Duke Ellington: 1936-40 Small Group Sessions (#235)

Mosaic Records Limited Edition Box Set


Duke Ellington: 1936-40 Small Group Sessions (#235)
“The music these still upcoming artists played at these sessions is priceless…and thanks to Steve Lasker’s sound engineering, the sound quality is superb.” – Theodore R. Hudson, Ellingtonia
Limited Edition: 10000 copies

7 CDs -  $119.00


Hear Ellington At the Beginning of His Creative Peak

Ellington is widely regarded as one of the most important composers in the history of music and many would agree that at the time of these recordings, he was at the beginning of his creative peak developing "The Ellington Effect". This set gathers together all the small group sessions led by Duke Ellington and his sidemen Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams and Johnny Hodges, during the years 1936-40.

Many of these songs -- now considered standards and jazz classics -- were heard first in these exceptional small group recordings. Juan Tizol's composition "Caravan" from a Barney Bigard session; Cootie Williams' "Echoes of Harlem;" vocal versions by the forgotten Mary McHugh on "Lost In Meditation" and "Prelude To A Kiss;" Rex Stewart's peerless cornet conceptions on "Rexatious" and "The Back Room Romp." And the Johnny Hodges masterpieces alone consist of "Blue Reverie," "Jeep's Blues," "The Jeep Is Jumpin'," a trio side with Duke and bassist Billy Taylor on "Finesse" and one of the most plaintive of these Hodges releases, "Wanderlust."

These songs will be played again and again through the ages. But these records stand alone.

The set also includes small group sessions led by Ellington during this period and a special bonus session recorded a few years earlier; Ellington's piano solos; and the duet sides with bassist Jimmie Blanton. There is also the Gotham Stompers session that comprises both the Ellington band and the Chick Webb band with Chick at the drums. As an extra special bonus, Ellington collector Steven Lasker included his own, rare treasure: a rehearsal disc of "Echoes of Harlem."

All known alternate takes are included here as well, some of which only came out on short-lived bootleg LPs in the 1960s and 1970s. There are 173 tracks in all with rare photographs and a complete, updated discography. We have worked on this one long and hard. It's truly a labor of love and a set that is not to be missed.

Read More About Duke Ellington:
Track Listing, Personnel & Recording Dates »

“The vast majority of these 173 tracks expertly integrate inspired ensemble playing, pithy, often glittering solos, and imaginative arrangements into compact settings with jewel box perfection.” – Steve Futterman, Jazz Times

  • Booklet
  • Audio Quality
  • Photography
  • Sample Session Notes
Noted Ellington historian, research, collector and engineer Steven Lasker, not only mastered and co-produced this set beautifully, but also wrote extensive, detail-rich essay on Ellington’s small groups and 42 sessions presented here. Both he and Scott Wenzel have compiled an amazingly thorough discography.

In the age of microsizing, every Mosaic Records Box Set booklet is still 11 x 11 inches to allow our customers to appreciate all the extras we put into printing them (and for easier reading).


When work began on this issue of small group Ellington sides, we knew there would be considerable interest especially among the hard-core Ellington enthusiast. These records, from the Columbia family of labels, had never been properly released in any kind of complete fashion and the discographical research, transfers, photos and liner note writer all had to be handled with special care. After a conversation with musician and 78 collector Jeff Healey, we found a person whose knowledge of anything Ellingtonian was in a league of its own.

Steven Lasker would bring to the table a wide assortment of goods. First of all, he has an extensive Ellington record collection chock full of mint test pressings and commercially issued sides. And even though we had access to the original metal parts from Sony/BMG, Steven’s 78 collection made it possible for us to still obtain marvelous sound quality. His stash included as well the many alternate takes that had been available to the public only through short-lived bootleg LPs during the 1960s and 1970s. Again, they were in mint condition and a joy to have combined with the many issued master takes.

Steven had engineered a number of reissues in the past and he had all the source material at his home. His sound restoration on the set is top notch and many hours were spent choosing the correct stylus to use as well as speed correcting and other procedures that go into this process.


Photo Copyright © Protected
Duke Ellington
Twenty magnificent images have been pulled from the collections of Lasker, Frank Driggs, Duncan Schiedt and Don Peterson for the 28-page booklet.

January 19, 1938

The session times weren't noted in the ledger but the engineer's log notes day went from "10:00am to 11:30pm incl." A grueling day? For ordinary men perhaps, but Ellington's musicians were hardly ordinary.

Drummer's Delight is a feature for Sonny Greer. On If I Thought You Cared, Rex Stewart channels trumpeter Arthur Whetsel, who in a month's time would be forced by illness to leave Ellington's band and retire from music. The sheet music and copyright deposit for this title show lyrics by Irving Mills, music by Barney Bigard and Harold B. Jackson, the latter name one otherwise unknown to me.

Lost In Meditation would become a standard as a slow, dreamy ballad, but this first version, titled Have A Heart, was up-tempo. (First pressings of the Vocalion 78 were labelled Have A Heart, but later pressings were labelled Lost In Meditation.) Slower versions would be recorded by the full orchestra on February 2nd, and by Johnny Hodges and his orchestra on June 22nd. The sheet music shows music by Duke Ellington and Lou Singer, with lyrics by Irving Mills. Lou Singer, then 24 or 25 years old, had been a child prodigy pianist/composer who, after flirting with law school, went to work as a staff arranger for Irving Mills. The published piano scores (sheet music) of Caravan, Alabamy Home, Azure and Yearning For Love are all shown as "transcribed" by Singer. Singer would with Tizol and Ellington later compose the melody of Gypsy Without A Song. Leonard Feather profiled Singer for the November 15, 1941 issue of Down Beat, and noted that while working for Mills, "Lou also made a number of arrangements for Duke Ellington, some of which have often been erroneously credited to Duke himself. One of the best was a Gypsy Without A Song, composed by Singer and Tizol, arranged by Singer [and recorded by Ellington's orchestra on June 29, 1938]. Often, when Duke came in on a recording session without any music prepared, the young ofay would help him out and was rewarded with ample praise from the Duke..." Singer would go on to arrange classical-inspired pieces for John Kirby's small group.

The was the first of four Johnny Hodges sessions with vocalist Mary McHugh. She also recorded this same month with another Mills-managed band, the Hudson-De Lange orchestra, which suggests that Mills chose her to work with Hodges.

The day finished with a title by Cootie Williams and his Rug Cutters, Echoes Of Harlem. This had been recorded by the full band for Brunswick on February 26, 1936. The second theme is the same as the first theme of Blue Mood, by Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington, which the band had recorded for Brunswick September 19, 1932. (When it was finally released in 1947, Blue Mood was released on Columbia and the composers miscredited as Irving Mills and Edgar Hayes, due to confusion with a different composition of the same title from 1936 that was credited to Mills and Hayes.) While Ellington is the sole credited composer of Echoes Of Harlem, Cootie Williams, claimed he wrote it.

Ellington's name wound up on a lot of original compositions, some of which he didn't necessarily compose himself. While many today consider this sort of behavior reprehensible, this was a normal business practice for many bandleaders in the 1930s. Some of Ellington's men took it with a grain of salt. Cootie Williams: "Most of Duke's compositions in the late 1920s and the 1930s were composed with the musicians assisting. If any member of the band wrote a tune it was thought of as an honor for the band to play it; we didn't think of the money value of nothing like that. Everybody contributed something on their own also--Tizol, Hodges, Bigard, Carney, and myself--but Duke used to get credit for them. Sometimes we would write a complete number and Duke would still get all the credit and all the money. I did Echoes Of Harlem and Concerto For Cootie and they were entirely mine, but Duke got his name on the label. I didn't mind."35 Barney Bigard wasn't as sanguine: "That's what was bad about Duke. I mean, he didn't give the guys credit, you know, for what they did. He wanted to give everything [sic]--like he did everything. People know that. I mean--he composed some good numbers, too. Give him that credit, but give the boys credit [for] what they did, you know?"36 Helen Oakley: "On these small band originals, if it were not for Duke's ability to size up potential and shape sounds, many would have amounted to little. As it was, he often read into them more than the composer intended, and ended up translating them into big band performances. This was understood, and the instrumentalists who were most often able to come up with an original concept for a memorable eight bars accepted as a matter of course a joint credit. It became an issue only in the event a hit was developed, and the primary composer came to consider he was due a greater share of the proceeds."37

The rehearsal glimpses were preserved on a 12" acetate disc which somehow escaped ARC's studio in 1938, possibly given to Ellington's childhood friend Jerry Rhea, as the back bears the following inscription in china marker: "Duke and his screwy kids. Marked by Jerry. The Pers. Set. How's that." The disc found it's way into the collection of Washington D.C. collector Ted Shell, who in 1987 sold his Ellington collection to dealer Bob Altshuler, who turned around and sold me the rehearsal disc for $150; I've had it ever since. (If the last minute or so is somewhat noisy, the disc is worn and there are no other copies. So sorry.)

Here is a document of the Ellington band crafting an arrangement on the fly. Nanton(?) asks "What about the brass part, Duke?," only to be told "There is no brass part" (unlike the 1936 record by the full orchestra, which has one). Note what an extrovert Sonny was, and what a contrast his tympani work on this title is to his work on Drummer's Delight recorded at the start of this very long day.


Click here to write a review

  It is exceptional....
Wonderful ensemble work, great Harry Carney features, rich bass work, and, of course, the Ellington Effect is beginning to bloom throughout. I found myself concentrating on different aspects for each listening. Bass lines, ensemble, Hodges, Cootie, Harry Carney; you get the idea. Too many personal favorites to mention, but as an aside, I couldnt help but wonder what Monk might have done with Youll never get to heaven if you break my heart. You wont be disappointed. And the companion book adds to the enjoyment; read it before you listen, then listen, then read along as you listen. Repeat various aspects as necessary. What rich and wonderful music. Thank you Duke and all; and thank you Mosaic!
  Great Hep Jazz
Really hep stuff! This was a great concept of having small band recordings from the big band, recording under the names of the sidemen. I believe that Duke Ellington pioneered this concept. BG had the trio, quartet, etc. But all recorded under his name. It wasnt until 1937 that Lionel Hampton recorded under his own name while still with the BG band. Duke started the trend in 1935. And do not let some of these reviewers spoil the show with their rotten reviews of the vocalists in these recordings. Nearly all of them are very good. I especially like Mary McHughs singing. She was a good pop song writer too!
I like this set a lot because when it's good it's fantastic! There's some weak material and weak vocals at times, so it's somewhat uneven but overall it's a more relaxed, informal sounding Ellington - very good company!
  This music
This music is so good I don't know how it's legal.
  Not just for completists!
already owned Columbia's "The Duke's Men," Vols. 1 & 2, but the Mosaic remastering is, no surprise, an enormous improvement, while the alternate takes, absent from the Columbia CDs, are for the most part a pleasure to hear back to back with the issued takes. The singers, of course, are a mixed bag, but I disagree with some of the comments posted here which suggest these tracks are not even worth listening to for the music. On the contrary, the vocals usually go by in a breeze, leaving plenty of room for good solos from Cootie and Hodges. The female singers are the real strength of this group, and while someone like Mary McHugh can sometimes be a bit perfunctory, her delivery is far better than Helen Oakley's comments (in her notes for Columiba) suggest, and you also have Ivie Anderson & Jerry Kruger, who are always excellent even when contending with less than memorable lyrics. On the other hand, the male vocalists haven't aged as well. Buddy Clark (6 tracks including alternates) wears out his welcome very quickly, as does Scat Powell on "Sharpy." But "Peckin'" with Cootie Williams & his band adding vocals, is pretty annoying, and falls somewhere between a novelty tune still in its larva state, and the band on an off-day; the two alternates contribute nothing. The worst though, are a couple of cutesy numbers from the Quintones, backed by Barney Bigard & His Orchestra; even the Ellingtonians can't rescue this dreck. As far as presentation, my only real complaint is Steve Lasker's notes. Maybe my expectations were too high, but he doesn't really bring much to the table that's new; in addition some of his session notes feel tired and/or a little sketchy. For those hoping to be overwhelmed (in the good sense) with information, it's a distinct letdown, but of course the music is the thing, and Mosaic comes through wonderfully. One last comment: the reviewer who said that 2 Rex Stewart tracks are missing is incorrect. They were recorded in 1934, just before he joined Ellington (as explained by Oakley in her notes). Other than Billy Taylor, none of the other players were connected with Duke. Whether or not the tracks were available to Mosaic, they are outside the scope of the present set.
  Take this one NOW!!!!!
For those who love each Ellington's musicians, this is a good opportunity to have a very nice edition of the small bands. Everything is great....the sound restoration, Hodges, Cootie, Nanton... so, what are you waiting for?
  Get It before it's Gone !
loved it! sums it up in two words.
Amazing music. Truly beyond category. Great remastering. Johnny Hodges is a genius and Cootie is perfect. Harry Carney is the perfect anchor. Yes, the vocals are sappy, but the rest is TIMELESS. I, for the longest time, have been partial to Ellington between 1956-1959 and maybe to '63, perhaps no more. Mosaic, thank you. I own many boxed sets, and this is right at the top!
  Lyrics from hell
I don't own this set. I'm not a completist, but I do have roughly 200 Ellington/Ellington-small-group/Ellington-sideman recordings. I do appreciate the input from others about "the dreadfully worded songs" and the fact that about 1/3 of the material here does comprise that kind of material. If there is one aspect of the oeuvre I could isolate that fails the Work of Genius test, it is the lyrics put to Ellington's music. There are, of course, those that really are viable, but they are so heavily outnumbered by those in the "gawd, how awful" category. Will I shell out $117 for this? Nix. If it shows up on eBay for $50? I'd be tempted.
  Curate's Egg
I find the alternate takes truly irritating; they should be at the ends of the CD's. Otherwise the music is highly enjoyable, including the dreadfully worded songs.
The rapport and spirited playing of these bands is amazing. Lots of Ellington I've never heard before - solo after solo of exciting jazz! The sound is much improved over anything I've ever heard in the past from this era of Ellington.
  Mosaic does it again!
It is hard to find much more to say than the previous reviewers. Duke Ellington was one of America's greatest artists who defies force-fitting into a single category. These period recordings are an essential part of his overall heritage. Their orderly issuance in excellent sound and with the usual outstanding documentation is a tribute to this master. The critics, in reviewing this album, have pontificated on which nominal leader led the best sessions (Rex, Cootie, Barney or The Rabbit), but any difference is slight and often a matter of personal bias. The facts are that Duke encouraged and participated in their making and now they are available in significantly enhanced, but natural, sound. This is a "must" album for anyone interested in being involved with the entire spectrum of jazz. Don Seitas; Mill Valley, CA
  Very good, but a couple of drawbacks
Listeners who already own the two 2-CD sets issued by Columbia(Sony) may be a bit disappointed in this set. A) the Mosaic set lacks a couple of Rex Stewart sides issued soon after his arrival in the Ellington orchestra. Why? B) the book is pretty good, but doesn't shed as much light on these particular sessions as the excellent write-ups by Helen Oakley Dance that accompanied the "Small Groups". C) For the greater part, the sound in this set was an improvement over the earlier re-issue, but there are tracks which are scarcely better. I wonder about the origin of these recordings. Masters? 78's? LP's? The liner notes don't make it clear. Over the whole, though, this is certainly a set that Ellington completists will want to get. Another reviewer expressed the desire for a complete set of the orchestral works from the Thirties. I'd second that.
  the maestro!!
Please,buy it!!!!!!!!!!
  A Sonic Revelation
While I've heard some of this music in other releases, I have to agree with everyone else who is touting the excellent remastering. I am hearing Ellington nuance like I've never heard it before. It has been a real joy to listen to subtlety that was masked in surface noise on earlier releases. Ellington and his musicians were at their creative peak when this music was recorded, and NOW you can hear it and enjoy it. I have trouble turning off these recordings, because I just keep discovering more and more. This is a set that I'll have to hear over and over. The informative essay is also one of the best I've read from Mosaic in a while (please don't get me wrong, they're all very good); it just flows with the music. Whether you listen for harmonic beauty and innovation (at the composer-arranger level), or instrumental creation, this set has something for you.
  Music for the ages
Miraculous music from a small group of sui generis musicians led by a genius--all meticulously transferred and remastered. I've been collecting Duke's late 30's small group recordings for many years, and now it's all here--including many takes I'd never heard. Bravo, Mosaic and Steven Lasker!
  More Uncovered Treasures
It is hard to believe this music has laid in the vaults until now. I have both of Mosaic's previous Ellington sets and this one is my favorite. Mosaic also did a superior job on the remastering and the sound is great. Keep the Ellington sets coming!
  Ellington and Mosaic a match made in heaven
After the Capitol and the Reprise sets and the Cosmic Scene CD (and Newport 1958 still to come) another perfect Mosaic set. What can you say about a set from a label for wich perfection is the norm. Is there nothing left to wish for? Yes more Ellington. Sony owned 1925-1940 recordings on 14 CD's. Or the 1947-1952 period on 9 CD's. Or... Oh well it's Mosaic Records and not Duke Ellington Records. We can only hope.
  Another Ellington, please!
This is pure joy. Some vocals are weak, indeed, but never really disappointing. And the ellingtonians are ever great. Please, Mosaic: release a big set with "The Complete '30s Big Band Recordings of Duke Ellington with Columbia and related labels"!
  Excellent, except for the weak vocals
I agree with most of what the first four reviewers have written. However, please be warned that there are lots of tracks with vocals (perhaps 1/3 of the total number of tracks on these 7 discs), which you may not be able to enjoy even if backing is by Ellingtonians. Maybe that kind of singing was popular at the time in the 1930s, but it sounds so weak and bland, close to unbearable. Impossible to give this set 5 stars in spite of its merits.
  GLORIOUS - - The best sound ever!
If you think you've heard this music before, you're wrong! The remastering is award-worthy! The sonic quality is far better than any other release of this essential muisc. Thanks, Mosaic, for your dedication to the restoration and release of musical masterpieces. This is a must-buy set of Ellington/Jazz.
  Ellington at His Best !
You can't go wrong with this set of Ellington.There isn't much more to say on this one. Put your feet up and enjoy.Another fine box set from Mosaic Records. Of course Ellinton too !
  Duke Ellington.
The cream of the crop begins and ends with Duke Ellington and his band.The words great and legend are use to much to day but in this case they ring true.Long live Duke and his band.
  Jazz Royalty
Worth the wait. You can't go wrong with Duke Ellington, 36-40 was a great vintage and the Mosaic mastering is up to the usual high standard. I'm still listening to disc one of this wonderful set and am even now being transported to a cooler place. Still waiting for a classic Pres or Ben Webster set though guys...

Duke Ellington: 1936-40 Small Group Sessions (#235)
Duke Ellington: 1936-40 Small Group Sessions (#235)
Limited Edition: 10000 copies
7 CDs - $119.00

Customer Reviews:

"If you think you've heard this music before, you're wrong! The remastering is award-worthy! The sonic quality is far better than any other release of this essential muisc. Thanks, Mosaic, for your dedication to the restoration and release of musical masterpieces."
Read More Reviews »

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