Tad Calcara and the Last "Ellingtonian"
The Duke Ellington Orchestra is one of the great musical treasures of the world. It has been performing almost continuously since the 1920s. Over the decades many fascinating musical personalities have been associated with this musical institution. Most of the original members have passed on—with one notable exception. I recently had the opportunity to meet and perform with the sole surviving member the Duke Ellington’s most famous band of the early 1940s.
In 1939 Duke Ellington heard a truly original voice while the band was on tour in Detroit. The young man was a fine singer by the name of Herb Jeffries. Jeffries impressed Ellington so much that he offered him a contract to sing with his band. At this time Jeffries was already a veteran of several other famous orchestras including Earl Hines, Erskine Hawkins, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, and Blanche Calloway. He was also a Hollywood film star who became famous as the first African-American cowboy.
Herb Jeffries relayed to me the night Ellington offered him a spot in his band. “Ellington ask what my plans were after this theater tour was over. I said that I would probably head back to Hollywood to do some more pictures. Duke’s reply was – ‘that’s too bad – I was going to offer you a position in my band.’ I said well I guess Hollywood will have to wait!”
Jeffries said he realized that here was a true American original, someone who would be regarded as an American Mozart. Most singers started out as a singing with a band as a way to get into movies; Sinatra, Perry Como, Doris Day, etc…But Herb Jeffries was already a Hollywood star and he was now going back to singing with a band. He said that “here was a chance to learn from a real musical master.”
Not long after Jeffries joined Ellington he was asked to sing a new piece that Billie Strayhorn was arranging. It had a beautiful melody that soared and was well suited to Jeffries’ talents. Together with Strayhorn’s colorful orchestration and Jeffries’ astonishing range and imaginative phrasing, Jeffries’ first big hit with Ellington was in the making. Flamingo, recorded in 1940, went to number one on the hit parade and became the first of many hits Jeffries had with the Ellington Orchestra.
Seventy years late Jeffries still refers to Ellington by his nick name Govee (governor). He said he observed that Govee liked musicians who had a strong and unique musical personality and wrote music that showcased their talents. It was an honor he said to be on the same stage as Johnny Hodges (alto sax) and Ray Nance (trumpet & violin). Going to work was like going to school; you learned about phrasing and swinging every night on the stage.
Herb Jeffries is still performing today at the age of 96. His voice is still rich and full and he is capable of the most exquisite dynamics. We recently performed a concert together in California with the Big Band Jazz Hall of Fame Orchestra. Between numbers he would share incredible stories about the musicians he worked with over the years. And when he raised the microphone to his lips – he had the audience hanging on to every note. It is obvious that Ellington knew exactly what he was doing when he hired Herb 71 years ago! It was genuine pleasure to perform side by side with a former Ellingtonian.