“When Paul Gonsalves joined the band” Duke Ellington once said “he knew all of Ben Webster’s solos note for note: that’s what I call real dedication”. But of course Paul never played Ben’s solos with Duke because, despite assertions to the contrary, Duke does not type cast performances from his musicians. It is true that he insists on some members of his brass team being expert in muted and growl techniques, for this is one of the essential textures in the Ellington spectrum of sound, but to deduce from this that Rex Stewart or Ray Nance, Tyree Glenn or Quentin Jackson are simply imitators of Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams or Tricky Sam Nanton would be absurd. On occasion when a section has had no outstanding growl specialist Duke will ask one of his other brass men to take solos in this style when such are needed. There are several growl solos by Freddie Jenkins made just after Bubber had left the band and Cootie was concentrating on open horn; Lawrence Brown is performing a similar function in the trombone section of the present band. Although it is possible to say that there is an Ellington brass tradition one should always realise that like all Ellington’s music it has always been flexible enough to bend to the needs of new individuals in the band. To consider the Ducal tenors in this context of tradition is very interesting.
Apart from a few clarinet styled and not very distinguished tenor saxophone solos by Barney Bigard and occasional guest appearances by Ben Webster the instrument was not heard in a solo capacity in Duke’s orchestra until Ben joined on a full-time basis in early 1940. The Ellington tradition on tenor is therefore a shorter one than on other instruments, but it was strongly established by Ben Webster in a sequence of classic solos and in his really impressive section work. One only needs to compare the Ellington reed section of 1938/39 with that of 1940/41 to see how crucial Ben’s contribution was here. This Webster heritage has been continued and developed by Paul Gonsalves, a man who was influenced by Webster but whose methods are profoundly his own. To many people these are the Ellington tenors, but between Ben leaving the band in 1943 and Paul joining in 1950 the chair was held for six of the seven years by Al Sears. Sears is not a tenor voice of the importance of Webster or Gonsalves but he is an individual one. He is also a fascinating subject when considering the relation of the individual to the ensemble, and to the composer, in Ellington’s music.
When Al Sears joined Duke in 1943, after Elmer Williams had held the tenor chair for a short spell, the band had lost in the preceding three years several musicians who were thought to be wholly indispensable vehicles of Ellington’s musical thought. In addition to Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton, both of whom were with the band for a very short time considering their importance, such long serving members of the band as Cootie Williams, Juan Tizol and Barney Bigard had departed, while Rex Stewart. Tricky Sam Nanton and Otto Hardwick were soon to leave. One of the lessons of the Ellington band of the middle-’forties is that Duke is not fundamentally dependent on any individual group of sidemen but rather in having creative individuals in the band. Despite the departure of Williams, Nanton and Bigard—three major Ellington voices by any reckoning —the band was basically unaffected by what should have been, by most theories of Duke’s music, a quite fatal loss of key personalities.
The earliest Al Sears solo heard on a commercially issued record is that on I Ain't Got Nothin But the Blues recorded on Decemberlst 1944, the first year of his Ducal career having coincided with the A.F.M. recording ban. Although only heard in a brief theme statement and later in a slight melodic variation, I Ain't Got Nothin' . . . reveals at once several points of similarity and of difference with Ben Webster’s playing. The point of mutual contact is a strong Hodges influence noticeable in the slurred notes and in much of the melodic decoration. Compared with Webster the tone is heavier and less flexible and as we go on to consider other Sears recordings we will find a much less elaborate kind of phrase building and a less subtle kind of note placing. There is a connection between Sears’s playing and that of such contemporary Hampton tenors as Arnette Cobb and Illinois Jacquet (who he resembles also in timbre) and Ellington was not slow to perceive this.
Although Webster and Gonsalves are used in extended up-tempo numbers their main value to Duke lies in the melodic and harmonic subtlety of their playing and the emotional range of their music. In Al Sears he had a more direct player whose solos were of bold and stark outline. In the Blues from Black, Brown and Beige it is Sears’s voice which carries the important solo, delineating the melodic line with bold clarity against a brooding accompaniment. As a jazz solo AL Ashby’s version of this on the My People album may be superior but it lacks the absolute rightness of the Sears passage. Another instance of Ellington’s use of Sears’ bold delivery is on A Gathering in a Clearing where the violent introduction is marked by fierce, jagged declamations from the tenor, which also has an important and impassioned obbligato in the second half of the final chorus; this is rough, rhythm-and-blues style tenor and those who think that Duke demands conformism from his musicians should imagine how any other Ellington tenor would sound in such a passage. From a Webster or a Gonsalves such playing is indeed unthinkable but as it represents a natural aspect of Sears’s music Ellington started to create passages in which such playing was deployed to advantage.
At fast tempo AL uses a very direct style and plays with considerable swing. In quieter passages at this tempo he is inclined to spurt out an odd note or group of notes which are strongly accented and stand in dynamic contrast to the longer, legato phrasing of their context; this is a common enough device in jazz but Sears uses it in a remarkably stark manner. A good instance of this is the single accented note at the opening of his second chorus on St. Louis Blues, which is preceded by more legato playing and followed by quieter choppy phrasing in the lower register. This is a very characteristic solo with traces of the Hodges influence in the earlier part. On Otto Make That Riff' Staccato Sears is used in obbligato against the ensemble and in solo, using the rough, forthright manner of an Illinois Jacquet. These records reveAl Sears to be a distinctive player with a range which extends from a heavy, sensuous, brooding blues style through a rather conventional ballad manner and his unusual up-tempo choppy phrasing to the rough driving rhythm-and-blues approach. It is significant that Duke utilised all these facets while he was with the band. In particular Al Sears contributed significantly to three important masterpieces.
In 1945 Ellington was elaborating his scoring more than ever before,
throwing the tone colours of his orchestra in ever richer and more heady
combinations, extending his variations on his standard material to great
lengths. On record he was still restricted to the three minute format and one
needs to study the extended scores on the Masterpieces LP of 1950 to
realise the full import of some of the condensations heard on 78s recorded in
the middle- ’forties. On the Mood Indigo of May 1945, which features
some good Sears ballad playing, the condensation robs the arrangement of all
logic, but on the version of It Don't Mean a Thing recorded on the 14th
of this month the length is just right, the overall structure perfectly
balanced. Ellington was using three girl singers at this time —Joya Sherrill,
Marie Ellington and Kay Davis—and the voices of all three are utilised in
masterly fashion on It Don't Mean A Thing. Duke has not always been
successful in his use of vocalists—the introduction of AL Hibbler’s voice on
the version of Solitude recorded the following day is all but
disastrous. In It Don't Mean a Thing Ellington first uses the voices in
canon and as each ends the main phrase of the melody introduces a ‘do-wah,
do-wah’ motive— based on the wa-wa brass of the 1932 recording—thus creating a
crescendo as the voices build up on this motive at the end of each of the first
two eight bar sections. On the release Joya Sherrill’s voice is heard in solo
against raggy piano breaks. In the last eight the opening melodic phrase is
used as a riff by one, two and finally three voices, followed by a break over
the last four bars split into two bars each by Ray Nance’s violin and Taft
The second chorus is a chase sequence by these two, first interspersed and then combined with an orchestral part of considerable richness. It is at this point, when further complexity would seem over-elaborate, that the texture suddenly changes to tenor and rhythm and Al Sears’s direct and uncluttered style is utilised to such marvellous effect. The third chorus is wholly Sears, contrasting lazy, legato phrases with passages of sharply accented note clusters played with immense swing. The final chorus finds Sears in full cry, first in dialogue with the trumpet section, who really blow up a storm, and finally against a complex but perfectly organised onslaught by the full ensemble. In mood this passage, which caps perfectly an Ellington performance of characteristic diversity, is reminiscent of the Hampton big band but the marshalling of forces and control of resources could only have emanated from Duke.
Although based on the same chord sequence as It Don't Mean a Thing, Hiawatha, Part One of The Beautiful Indians, is a piece of a very different character. It is a ‘concerto’ for Al Sears, who solos throughout, and is taken at a somewhat faster tempo than It Don't Mean a Thing. In Flippant Flurry, a ‘concerto’ for Jimmy Hamilton recorded at the same session, Duke obviously guys the clarinetist by providing a background even more staid, even more cool than his own rather academic style. In Hiawatha, a piece of real grace for all its fast tempo, there are similar passages of good natured guying of Sears’s style. Instances of this can be found in the staccato choppy phases of tenor and ensemble in the first eight of the second chorus, again in the release of both this and the third choruses and in the indolent ease of the coda. As Max Harrison has pointed out, the interplay between Sears and the sections is extremely subtle in this work, the lead changing with the rapidity and ease of a New Orleans ensemble. It is altogether remarkable that Duke should have created a work of such unusual and subtle emotional climate around so direct and forthright a soloist as Al Sears.
In Dance No. I from the Liberian Suite Ellington again makes use of the direct, swinging quality of Sears’s tenor in an unconventional way. The piece opens with stark, stabbing chords which give way to a rather oppressive mood painting in which the voices of Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet and Ray Nance’s growl trumpet are heard. The dance commences with the entry of a rolling figure on the bass which becomes an ostinato over which the piece develops, first in a theme stated by Sears and then by an extended dialogue between him and the band in which his voice is always the prominent thread even when confronted with a deluge of sound. His phrasing here varies from a soft legato to a shrieking growl more often associated with rhythm-and-blues tenor playing but which is used most effectively here. Towards the end Duke deploys his powerful brass section against the tenor in an exciting climax driven relentlessly by Sonny Greer’s drums. The overall effect is quite magnificent.
A study of this and the other records cited reveal in Al Sears a tenor player of resource and individuality. A comparison with the quite different ways in which Duke has utilised Paul Gonsalves’s talents over the past fifteen years should indicate that even if the audiences and the critics do not always appreciate the qualities of such individuals as Al Sears within the Ellington band its leader most certainly does.
Jazz Monthly - June 1965