New box sets revisit the legacies of Duke Ellington, Charlie Christian

Perhaps no musical genre has benefited more from reissues of older material and CD technology than jazz. Artists both famous and obscure and LPs long, long out of print have found new life in recent years.

The vast vaults at Columbia Records have in particular yielded much, including the recent box sets Duke Ellington: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958 (9 CDs) and Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar (4 CDs).

Michael Brooks and Michael Cuscana produced both sets, the latest in a series which has also given new life to the works of Charles Mingus, Stanley Clarke, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

Brooks tells Art Attack about the Ellington and Christian sets, his experiences working under legendary producer John Hammond and what Christian might have done had he not died tragically young at the age of 25.

Art Attack: First, I know you got into the business working for Hammond. What was he like? Brooks: John Hammond hired me in 1971. He was, at times, infuriating to work for. Vague, capricious and often arrogant. He was also kind, generous and very supportive in a totally anonymous way. There wasn't a month went by when some musician, down on his luck, would drop by to see John, and they never went away empty-handed. After I stopped working for him, people like Jerry Wexler and Nat Hentoff would call me up, saying how John had sung my praises.

But John was a victim of his own sheltered upbringing. He was generally disliked at Columbia, because he didn't know how to play the corporate game. If someone questioned his artistic judgment, he simply went over their heads, even going as high as William Paley himself, whom he had known since the early 1930s.

He was uncomfortable with anyone who had not been born with the proverbial silver spoon, even though, contrary to general belief, he barely had a dime to his name. He favored musicians who needed him, hence his often uneasy and hostile relationships with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and others. He often dropped casual comments that, in today's climate, would be considered downright racist and which appalled me at the time. At a distance, I can now see that he was typical of his time and upbringing and there was no malice or viciousness behind his thinking.

Art Attack: What about his work as a producer? Brooks: I don't think he was that good a producer, at least as the term is described by modern standards. He was happiest making records with bands, or singers who knew exactly what they were doing, and all John had to do was sit in the control room and choose the best take. His efforts to combine older artists with newer musicians were, for the most part, failures.

Where John was outstanding was discovering new talent. He had an uncanny ear for detecting what was going to happen in music before it did happen. Of course, he made lots of mistakes, but how many people can boast of discovering Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Ray Vaughan?

One of my duties with John was listening to the hundreds of demo tapes that flowed into his office. His only instructions to me were: "I don't need another Dylan or Aretha; I've already got them, so don't waste my time passing them on to me."

Art Attack: What do you think sets Ellington's '50s work apart from the rest of his discography? MB: Can't really answer this, except that his Columbia work was far superior to the previous Capitol recordings. I suspect that producer George Avakian had a positive creative influence on him. I think Ellington was always bursting with creativity. On the negative side, I believe that the adulation of some of his fans and the critics pushed him into areas which he would have been better off avoiding. There's a certain pretension in some of his latter-day work.

Art Attack: Talk a bit about Christian's artistic legacy, as the electric guitar was not considered much of a jazz instrument before him. MB: Charlie Christian brought the electric guitar into prominence because he was with Benny Goodman, who had the highest profile of any swing bandleader. People forget that George Barnes was playing superb electric guitar, accompanying black blues singers in Chicago in 1937, while Leon McAuliffe was starring on amplified guitar with country star Bob Wills. I'm sure, listening to them both, that Charlie and Leon heard one another, and maybe even played informally after hours. All that being said, Charlie did take the instrument to new heights.

Art Attack: I know that Benny did not care much for Charlie or his playing initially. What changed? MB: I don't believe that Benny rejected Charlie on musical grounds. What I think influenced him was John Hammond's arbitrary decision to force him onto Benny. There was always a love/hate relationship between the two of them, and Benny's marriage to John's sister didn't help matters. Also (and I'm merely speculating), Charlie turning up in clothes more suited to a circus act probably appalled Benny, who was very strict about how musicians should deport themselves.

Art Attack: Finally, what do you think would have happened with Charlie's career had he lived longer? MB: That's a no-brainer. If he'd lived, Charlie would have been in the forefront of the bebop movement. Imagine him jamming with Bird and Diz!

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero