During the 1940s, the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras were the medulla oblongata in the central nervous system of jazz throughout the United States of America. The evolution of Duke's unparalleled orchestra during that very transitional decade is etched in commercially issued phonograph records; when the listener is able to follow this progress using lesser-known air check acetates and hand-made field recordings, the plot thickens as tempos relax and soloists are allowed more space for improvisation. It's a lot like hearing the music live through a large antique radio full of bulbous vacuum tubes with orange filaments aglow. Storyville's eight-CD Duke Box is a treasure chest of live location and broadcast studio performances originally preserved for posterity on privately produced platters and radio transcription discs. Announcers pop up everywhere -- even in the studios -- and some of them garble song titles or blab right over the music. Alistair Cooke even narrates a "staged rehearsal" as if covering a cricket match. It's an invaluable lesson in the combined histories of jazz and radio.
For those who crave such information, here's a quick rundown of dates and locations. On January 9, 1940 the band broadcast over NBC from the Southland, a venue at 76 Warrenton Street in Boston, MA variously described as Café, Casino and Ballroom. On June 10, 1940 they broadcast from the CBS Studios in New York. On November 7, 1940 the Ellington orchestra played the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, ND; the music played on that night was captured on a portable recording unit using 78 rpm discs. On April 3 and 4, as well as on June 6, 1943, Duke's band played the Hurricane Club in Times Square at Broadway and West 51st Street. On December 8, 1943, Ellington's orchestra entertained armed forces personnel at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, VA; three days later they gave a full-length concert at Carnegie Hall. On July 8, 1944, Duke took his band to the Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, MD. A performance in the New Zanzibar at West 49th and Broadway in New York City was recorded on September 26, 1945. In a rather unusual set of circumstances, Duke Ellington and his orchestra performed a contrived rehearsal at New York's World Studios on August 3, 1945; with announcements by Alistair Cooke, this material was broadcast only once, over the BBC network, on December 28, 1945. This stunning collection of uncommon recordings ends with live broadcasts from the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. on April 20, 1946 and the Hollywood Empire Ballroom in Los Angeles during February 1949. Proof again that Duke Ellington spent most of his life on the road.