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Duke's Men: Ellington's Loyal Improvisers

Duke Ellington (left of center) poses with some of his sidemen in 1946, including Junior Raglin, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Sonny Greer, Fred Guy and Harry Carney.
William Gottlieb
/
Library of Congress via Flickr
Duke Ellington (left of center) poses with some of his sidemen in 1946, including Junior Raglin, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Sonny Greer, Fred Guy and Harry Carney.

Every successful big band leader featured brilliant soloists: Count Basie had Lester Young, Fletcher Henderson had Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman had Gene Krupa. But the Maestro, Duke Ellington, spotlighted his men apart from the rest.

Ellington's soloists captured the spirit of his music. He wrote concertos, short- and long-form tunes, with his musicians in mind, allowing for their personality to shape the structure of the music. He specifically targeted his musicians' strengths — Johnny Hodges' seductiveness, Cootie Williams' bravado, Tricky Sam Nanton's humor — and accentuated those attributes. That's why musicians remained so loyal to him over the years, even at the expense of their own fame. He understood them and brought the best out of their playing. These tunes remind us why.

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