Duke Ellington’s career was at one of its highest peaks when he first recorded “Jack the Bear.”
Originally scored differently, Ellington’s collaborator Billy Strayhorn arranged the piece to bring
the revolutionary young bassist Jimmy Blanton to the forefront of the piece. This brisk chart has an unusual construction, with segment of both blues and swing, though the song is basically a blues at heart. In addition to Blanton’s swinging solo and driving rhythm, there are also brief solo choruses by clarinetist Barney Bigard, trumpeter Cootie Williams, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, a
growled trombone solo by Tricky Sam Nanton, as well as its composer at the piano. Even after illness forced Blanton to prematurely leave the band for good the following year, Ellington continued to use it to feature various bassists during concerts. Several transcriptions from the second half of the 1940s have appeared on commercial releases, and both Oscar Pettiford and Duke Ellington recorded separate versions for Bethlehem in 1954. After this period, Ellington called for “Jack the Bear” on just three more occasions, the last being a still unreleased 1970 concert when bassist Rufus Reid substituted for an ailing Joe Benjamin.