convince me all over again that I ought to write what I felt. That’s what I’ve done.” [1948]
  • “I know the only thing I do in music is listen, not the only thing maybe, but the big thing I do in music is listen. Before you can play anything, or before you can write it, you gotta hear it. If you can’t hear it, then it’s a mechanical thing. It has to do with the ear. Some of the prettiest things on paper come off drab.” [Early 1960s]
  • “I’m a hotel man; I like being alone, you know. I don’t know why.” [1956]
  • “I wanted to get back to Europe for a while. It’s good for the morale. It gives you the kind of adjustment of mind you need in this business. Over there [in America] you get too used to the Hit Parade. You know it means nothing, and yet after a while, you start paying attention. That’s bad for your music.” [1948, in Europe]

This book is filled with information that gives us context for a richer understanding of Ellington’s life and musical achievements. Here’s a straightforward review.

A couple of high points for me:

  • It’s helpful to know about the 1919 Washington DC Race Riot, “a flashpoint in American racial dynamics.” This event preceded a period when Ellington and his hometown colleagues began visiting and eventually settling in New York City. That violence, and the racial politics and activism all around it HAD to have been a major part of the conversation as these young African Americans pondered their future and their music. Years later, when asked about why he left a comfortable career in DC (providing commercial music for social events), Ellington’s elegant and inscrutable statement was simply, “It’s always more important to know what’s happening than it is to make a living.” Is the riot and its aftermath in the background behind those words? Ellington always leaves you thinking….
  • Harvey Cohen quotes extensively from unpublished essays in which Duke describes his vivid vision for an extended musical work that would be a tone parallel to the African American experience. That work eventually came together as “Black Brown and Beige,” first performed in 1943, and Duke generally avoided public descriptions of it or any of his other major works. The writings that Cohen has unearthed are intense and moving; as you read you can imagine the words in Duke’s voice, telling you what he wants to get across to listeners.

Cohen also gives us painful details about business hassles that repeatedly dragged down Ellington, even as he was creating masterpieces after masterpiece.

Over and over again the best parts of the book are Ellington’s own words – from correspondence, articles, and interviews. The simple statements at the top of this post appealed to me; If you read this book, you’re sure to find messages from Duke that are meant for you.



A priceless moment in the film “Big Ben: Ben Webster In Europe.” He demonstrates the old school strategy of playing along with a recording, in this case a Fats Waller LP.
This film isn’t a performance documentary; it’s sketches of Mr. Webster’s daily life: going to the zoo, talking with his landlady, playing some stride piano, commuting to gigs, running a rehearsal (with Don Byas!), and so forth.

Here’s a link to the full film

Transcription: Roger Rosenberg plays “Giant Steps”

roger rosenberg

New York City, late 1970s:

The range of up-and-coming talent on the jazz tenor saxophone scene is breathtaking. Bobby Malach, Bill Pierce, Bob Mintzer, Chico Freeman, Mike Brecker, Bob Berg, David Schnitter, Ricky Ford, David Murray, – and these are just the cats who were in their twenties at the time!

Roger Rosenberg was part of this community of vibrant and high energy musicians; here he is soloing on tenor with George Russell’s New York Big Band in 1978; it’s an Ernie Wilkins chart on “God Bless The Child” featuring vocalist Lee Genesis. Roger was a busy freelancer who worked with Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Buddy Rich and many, many others during these years.


At this time he also began to focus on the baritone saxophone, the instrument he’s been associated with ever since, and you can hear a lot of tenor sax vocabulary and vitality when he plays the bigger horn.  Roger was part of the Lee Konitz Nonet that performed at the first Chicago Jazz Festival in 1979, and the band’s performance was broadcast by NPR on Billy Taylor’s program “Jazz Alive.” Here’s a recording of Roger tearing it up on the Nonet’s set-closer, “Giant Steps.”


Here’s a transcription of Roger’s solo.

Click here for a downloadable .pdf: Roger Rosenberg – Giant Steps solo

In the early eighties – soon after these recordings were made – Roger became a charter member of Bob Mintzer’s Big Band; he’s played on all the recordings and anchors the sax section of the band to this day. During those years he also worked in Chet Baker’s quintet, playing baritone and soprano. For more information about Roger, consult his biography at, search for his performances and interviews on YouTube, and check out his recent studio projects  Baritonality and Hang Time. Both albums contain many of his excellent original compositions.

In 2018 he’s still a busy creative musician around NYC, and on the road and in the studio with Steely Dan.


“One note on the saxophone for weeks at a time”

dolphy outdoors 2Here’s a 1975 interview with Eric Dolphy’s parents, Eric Sr and Sadie Dolphy. The interviewer is Alan Saul and he explains the circumstances of his meeting with the Dolphys on his website. The video is a nice document of these warm and supportive parents, their perspective on their son’s personality, his generosity, his commitment to his church, and his optimism.

There are also a few words about practicing:

12:30 Alan Saul: Do you have any ideas what he would advise people, or what advice he could possibly help people on?

Mrs Dolphy: I think he’d tell them to practice, because that’s all he did (laughs). He would get up in the morning before he went to school, say about 4:30 or 5, and practice until it’s almost time to get his breakfast and leave for school. And he’d hurry home to start practicing again, until very late in the evening….

13:19 Alan Saul: Did he mostly just practice scales and exercises?

Mrs Dolphy: Yes, and tone quality. He’d blow one note all day long.

Mr Dolphy: I seen him blow one note on the saxophone for weeks at a time. And I’d be out in the yard working, and I’d go in and say, “There’s no more keys on the saxophone but that one note?” And he’d play and he’d put it on his tape recorder, and he’d listen to it and say, “Dad, it’s got to be right.” And I’d say, “It sounds right to me,” and he’d say, “It’s not right yet.”

Much more Dolphy info at Saul’s website.dolphy11