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C Jam Blues (1942)

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“Basically a vehicle for jazz instrumentalists to display their improvisational skills, it is one of those pieces that is far more enjoyable for the player than the listener.”

- K. J. McElrath

AKADuke's Place
Rank 148
Words and Music Duke Ellington

New Orleans-born clarinetist Barney Bigard is likely the originator of this tune, a simple blues riff in the key of C. Since Bigard was a veteran member of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in 1941, Duke had a slice of the pie, too, and undoubtedly arranged the piece for the orchestra. Yet Duke referred to the number somewhat disparagingly as “one of our more or less trite things.”


More on Barney Bigard at JazzBiographies.com

More on Duke Ellington at JazzBiographies.com

The number was introduced in a Soundie short film. These three-minute features, produced to be shown on a jukebox-type player, illustrated the band miming to a pre-recorded performance. Entitled “Jam Session” the Soundie was filmed late in 1941 along with four other Ellington numbers. Duke introduces various band members, who then solo: Ray Nance (violin), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Rex Stewart (cornet), Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton (trombone), and Sonny Greer (drums). The complete ensemble carries the tune to its finish with composer Bigard (clarinet) providing some improvised upper register piping.

“C Jam Blues” was formally recorded under that title in January, 1942, for RCA Victor Records. It continued be a staple of the Ellington repertoire, generally featuring a handful of the soloists in the band.

Co-composer Barney Bigard left Duke’s band in June 1942, and after a period of freelancing joined Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars in August, 1947. “C Jam Blues” was one of his nightly features with Satch’s ensemble along with “Tea for Two.” Despite playing the tune hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of times during his tenure with Ellington and Armstrong, he continued to perform it during his freelance years in the 1950s until shortly before his death in 1980.

In the late-1950s very simple words were added (“Baby, let’s go down to ‘Duke’s Place’,” etc.) which strangely took a three-member team of writers to assemble: songwriters William Katz and Ruth Roberts and record producer Bob Thiele. Clarinetist Barney Bigard was not included in the composer credits of the song version, although he was a member of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars when they recorded “Duke’s Place,” featuring Louis on the vocal, with Ellington in 1961.

More information on this tune...

James Lincoln Collier
Duke Ellington
Oxford University Press, USA
Hardcover: 352 pages

(Collier analyzes the song’s musical content in his biography of Ellington.)

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Recommendations for This Tune
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Duke Ellington
Never No Lament the Blanton-Webster Band

Not counting the film version, this is the first recording of “C Jam Blues” and it is a remarkable document of the band getting the space to jam. In addition to Ellington’s piano, we hear short but compelling solos by Ray Nance, Rex Stewart, Ben Webster, “Tricky Sam” Nanton and Barney Bigard.

Oscar Peterson Trio
Night Train
Polygram Records

Pianist Peterson recorded “C Jam Blues” a number of times in different contexts. This swinging trio recording with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen is unquestionably a highlight.

Johnny Hodges
Stride Right

A crucial member of the Ellington band for many years, saxophonist Hodges teams up here with the piano genius Earl Hines, a frequent interpreter of Ellington material. Their solos swing like crazy, as do those by guitarist Kenny Burrell and bassist Richard Davis.

Slam Stewart
Slam Bam
Black & Blue France

Bassist Stewart gets to show off his signature bowing-and-singing solo style at a high level here. His trio-mates here are pianist Milt Buckner and drummer “Papa” Jo Jones, and both of them get ample solo space as well.

Charles Mingus
Live at Carnegie Hall
Atlantic / Wea
Original recording 1974

This epic live recording features a large cast of soloists. Most noteworthy here is Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose solo virtually condenses the entire history of jazz saxophone into five powerhouse minutes.


- Noah Baerman

Stuff Smith
Hot Stuff
Storyville Records

This highly entertaining live recording has Smith fiddling and singing in front of a Danish audience and pianist Kenny Drew playing straight man to his musical hijinks.
Lonnie Johnson/Elmer Snowdon
Blues, Ballads & Jumpin' Jazz Vol.2
1994 Original Jazz Classics 570
Original recording 1960
While known for his banjo work, Snowdon picks up guitar on this delightful track that finds him and guitarist Johnson briefly reminiscing before jumping into a pre-war blues rendition of the Ellington piece.
Clark Terry
Duke With a Difference
Riverside/OJC 229
Original recording 1957
Terry mutes his trumpet on this gentle reading of the song. An understated, all-star horn section and a rhythm section that features Tyree Glenn on vibes swings this one with the greatest of care.
Ella Fitzgerald
1996 Pablo 2310960
In a rare vocalization of “C Jam Blues” Ella scats through the song in a live, 1972 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Santa Monica. Other featured soloists on this all-star workout include Count Basie, Al Grey, Stan Getz, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Roy Eldridge.
Dave McKenna
1994 Chiaroscuro Records 119
Original recording 1956
Pianist McKenna likes to refer to himself as “a saloon player.” If that means he is a two-handed player who can provide rhythm, chording, and melodic lines at the same time while playing solo, he’s right. He lays a little boogie woogie on “C Jam Blues.”

- Ben Maycock

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