Blue Serge

A Variation of Blue Serge

Blue Serge – Duke Ellington

A dark, mysterious work in a minor key, Blue Serge may bring to mind Black and Tan Fantasy with its plagal cadences, mallet percussion, and use of pixie plunger mute combinations in the brass. The theme is stated first by Ray Nance on trumpet, over a haunting trombone background. Like the introduction (clarinet and two muted trumpets), many of the choruses have two floating bars, yielding lengths of six or ten rather than multiples of four. The rich orchestration in the second verse show an astonishing variety of colors and section work all in the space of ten bars, then followed by a ‘vocal’ trombone solo from Joe Nanton. Ellington’s piano and Ben Webster’s tenor sax also feature, before a tremendous and evocative full ensemble finale.

DUKE ELLINGTON – The Transcription Years [TAX Rec. M-8037]

01. Stomp caprice [0:02:12.00]
02. Bugle breaks [0:03:01.43]
03. You and I [0:02:22.46]
04. Have you changed [0:02:59.73]
05. Raincheck [0:02:41.08]
06. Blue serge [0:03:28.17]
07. Moon mist [0:02:39.03]
08. I don’t want to set the world on fire [0:03:14.63]
09. Easy street [0:02:46.44]
10. Perdido [0:02:02.48]
11. C Jam blues [0:03:05.27]
12. Chop sticks [0:02:14.29]
13. Baby please stop and think of me [0:02:39.34]
14. Go away blues [0:02:04.25]
15. Things ain’t what they used to be [0:03:18.50]
16. You never know the things you miss [0:01:42.69]
17. Pitter panther patter [0:01:54.33]
18. Ultra blue [0:03:12.47]

In the early and middle forties Duke Ellington led a band of unparalleled solo strength and outstanding ensemble ability. He and Billy Strayhorn provided its musicians with a sequence of superb scores and Duke’s own piano playing and leadership inspired them to play with typical Ellingtonian zest. One of the most fruitful sources for recordings of the Ellington band of the period is the series of transcriptions they made for radio use. Like the recordings made for public issue these were done in the studios, but they differed in that there was no need to make each number last for three minutes or thereabouts. And as the music was intended to be heard once over the radio there was no need to strive for absolute perfection and therefore no alternate takes were made, a fact which enabled far more numbers to be recorded on one date that was normal when recording for public release.

The first ten titles on the present LP are the total product of a transcription session in December 1941. The programme is a typical mixture of the day with up-tempo instrumentals, popular songs and Ellington tone poems. Stomp caprice is a beautiful Strayhorn miniature of which this is the only recording. A couple of breaks by Sonny Greer in the introduction alert us to the pleasures to be derived from attending to the work of this unique drummer throughout the album. The main soloist on Stomp caprice is Ellington himself who is typically excellent, not least in the humorous coda; in the scoring the low saxophones are featured with both Ben Webster and Harry Carney having important ensemble parts. Ellington’s Bugle breaks is one of his many Bugle call rag variations. Here the humour is in the introduction and is wisely entrusted to the cornet of Rex Stewart. Rex is heard more distantly later, while the other soloists in the invigorating stomp are Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Lawrence Brown and Ray Nance. The first of the popular ballads is You and I in which Herb Jeffries is featured throughout witheffective orchestral backing. A second ballad, Have you changed, is wholly instrumental and like You and I features orchestral scoring strongly suggestive of Billy Strayhorn. At this period Harry Carney was obviously inspired by the playing of the newcomer to the saxophone team, Ben Webster, and this can be heard clearly here with Carney soloing on the first chorus middle eight before Webster takes over for a ballad performance of classic stature. Billy Strayhorn’s Raincheck had been recorded for commercial release the previous day with the composer at the piano and it is interesting to hear this equally fine version with Ellington at the keyboard. Blue serge and Moon mist were also done for general issue around this time in recordings similar to the ones heard here. This Blue serge differs in that Ben Webster’s solo is longer — the other soloists are Stewart, Nanton and Ellington — while Moon mist shows several differences. Ray Nance plays muted trumpet at the beginning, opening with a thin violin like sound, only taking up his violin for the closing section in a solo which includes the eight bars allocated to Lawrence Brown’s trombone on later recordings. The hauntingly lyrical alto saxophone solo, so perfectly backed by the trombones, is by Johnny Hodges. I don’t want to set the world on fire is one of the less likely titles for Ellington to record. Herb Jeffries’ vocal has dated but there are some nice touches in the scoring and Wallace Jones has a couple of brief muted solos. The faintly recorded trumpet behind the vocal sounds like Ray Nance. The final ballad. Easy Street, is a showcase for Rex Stewart’s perky, humorous cornet, while the short version of Perdido is the first ever recording of this jazz standby. The composer’s valve trombone is heard in the first chorus middle eightfollowed by eight bars of fiery Rex Stewart, while the trumpet in the last chorus indicates Ray Nance’s range and versatility at this time.

The final eight titles in this collection are a selection of transcription items from 1943 and 1945. Taft Jordan, one of the master swingers of jazz, was in the Ellington trumpet section at this time and he takes the first solo in this fine version of C-jam blues. The tenor sax of Elmer Williams and the clarinet of Jimmy Hamilton frame a superb solo by the incomparable Tricky Sam Nanton, the master of muted brass technique. Perhaps the least praised of Duke Ellington’s compositions are those delightful pieces which he created for the band to simply swing. One such is Chopsticks in which Taft Jordan is an ideal choice as soloist. Both Baby please stop and think about me and Go away blues are little known Ellington compositions. Ray Nance has the first chorus middle eight on the former, after which the solo sequence is handled by Jimmy Hamilton, Elmer Williams and Taft Jordan. Go away blues, in which a chorus is made up of three twelwe bar blues with an eight bar release between the second and third, is a showcase for vocalist Betty Roche. No Ellington programme would be complete without a slow blues and here we have a magnificent version of Things ain’t what they used to be with Ray Nance and Lawrence Brown taking choruses in a performance highlighted by the incomparable Johnny Hodges. You never know the things you miss is a brief ballad performance in which the lead alto of Otto Hardwick is prominent – there is another unusual chorus structure here, too. Pitter panther patter was one of four classic duets recorded by Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blanton in 1940. Here Duke duets with Junior Raglin in a very sprightly account of the number — the pianist is heard to particular advantage in this reading. Finally we have another Ellington composition which was not recorded elsewhere in Ultra blue; Shelton Hemphill’s lead trumpet can be heard to advantage here as can the short solos of Harry Carney and Al Sears.
Posterity should be grateful to the people who recorded these transcriptions not only for the opportunity to hear so many otherwise unrecorded Duke Ellington pieces and alternative versions of more familiar ones, but also for the excellent technical quality of the recordings.

Lyrics to Blue Serge Suit – as sung by Cab Calloway

He isn’t hep to jive, he’s only half alive
Hep cats call him square
You won’t believe this jack
All his clothes date back
To ’29 I swear

He wears a blue serge suit with a belt in the back
No drape, no shape, just a belt in the back
Strictly calm and he’s off the cob
Wears a pocket watch with a pearly fob
He’d be just as sharp in a sack
As in the blue serge suit with the belt in the back

He isn’t old and grey but he’s so passé
Swing bands make him frown
He don’t get no kicks
From boogie-woogie licks
Oh he’s dead but he won’t lay down

He wears a blue serge suit with a belt in the back
No flare, so rare, just a belt in the back
He thinks a cat is a household pet
His favorite dance is the minuet
Maybe one day he’s gonna crack
And burn that blue serge suit with the belt in the back

He’s got a gal named “V”, she’s twice as square as he
What a gruesome pair
The way they fuss and frown
When gators strut on down
Is more than I can bear

He wears a blue serge suit with a belt in the back
A pip, a zip, a belt in the back
He wears high shoes and a pair of spats
If you dig that junk it’ll drive you bats
Maybe some day he’s gonna crack
And burn that blue serge suit with the belt in the back

Literal Definition

serge (sʉrj)noun-a strong twilled fabric with a diagonal rib, made of wool, silk, rayon, etc. and used for suits, coats, etc.

Comments on Serge Suits

Serge was a commonly used woolen for suiting, as Dave says. It was used in suits and other clothing at all price levels, only the quality of the texture differing. Blue serge was universally popular with men and women of all classes; it was sort of the denim of its day. The reason Dave may be acquainting the material with the lower classes is because poor people continued wearing it after it had become worn and shiny; this was widely (and cruelly) commented on.

President Taft wore serge suits on any number of occasions during his administration (although there was never any public mention of how shiny they might have been.)

(RE: the suit sans person in it) Two-button rich blue serge suit has the slightly curvy silhouette that looked so great on Gene Kelly. Pleated cuffed full-cut trousers balance the jacket’s broad shoulders. Trouser waist has been let out, as is frequently the case. Former owner was over 6″ tall on the day he first wore this suit – his wedding day in 1949. Back


One Response

  1. Others suggest this could also refer to two Sergeis at the time: Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev….Prokofiev’s music had style and didn’t just droop so a few writers think he is the blue serge…as well ad the suit…!Cans lyrics are outdated jive but fun when Cab sang.

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