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Chelsea Bridge (1941)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Unlike conventional tune-based pop and jazz numbers of the day, ‘Chelsea Bridge’ is ‘classical’ in its integration of melody and harmony as an organic whole.”

- David Hadju

Rank 221
Written by Billy Strayhorn

In 1940 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) proposed an increase in the fees that radio stations paid for broadcasting the music of its members. The stations formed their own organization, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and announced that at the first of the year they would not play music licensed by ASCAP. That meant that none of Duke Ellington’s music could be aired.

He called for his son Mercer and Billy Strayhorn, who were in Chicago where Strayhorn was recording with altoist Johnny Hodges, and asked them to join him in California to write new material for the band since they were unaffiliated with ASCAP. Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu in Lush Life quotes Mercer as saying, “‘Strayhorn and I got this big break at the same time. Overnight, literally, we got a chance to write a whole new book for the band....He needed us to write music, and it had to be in our names.’”


More on Billy Strayhorn at JazzBiographies.com

Among the songs that Strayhorn wrote during this period were “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” “Rain Check,” “Passion Flower,” and “Chelsea Bridge.” Additionally Mercer pulled a piece out of the trash where Strayhorn had tossed it because it was an old piece that just wasn’t working out. It turned out to be “Take the ‘A’ Train” which became the band’s new theme song and a huge hit.

Hajdu describes “Chelsea Bridge” as “more Debussy than Ellington...an impressionistic miniature composed, Strayhorn said, with a painting by James McNeill Whistler in mind. Unlike conventional tune-based pop and jazz numbers of the day, ‘Chelsea Bridge’ is ‘classical’ in its integration of melody and harmony as an organic whole.”

In his book Duke Ellington James Lincoln Collier says, “Strayhorn took his inspiration, not from the bridge itself, which he had never seen, but from a Turner painting that actually depicted Battersea Bridge, a little farther west.”

Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown is quoted by Stuart Nicholson in Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington as saying, “If you stretch your imagination a little bit you can almost see Chelsea Bridge in his music the same way you can see the Grand Canyon when you hear the ‘Grand Canyon Suite.’ All of his tunes have a deep feeling behind them.”

Francis Davis in Jazz and Its Discontents refers to the recording by Duke’s Blanton-Webster band of the 1940s which featured Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax, saying, “The most evocative Strayhorn piece here is ‘Chelsea Bridge,’ with its lordly Webster solo--as a successful jazz appropriation of Ravel and Debussy, this remains unsurpassed even by Ellington, a master impressionist in his own right.”

In 2007, as part of the PBS series Independent Lens, filmmaker Robert Levi created Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life to showcase Strayhorn’s work. During his almost life-long association with Duke Ellington the self-effacing Strayhorn was greatly overshadowed by Ellington, some say of his own volition and need for privacy. A companion soundtrack with liner notes by David Hajdu was produced by Ron Gill in conjunction with radio station WBGO. On it “Chelsea Bridge” is performed by saxophonist Joe Lovano with pianist Hank Jones.

Ella Fitzgerald wordlessly vocalized “Chelsea Bridge” for the Duke Ellington Songbook which was supervised by Strayhorn in 1957. The following year The Four Freshmen recorded the song for their Voices in Latin album with Afro-Cuban percussion and an uncredited lyric that longingly recalls Chelsea Bridge as the trysting place of a once great love.

According to Mike McCoy, representative of the Wisconsin Four Freshmen Society, the lyric was written by Bill Comstock, who at the time of the recording in 1958 was not yet a member of the quartet. Comstock’s long-standing personal and professional relationship with Freshman Ken Albers predates his joining the vocal group in 1960 and even Albers joining the group in 1956. Original Freshman Ross Barbour in his book, Now You Know: The Story of the Four Freshmen, notes that the 1959 album Four Freshmen and Five Guitars includes a number, “Oh Lonely Winter,” which was written by Albers and Comstock when they were together in a vocal group called the Stuarts.

Strayhorn recorded “Chelsea Bridge” for The Peaceful Side in 1961. Since 1999 it has been recorded by pianists Keith Jarrett and Andy LaVerne, drummers Cecil Brooks III and Louis Hayes, saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Anton Schwartz, and trumpeter Valery Ponomarev. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is featured on an instrumental version on vocalist Tony Bennett’s 1999 CD.

More information on this tune...

Gary Giddins
Visions of Jazz: The First Century
Oxford University Press; New Ed edition
Paperback: 704 pages

(Prominent jazz journalist Gary Giddins relates the history of the song and its performers and analyzes the music in his survey of jazz’s first century.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Sandra Burlingame

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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Chelsea Bridge" may be found in:

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

(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: music analysis.)

David Hajdu
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn
North Point Press
Paperback: 305 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: anecdotal and music analysis.)

Gary Giddins
Visions of Jazz: The First Century
Oxford University Press; New Ed edition
Paperback: 704 pages

(3 paragraphs including the following types of information: history, music analysis and performers.)
Also on This Page...

Musician's Comments
Reading & Research

Jazz History Notes
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

Tenor saxophone great Ben Webster continued to perform Billy Strayhorn’s 1941 composition throughout his life. His 1954 Verve session with strings gives the tune a lush background perfectly suited to it, yet Ben’s meeting with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in 1959 is satisfying listening, too, with the saxophonists working well together.

Ella Fitzgerald could sing almost anything, and she handled the demanding melody of “Chelsea Bridge” with ease. Her session with Duke Ellington in 1957 was a landmark and the first occasion the two worked together. Their collaboration was reprised both live and in the studio several more times.

Strayhorn’s 1965 session for Red Baron Records is remarkable for the fine French horn playing of Willie Ruff, the Latin rhythm, and excellent trumpet by Clark Terry. The composer makes a rare appearance on piano.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Ben Webster
Lush Life: The Billy Strayhorn Songbook
Polygram Records 29908

Ben Webster/Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster
Polygram Records 41661

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook
Polygram Records
Original recording 1957
Billy Strayhorn
Lush Life
Sony 52760

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Billy Strayhorn

Year Rank Title
1941 23 Take the "A" Train
1949 36 Lush Life
1941 221 Chelsea Bridge
1944 398 A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing
1944 411 Passion Flower
1942 412 Raincheck
1956 558 Upper Manhattan Medical Group (UMMG)
1967 808 Blood Count
1944 834 Johnny Come Lately
1947 886 Lotus Blossom

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

Year Rank Title
1939 439 Something to Live For
1950 567 Love You Madly
1964 718 Isfahan
1944 829 Star Crossed Lovers

Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and Billy Strayhorn

Year Rank Title
1953 45 Satin Doll

Duke Ellington, John Latouche and Billy Strayhorn

Year Rank Title
1941 237 Day Dream

Duke Ellington, Lee Gaines and Billy Strayhorn

Year Rank Title
1945 461 Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'

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