Black and Tan Fantasy

Recorded April 4, 1961
Track Time 4:00
Written by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley
Recorded in New York City
Accompanied by Duke Ellington, piano, Trummy Young, trombone, Barney Bigard, clarinet, Mort Herbert, bass, Danny Barcelona, drums
Released on Roulette
Currently on CD: "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions"
Available on Itunes? Yes (The rehearsal is available only by purchasing the full album)

Ah, you can’t go wrong with Louis and the Duke. When I hit on an obscure Armstrong song like “Sincerely” or one that he recorded more than one time, I usually like to go into all-out details mode. But come on, this is Louis and the Duke! Ellington wrote it so you know it’s good and on this version, Armstrong plays it, so you know it’s great. What else do you need to know?

Okay, okay, real briefly, Ellington co-wrote the piece in 1927 with his growl trumpet specialist of the time, Bubber Miley. The song encompasses many moods in its differing strains, with plunger-muted trumpet establishing a somber state of affairs over minor blues changes at the start, followed by a wistful, romantic alto saxophone-led second strain, some solos over standard blues changes, and another plunger excursion at the end, leading to the final, haunting quote of Chopin’s Funeral March. If you’ve never heard it, you’ve really missed out on some glorious early jazz, passionate music that can easily make you laugh and cry within the span of three minutes. If you’d like to hear a Brunswick version from April 1927, click here.

Over the years, Ellington continued to tinker away at “Black and Tan Fantasy,” recording updated versions and continuously playing it at live engagements, later in a medley with two of his early works, done in “Jungle Music” style, “The Mooch” and “Creole Love Call.” I happen to love this medley, which is captured in living color in this YouTube clip (with Cootie Williams working the plunger).

In April 1961, Bob Theile of Roulette records hit upon the idea of teaming Armstrong and Ellington together. They had made one record together (“Long, Long Journey”) in 1946 and participated in the messy jam session of “Perdido” from a Timex jazz show from 1959. George Avakian told me in great detail about his plans to pair Armstrong with the Ellington orchestra for a Columbia album in the 1950s, but, thanks to Joe Glaser, the idea was put on the shelf. This must be one of the great regrets of all-time because Armstrong was in peak form in the mid-50s and so was the Ellington band.

Nevertheless, at least we still have the Roulette albums, which are quite wonderful in their own way, with Ellington simply replacing Billy Kyle in the All Stars instead of carting his big band along for the ride. The recorded material consisted of nothing but Ellington originals and it’s a gas to hear Pops interpreting ballads like “Azalea” and “I Got It Bad,” just as it’s a complete joy to hear him romping on “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Cotton Tail.” Enough material for two albums was recorded over two consecutive days in April 1961 and judging from the excerpts of the session tapes released on Capitol’s two-disc reissue from 2000, a loose, fun atmosphere was maintained in the studio.

Fortunately, for this entry’s purposes, the second disc of that Capitol release contained seven minutes of unreleased attempts to work out “Black and Tan Fantasy,” which was recorded near the end of the second session. Listening to how the master take shaped up is quite fascinating, mainly because of the failure of Barney Bigard part of the original routine of the song, something he heard almost nightly for 15 straight years with the Ellington band. Bigard’s clarinet sound is one of the hallmarks of Ellington’s great early big bands and though he continued to play for almost 40 years after leaving Duke, Bigard never quite sounded as good as he did when he had Ellington to guide him. The Ellington-Armstrong session was a reunion for the clarinetist and his former boss and generally, Barney plays quite well throughout, but the session tapes do capture some uneasy moments on “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

Alas, the Capitol issue begins with the musicians working out a routine for take three, so we’ll never know exactly what went on during the first two takes. But one thing’s for sure: Barney is having a tough time remember the second strain of the song, which, in the Ellinton band, was usually handled by an alto saxophonist, Otto Hardwicke early and Russell Procope later. The track opens with Bigard playing the correct notes but trying to determine exactly where to play them. Ellington suggests playing them an octave lower, but Bigard maintains, “It’s all right, right there, it’s all right.” However, when Bigard tries to continue playing the melody, about 64% of the notes he plays are wrong. He then heeds Duke’s advice and plays it an octave lower, but in the end, determines, “It’s too low.” When he plays it lower, though, he plays all the correct notes, but you can sense him hesitating. Clearly, there was no music present and he was just relying on his ear, which, during a long recording session where as many tunes have to be recorded as humanly possible, doesn’t always work.

Take three begins with Duke taking an ominous intro, backed by Mort Herbert’s bass and Danny Barcelona’s drums. Armstrong and trombonist Trummy Young then enter with the melody, Young muted a la Ellington, but Armstrong using his trusty clear plastic straight mute, which least distorted the beautiful sound of the trumpet he loved so much. Obviously, growing up at the knee of King Oliver, Armstrong knew a thing or two about growling and he proved to be quite adept at it during a 1924 Clarence Williams version of “Everybody Loves My Baby.” However, by the late-20s, Armstrong retired his plunger and decided to spend the rest of the career by emphasizing his pure trumpet tone, only spicing it up a little big with a straight mute from time to time.

Armstrong and Trummy sound good together during this third take, though Armstrong plays a different melody note in the fifth bar, not wrong, as it works harmonically, but not the written note (again, no sheet music). Behind them, Herbert alternates between walking and stop-time, while Barcelona quietly swings out on his hi-hat. This chorus is followed by a very timid sounding Bigard attempting to play the second strain but fumbling badly. “Hold on,” booms the voice of presumably Theile and with that, Bigard was relieved from his duties. A small gap of silence lets us know that the tape probably stopped rolling to allow the boys to get the arrangement down and during this unrecorded discussion, it was agreed that Duke would play that strain with Barney only needing to cool his heels until his solo, Duke pointing out that he’d play the first break, “Herbert’s got the second break,” then Pops. Theile stresses to Barney that he only needs to come in during his “jazz solo,” but then the Ellington mind, always thinking, comes up with an idea. “Put a glissando in the break, in the first break there, on top of me,” Duke says, playing the chords to emphasize just where he’s talking about. This discussion is kind of hard to hear because through it, Pops decides to warm up his chops and begins blowing a blues chorus accompanied, his tone sounding beautiful and very full (he was suffering from a cold during the sessions, but it sure didn’t affect his blowing). As Bigard continues noodling and awaits the start of take four, he quietly sums up his feelings with a tired, “Ohhhh shit.”

Again, silence fills the void where take four was once performed, but we do get a false start to take five as Ellington can’t quite decide the tempo during his introductions. Ellington piano intros frequently played with the tempo until he got it right, but he couldn’t do that here with Herbert and Barcelona following his lead (I think it’s Barcelona, though, who apologizes to Duke). When the producer asks about the tempo. Ellington launches into one of his strictly Ducal philosophies: “Oh, the tempo don’t mean a difference, don’t make no difference in the introduction—nobody’s dancing, they didn’t even get out of their seats yet!” You can hear Pops breathing out a silent a chuckle at this notion.

Finally, with take six, we get a complete alternate and it’s a good one, about 80% there. During Pops and Trummy’s melody chorus, Herbert and Barcelona now play stop-time together. Ellington then takes the strain that gave Bigard so much trouble, hitting all the right notes, though he sounds kind of tentative. However, in the turnaround after the first half, where Barney was supposed to swoop in, there’s no clarinet, which seems to throw Ellington off a bit. He recovers to finish the strain, passing the ball to Herbert, who takes a bass break that’s quickly usurped by the furious sounds of Louis Armstrong about to take a blues chorus. Pops takes two, using phrases almost consistently from his vocabulary. But my, what a vocabulary! Armstrong plays with a lot of soul and I like how after most of his phrases, he ends a shorter, higher phrases, almost like a vocal obbligato where he’d say “Yeah” or “Mm-mm.” For his second chorus, he trots out King Oliver’s solo from “Jazzin’ Babies Blues,” which I went into more detail about in an older entry. Pops must have loved that solo as he famously borrowed it on his 1928 record of “Muggles.” Even for his 1927 book, “50 Hot Choruses,” Armstrong played that same solo on “Jackass Blues.” You can’t blame him…the solo really works. I love the perfect Barcelona thwack on his snare rim after Pops’s first phrase of the second chorus. Pops’s really gets pretty lowdown here though one or two notes might not have come out as desired.

Trummy’s up next with some violent growling. Young usually isn’t associated with being a master of growling but he knew when to bring it out, as on “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” However, with Duke present, it must have really inspired him to go way down in the alley and blow some real gutbucket phrases. Barney, perhaps trying to erase the memory of his struggles, plays a great solo here, with a lot of force and bluesy moans. For me, though, I love listening to the rhythm section. Ellington, at least on this song, comped a lot by using riffs. For Bigard’s solo, he plays a simple ascending and descending motif that, after playing it through a couple of times, is picked up by bassist Herbert, who carries it through the rest of the chorus. It’s a great example of musicians listening to each other and it’s more great work from the rhythm team of Herbert and Barcelona, who did some of their finest work on the Ellington sessions. Danny always told me that Mort was one of his closest friends in the band and they really worked well together. When people talk about All Stars rhythm sections, they usually name Sid Catlett or Barrett Deems as drummers or Arvell Shaw as bassist but it’s interesting to point out Barcelona and Herbert played together for three years and four months, the longest of any other drum/bass combination in the group (second place goes to Barcelona and Buddy Catlett with three years and three months, then Shaw and Cozy Cole, who played two years uninterrupted from May 10 1949 to July 1951, then another year from the summer of 1952 to August 1953, giving them a total of three years and two months together).

Back to take six: after Bigard’s solo, Pops reenters to replicate Miley’s original breaks, consisting mainly of a ripped high Bb and a series of lower Bb’s. The first time around, Pops phrases the Bb’s with an evenly shuffling rhythm, speeding them up a bit during the second break (listen to the low register of Ellington’s piano linger through). The band reenters to swing through the coda which, of course, enters with the Funeral March and some nice dissonance from Ellington and Bigard. Take away Bigard’s missed entrance and Ellington’s hesitation and take six almost could have been the master. Fortunately, they gave it another go and eventually came up the master take, which is available for listening on YouTube as a series of stills of Pops and Duke plays before your eyes. Give it a listen:

Because I’ve already given some details on the alternate take, I don’t have to go as crazy with the master as it follows it very closely. There’s still one shaky moment: after Duke’s piano introduction, Barcelona forgets about the stop-time and swings on his hi-hat for about six beats before he catches himself. Pops plays the right melody notes and blends beautifully with Trummy. Ellington plays the second strain with confidence and Barney, as per Duke’s suggestion, swoops in during the turnaround with some nice phrases (Duke always knew what would work). In the second half of the second strain, though, Duke plays the melody an octave lower, as he originally suggested Barney to play it; he really wanted to hear it down low!

Instead of giving Herbert a full break by himself, he plays a short rhythmic episode while Barcelona continues swinging and Duke plinks a chord or two, setting the stage for Pops’s staggering two choruses. Ellington gives him more than just riffs for accompaniment, laying down some wonderfully dissonant phrases. As Pops reaches the King Oliver chorus, Ellington begins riffing and the whole piece begins to take off. It’s nothing monumental in Armstrong’s careers, but it’s two incredibly great choruses of blues. Young continues getting downright funky with his trombone solo, sounding even dirtier than on the alternate. Bigard, however, starts off a little more tentatively than on the alternate, but he quickly gathers steam. Herbert simply walks for four bars but when he catches Ellington playing that same riff he played during take six, he picks up on it again and plays it in unison. Pops varies the Bb’s during his final breaks, but those high rips sound like ferocious snorts. The Funeral March and the dissonance once again take us out, a fine recording from a great meeting of legends.

With that, another month of blogs winds down to a close. Time killed me for a while there, as I only pumped out one blog a week for a little bit, but I made up for it with three in the last six days this week so if you haven’t checked in in awhile, look backwards as you may have missed some good stuff. For February, there’ll be more of the same, though I’d like to write another “Classic Concert Review,” as well as devote more attention to some Armstrong YouTube clips. But speaking of Armstrong footage, my next lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers Newark has been moved from April 14 to February 20 so again, while I prepare for that one, I might disappear for a little bit. But if you’re in the New York/New Jersey area, mark down that calendar as I’ll be showcasing some of the rare Armstrong footage I’ve collected through the years, much of it given to me by some of the great people who read this blog and correspond with me regularly. If you’d like to write an e-mail, drop a line to or just leave me a comment! As Pops would write….S’all!


Lio said…
Very interesting. I'm looking for the Armstrong solo trascription of Black and tan fantasy. Can someone help me?

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