A bit of history this weekend – Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra with Ivie Anderson on vocals, broadcast live from The Cotton Club in New York on March 18, 1937. A regular feature of Mutual, in fact a regular feature of all radio networks in the 1930s all the way to the late 1950s. Big band remotes, as they were called. Regular live broadcasts from night spots all over the country featuring some of the biggest names in Jazz, and some later-legends, all part of a weekly feast of music that America listened to on an almost nightly basis.
By 1937 Duke Ellington was already a household name. One of the most popular Big Bands in the country, Ellington assembled a team of top-notch musicians who maintained the highest level of musicianship for decades. Just listening to this 20 minute broadcast gives some indication of just how finely tuned the organization was. Almost no breaks – a pause for breath here and there, but a level of intensity and precision that would be hard to find even these days. And yet, they did it effortlessly, several times a night and broadcast several nights a week. No small feat, but one of the reasons why the Ellington Orchestra was considered one of the best in the world.
Sadly, the quality of this broadcast isn’t as good as it could be. In 1937, most broadcasting outlets were preserving these performance on 16″ Acetate discs, known for their quiet surfaces. This one however, is from the old-school; aluminum discs that were silver with not very quiet surfaces. So it sounds a little like the band is playing next to a waterfall. It’s just the limitation of the technology at the time. These were never meant to be used for anything other than reference recordings for advertisers, executives or clients. So aside from the rarity of performances like these, there is also the chance that some of the best performances are under the worst conditions – and some things just can’t be helped.
But history is often like that – full of warts and imperfections, but history nonetheless.
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