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Fresh Talents, Unprecedented Heights

John Edward Hasse, Ph.D

By John Edward Hasse (original source Wall Street Journal)

Duke Ellington, I like to argue, ranks as America’s greatest all-around musician—composer, arranger, bandleader, accompanist, soloist and musical thinker. Who else did it all with such sit-up-and-notice style, originality and longevity?

He and his band reached a new peak of musical expression when a refreshed roster first headed into the studio 80 years ago this week. Their recordings from 1940 to 1942, dubbed their “Blanton-Webster” iteration, created one of the high points of American music.

In 1940, Ellington began what some regard as his premier period. He had recently hired Jimmie Blanton, a 21-year-old who would revolutionize jazz bass playing, and Ben Webster, who brought the tenor saxophone to new prominence in the ensemble. They both sparked the Ellington Orchestra. “Every time there was an addition to the band,” baritone saxophonist Harry Carney told jazz writer Stanley Dance, “the new instrumentalist seemed to give Duke new ideas and something to draw from and add in his writing.”

Another recent hire, arranger and composer Billy Strayhorn, began his ascent to becoming Ellington’s indispensable musical partner and an invaluable composer in his own right.

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