Art Whetsol - The Ellingtonians No.1 by G. E. Lambert

"Our band changed character when Bubber came in— that was when we decided to forget all about the sweet music"—this quote from Duke Ellington is very well known and is some measure of the impact which Bubber Miley made on his music. The man who Miley replaced in late 1925 was not forgotten however, and in early 1928 Arthur Whetsol returned to take over the lead trumpet chair from Louis Metcalf. His style, to use the parlance of the day, was not particularly 'hot', but his gentle, rather melancholy voice was a prominent one in the Ellington band during the next decade. In the Ellington brass section of the early 'thirties the functions of the three trumpeters could be said to be roughly as follows: Whetsol was lead trumpet and 'sweet' soloist, with Cootie Williams taking the growl work and most of the open solos and Freddie Jenkins acting as the band's comedian and also contributing an occasional 'hot' chorus. The view that Ellington casts each musician in a particular role would be justified if such patterns were rigidly adhered to, but in fact each of these musicians was encouraged to develop his art in different ways. It is for this reason that the inhibiting effect of playing Ellington's highly stylised music, which some critics feel to be an inevitable consequence of his methods is nowhere evident in the music of his soloists. 

The general view seems to be that after Miley's departure Duke handed Williams a mute along with Miley's book and that Cootie at once mastered the growl style. In fact in the records cut immediately after Cootie joined the band most of the growl solos were given to Jenkins, with Whetsol apparently acting as first reserve. Jenkins can be heard playing characteristic growl trumpet in Harlemania and Hot feet, while the solo in this idiom in Jazz lips is by Whetsol. The situation regarding growl trumpet solos at this time is shown rather clearly by the Doin’ the voom voom of September 1929 (the Cameo version). Here Cootie was allocated certain passages which had previously been played muted in the growl manner firstly by Miley (on the Brunswick version where all the growl trumpet is by Bubber) and then by Jenkins (on the Victor version where the growl work was divided between Miley and Jenkins). Yet despite these precedents Cootie chose to play open trumpet without the use of growl effects. 

The rather fragile quality of the growl solo in Jazz lips reveals that while Whetsol had mastered the mechanics of the style his temperament was not of the kind to exploit it to full advantage and Duke's use of Jenkins as a growl player prior to the emergence of Cootie as a master of the idiom was unquestionably a wise decision. When substituting for Miley in the Victor version of The mooche Whetsol is hardly convincing, although in other solos his use of occasional growl flourishes is often successful, for example during the muted solo in the Brunswick version of Black beauty. Despite the delicate, fragile quality of much of his muted playing Arthur Whetsol had a broad open tone of sufficient depth and sonority to be occasionally mistaken for that of Cootie Williams, for example on Big house blues, where despite the fact that Whetsol is the only trumpet on the session many collectors persist in the belief that Williams is the soloist. A good instance of the quality of Whetsol's tone is to be found on the Okeh Jungle jamboree where a brass section of two pieces (Whetsol and Nanton) produce a surprisingly full and rich ensemble. This title also contains a good example of the trumpeter's 'hot' manner at up-tempo; his solo, which is played without mute, is notable for the clarity of phrasing and the characteristic lyrical undertones. There is a certain stiffness about the rhythmic articulation in Whetsol's phrasing, although to a lesser extent than is the case with several other trumpeters of the period, including Freddie Jenkins. 

Other examples of Whetsol's hot manner include Stevedore stomp, perhaps his best known solo in this vein, and the blues solo on the Victor Saturday night function. On the Okeh version of this Whetsol plays a restrained muted solo, but on the Victor recording the same chorus is played open in a more dynamic and forceful manner. Many commentators have thought that the soloist here is Jenkins, but apart from the Whetsol characteristics of the melodic line the playing is far too legato for Jenkins and a comparison with Big house blues and Jungle jamboree reveals clearly that Whetsol is the man responsible. 

The muted solo on the Okeh Saturday night function is in the manner for which Whetsol is best known, plaintive and rather pastoral in feeling, with precise phrasing and intonation which owe little to the jazz styles of the time. Yet Whetsol's taste and musicianship were such that these solos are acceptable even during blues performances such as Saturday night function or Rent party blues. His solos on the Okeh and Brunswick versions of Mood indigo, on all versions of Misty morning and on Rocky mountain blues are probably the best known in this vein. On the latter his chorus is especially notable for its grace and restraint while in Misty morning (originally recorded in 1928) we find the first use by Ellington of Whetsol's trumpet in a lyrical, pastoral interlude. The presence of a musician of Whetsol's unusual style and talents unquestionably gave Ellington an opportunity to develop a more delicate, restrained aspect of his music at a time when his ensemble lacked the finesse of later years. On many titles of this period Whetsol's solo trumpet is heard in short 'functional' bridge passages, which in later years would have been taken by the section (examples include Move over, Doin' the voom voom, Hot and bothered and Flaming youth). The lyricism and careful craftsmanship of Whetsol unquestionably made their impact on the development of the band and in much of the Ellington brass writing of the 'thirties it is the precision of Whetsol which determines the style of both scoring and execution. The type of trumpet interlude first heard in Misty morning has become a constant feature of Ellington's musical vocabulary: Ray Nance's solo in the 1959 Blues in blueprint being an excellent example, as are many of Harold Baker's solos with the band. 

Arthur Whetsol's solo variations have distinction of style and are excellently constructed, yet equally valuable to Ellington were his unusual talents as a player of straight melody. While his style in a theme statement is as unmistakable as Bubber Miley's, Whetsol's prime concern seems to have been to play the theme as cleanly as possible, throwing the melodic contours into sharp relief. Black beauty and Awful sad are the earliest examples of this kind of playing and the melody of the latter especially shows the extent to which Ellington was influenced by the Whetsol style. The pastoral quality of Delta serenade is largely the result of the use of Whetsol in duet with Bigard's clarinet at the outset. On many of the popular tunes which were recorded by the band at this time Whetsol was given the task of a first chorus theme statement—a good instance is on Maori from the recent Ace of Hearts album, where the trumpeter lends distinction to a most commonplace melody. At the opposite extreme of the Ellington repertoire Whetsol can be heard on the theme statements of such important works as Blue tune and Reminiscing in tempo, but perhaps his finest achievement in this field is in the first chorus of The dicty glide. This is one of the most unusual melodies that Ellington has written and although the performance overall is a fine one it is obvious that neither the later soloists (Hodges and Nanton) nor the ensemble quite grasp the correct accents for the various twists of the melodic line, yet Whetsol's theme statement is so lucid that the excellence of the melody is fully realised. This passage is of great beauty in itself and it is possible to say of The dicty glide that Whetsol's opening chorus is as essential a factor in the piece as is  Miley's playing at the beginning of Flaming youth. The dicty glide is a striking score by any standard and it is amazing to realize that it was created in 1929—against the background of contemporary jazz the sheer originality of Ellington's art can be seen clearly.

In this article the qualities discussed have been rather different from those usually cited when considering a jazz soloist. But Arthur Whetsol's was an unusual talent, one which would almost certainly have remained undeveloped in any orchestra but Ellington's. For his virtues are not particularly those of jazz—he was not an idiomatic blues player and although his playing has a definite rhythmic poise it does not 'swing' a great deal. The construction of his solos was both original and immaculate, however, as was their execution, while their restrained character was a perfect foil for the blues based playing of Cootie Williams and the effervescent choruses of Freddie Jenkins. In his distinctive manner and his high standard of craftsmanship, for his virtues as a section leader and his self-effacing yet individual solos, Arthur Whetsol's contribution was an important one in the first decade of Ellington's music. Like almost every musician who has played for any length of time with the band he had a distinct influence on Ellington's music and its subsequent development. Arthur Whetsol was hardly a jazzman of the stature of a Cootie Williams, a Rex Stewart or a Clark Terry, yet the value of his work is considerable and too often ignored. Both in the continuing validity of the old records and in the prevalence of the Whetsol approach in later Ellingtonia his music has been enduring, a potent influence in this most fascinating of all jazz ensembles.

Jazz Monthly - April 1964

© 2017  Ellingtonia.com