This morning on my radio show, I played one of my favorite Frank Sinatra tracks and certainly my favorite track from the album that Sinatra did with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra (a 1967 collaboration called Francis A. and Edward K.) a tune called “I Like The Sunrise.” The song is from Duke Ellington’s Liberian Suite, and is notable on the Sinatra collaboration because, believe it or not, it’s the only Ellington composition on the album.
“I Like The Sunrise” points to the oddness of Francis A. and Edward K.: Sinatra recorded several Ellington standards through his career (beautiful versions of “Mood Indigo” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” among others, for Capitol), and Ellington was even under contract to Sinatra’s Reprise Records, yet when it came time to record an album together, not only was the album devoid of Ellington tunes, but Ellington didn’t even do the arrangements! Longtime Sinatra arranger Billy May, instead, wrote charts in the style of Ellington. It’s not a BAD album, but two things make me scratch my head: given the wealth of material that Ellington composed, why did he and Sinatra opt for “Sunny” and “Poor Butterfly” instead of, say, an album of songs like those on Rosemary Clooney’s Blue Rose? And second, why didn’t Ellington handle the arrangements? Again, the arrangements aren’t BAD, but they’re not DUKE.
In his fantastic Sinatra biography Sinatra: The Song Is You, Will Friedwald wrote about the Francis A. and Edward K. sessions, and it’s illuminating…
Around the third week of November (1967), (arranger) Billy May and (pianist Bill) Miller flew up to Seattle, where (Duke) Ellington was working to try out the (arrangements for a collaboration with Frank Sinatra) in a rehearsal without Sinatra.
“We rehearsed them all afternoon and, Jesus, the rehearsal was terrible,” said May. “They were all terrible sight readers in that band. The drummer, Sam Woodyard, couldn’t read music at all. But they had a trick where he had to watch one of the saxophone player’s feet for when he’d stop playing and when he’d start. So the second time through, the saxophone player would mark his part, and he’d move his foot or something like that, and that would be the cue for the drummer. It was all shit like that.”
Most of the studio men whom Sinatra, May, and (Nelson) Riddle were used to working with had spent time with the touring swing bands. Still, in the studios it was just as important to be able to read a piece of music as if it were a newspaper as it was to be able to play with a strong swing feeling, for a Sinatra sideman anyway. However, Ellington’s sidemen didn’t learn Ellington’s music by reading it, said May; “they got it by playing every night, and when they got it, it was fine.” Many of the finest improvisors couldn’t have made the studio grade, reading-wise…
“We went through the whole album, we rehearsed it all,” May continued. “Duke made a big issue out of saying to me, ‘Oh, get the music ready and we’ll rehearse it. We’ll play these on the job. I’ll play Frank’s vocal part on the piano…
“(I thought) ‘Well, they have two weeks before the session… If they keep playing them every night like that, they’re bound to nail ’em, and everything’ll be all right.'”
However, the Ellington organization was not only the greatest amalgamation of soloing and composing talent the jazz world has known, it was also a band of prima donnas who could only be held together by the biggest ego of them all… As Mel Torme learned in a disastrous tandem billing at New York’s Basin Street East, the Duke and his men typically invested energy only in playing Ellington’s own music. Torme’s and May’s accounts agree that the band just didn’t care to put any effort into the work of outside arrangers…
The session began on December 11… At the podium, from the first downbeat on, May realized that “they never touched the charts again; they never even looked at ’em after that day”…
May’s solution was to add a couple of “ringers” to the band, (sight) reading studio men who could follow the charts and play in the Ellington style. With one good reader playing lead for each of the sections, the others could gradually follow and get it right….
Once the session began in earnest, Sinatra, May, Ellington, and the studio and regular band members put their egos behind them and got to work. It finally didn’t matter that their collective sight-reading skills weren’t up to snuff. As engineer Lee Hirschberg stated, “They were just such an incredible band, it was like they were joined at the base of the skull by some invisible thing. They just locked into everything. It was an amazing session, really.”
“That was a hard album, and there’s some disastrous shit in there,” May put it, “but some of it’s awful good.”
–Friedwald, p. 304-307
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Explore the answer with Max Harrick Shenk in his book
A Musical Way.
Many of the greatest musicians of the last hundred years learned music “outside of the academy:” with little or no formal training, musicians like John Lennon, Merle Haggard, Burt Bacharach, Paul Simon, and others became greater than many musicians who took lessons their whole lives. How did these and other non-traditionally trained musicians learn music? Are there common ways that non-traditionally-trained musicians follow to become proficient as players, singers and composers in spite of their lack of formal training? And can those ways be formalized into a musical pedagogy that could, in fact, be a more effective method of mentoring musicians than the traditional “academic” approach of lessons, theory and study?
In A Musical Way, Max Harrick Shenk explores the ways that we learn music in spite of formal training, reflecting on his own experiences as a listener, songwriter and musician, and drawing on the experiences of musicians who not only learned music without lessons or schooling, but often didn’t even realize that they were learning. Shenk takes those experiences and proposes a “musical way” that a teacher could use to help a musically-interested student express his or her musical ideas, without getting hung up or stuck on technique, theory or an uninteresting, uninspiring repertoire.
“I realized I was free to play music any way I wanted to,” he writes about one of the many breakthrough moments in his own informal musical education. Fostering and encouraging that freedom in students is Shenk’s “musical way.”
Interwoven with quotes, anecdotes and even excerpts from Shenk’s own fiction, A Musical Way will help listeners, players and teachers understand the ways that we learn music, and inspire and encourage them to not only teach others, but to make music of their own.