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Cottontail (1940)

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“With the recording of ‘Cotton Tail’ in May 1940, Ellington opened a window on the future, predicting developments to come in jazz.”

- John Edward Hasse

AKACotton Tail
Rank 233
Words and Music Duke Ellington
Jon Hendricks

Duke Ellington wrote “Cotton Tail” in 1940 after returning from the band’s European tour. His famous 1940’s band with Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax recorded it on May 4, 1940. Webster arranged its celebrated saxophone section chorus and played the solo which became so famous that audiences cried out for him to repeat it note for note.


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Ellington’s band of this period was remarkable, filled with the top musicians in the business, and he, as well as Billy Strayhorn, kept their creative juices flowing by composing specifically for individual band members.

In Jazz and Its Discontents Francis Davis says, “The delight of ‘Cotton Tail’ (based on ‘I Got Rhythm’ in anticipation of bebop) lies in its layered sax-section riffs and Webster’s sinuous choruses (which foreshadowed both the ‘tough’ tenor style and Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound’).”

The importance of this recording is set forth in John Edward Hasse’s book The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington. “With the recording of ‘Cotton Tail’ in May 1940, Ellington opened a window on the future, predicting developments to come in jazz. ‘It changed the face of jazz’ Gunther Schuller has written, ‘and foretold in many ways where the music’s future lay.’ The rhythmic inflections, melody line, and overall daring of the piece point ahead.... Ellington would continue to help lay the foundation for what would soon become known as bebop.”

Hasse also quotes Gunther Schuller as saying that “‘Cotton Tail,’ particularly in its execution, let in a gust of spontaneity, of freshness, of flexibility, which the Ellington band was never to lose again and which offered a whole new way of integrating composition and improvisation.”

In Duke Ellington, biographer James Lincoln Collier says, “The Gershwin melody is an obvious one, built on a diatonic scale. Ellington’s is more complicated, beginning on the ninth and incorporating a flat fifth, two examples of Ellington’s penchant for rule breaking.”


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On her recording of the tune in Ella Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, Fitzgerald scats around the words, “Come on, wail, Wail, cotton tail, Benny Webster, come on and blow for me.” But Jon Hendricks wrote an entire lyric for “Cotton Tail,” including words to Webster’s solo, based on the children’s story by Beatrix Potter. In the liner notes to Everybody’s Boppin’ Hendricks says, “With ‘Cottontail’ Duke and Ben Webster established the tenor saxophone as the must solo instrument in the jazz orchestra. Lyrically, I retell the fairy story we all heard as children, the story of Flopsie, Mopsie and ‘Cottontail’.” Lambert, Hendricks & Ross recorded it in 1960 for LH&R Sing Ellington, available on the CD Everybody’s Boppin’ or the two-CD compilation The Hottest New Group in Jazz. The lyric begins:

Way back in my childhood
I heard a story so true
‘Bout a bunny stealing the food
From the garden he knew.

Ellington and Strayhorn recorded a little known two-piano version of “Cotton Tail” on the short-lived Mercer label. In 1990 the accomplished flutist/composer James Newton recorded “Cotton Tail” on The African Flower which contains other unique readings of Ellington’s music. Some recent recordings of the tune are by bassist Rufus Reid (1996), vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater who scats through the song in a tribute to Ella (1997), the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (1999), trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s Quartet (2001), saxophonist Harry Allen (2005), and guitarists Martin Taylor and Howard Alden (2005).

More information on this tune...

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

(Collier analyzes the music in his biography of composer Ellington.)

- Sandra Burlingame

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