|1939 11 03|
Bassist James Harvey ("Jimmie") Blanton, Jr. joined Ellington's orchestra November 3, 1939, and would quickly revolutionize the use of the string bass in the jazz world. The band is often referred to as the Blanton-Webster band for its excellence during the period Ben Webster and Jimmie were in the band together.
Jimmie was born October 5, 1918, but would die of tuberculosis on July 30, 1942, only twenty-three years old.
Documents establishing the date he joined the Ellington band include:
Blanton signed his name Jimmie Blanton on the IRS form. Steven Lasker advises that while some record labels spell his first name "Jimmy," the eight Blanton autographs he has seen are all signed "Jimmie," and the printed letterhead on his stationery is also so spelled.
- a telegram he sent his mother, time stamped 11:23 p.m. November 2, telling her he was leaving [St. Louis] the next morning to join Duke Ellington's band.
- U.S. Treasury Department Internal Revenue Service Form SS-5, on which his signature is dated November 22, but on which November 3 is given as the date he became an employee. Most of the handwritten information on this form appears to be in a different hand than the signature.
Anecdotal evidence shows Jimmie played with the band during its Club Caprice run between October 21 and November 2:
'...we were playing the Coronado Hotel...After the gig one night, the cats in the band went out jumpin' in the after-hours joints. They landed up in a hot spot ... where they heard and jammed with a young bass player - Jimmy Blanton. Billy Strayhorn and Ben Webster dashed over to my hotel and came into my room raving about him. I had to get up and go with them to hear him, and I flipped like everybody else... We talked him into coming down to the hotel the next night to play a few things with us. He was a sensation, and that settled it. We had to have him, and he joined the band...'
- Barney Bigard:
'...we played St. Louis ... and I met another really great instrumentalist. They had a little after-hours place and Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster and I went down there to see what was going on. We heard this young kid playing the most string bass you ever heard in your whole life. It turned out that his name was Jimmy Blanton, he was around nineteen or twenty and he was working with Fate Marable on the boats. He was just stopping in to jam at this little after-hours joint. Next night Johnny brought Duke down to listen to this kid and Duke was knocked out by what he heard. He asked the youngster to bring his bass over to the place we were working with the band. He came out on that stage and played the best Body and Soul you could imagine. Billy Taylor was playing bass with us at that time and he was flabbergasted. He just couldn't believe everything he was hearing. ...[Blanton] played the bass just like you would play a fiddle. He fingered the thing just like a violin but he had enormous hands and could really get around the instrument.
...He was always practicing, practicing. Night and day. When he left St. Louis to join us his professor gave him a list of all the symphony bassists in the towns around the country and a letter of introduction...Whatever (sic) we played Jimmy would to look them up and go take his lesson. When the band played these theaters, just before we would be going on Jimmy was never to be found. Someone in the band got wise and went to look in the basement and there would be Jimmy practicing that bass....'
'There are numerous versions, with slight variations, of the "discovery" of Blanton; a number of them indicate that Blanton did indeed play with the orchestra at the Coronado. The one that rings true can be found in the Oct-Dec. 1996 issue of "Blue Light," the DESUK newsletter.'Steiner goes on to quote Ralph Porter, who described seeing Ellington's discovery of Blanton:
'... Duke already had a bass player but he added Jimmie Blanton to the band, bought him a white suit, and next night stood him out front of the band and featured him.'
- Four discographies, at the time of writing, say Blanton is on the surviving airchecks of the closing night broadcast from the club (see 1939 11 02 above).
- Emails, M. Heyman/Palmquist September-October 2014, citing Steiner's research.
- Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress, p.164
- Barney Bigard, edited by Barry Martyn: With Louis and the Duke, Oxford University Press 1986, pp.73-74
- S. Lasker, book to Mosaic Records CD box set MD7-235 Duke Ellington: The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion And Okeh Small Group Sessions, p.27
- Ken Steiner in DEMS and the telegram and IRS form
- E. Lambert, Duke Ellington, A Listener's Guide, p. 86
- Email, Lasker-Palmquist 2015-02-05
|.||.||M.Heymann and K.Steiner||Added 2012-10-11|
|1941 11 00||.||.||.||PERSONNEL CHANGE
Jimmie Blanton left the band sometime in November when he was hospitalized with tubercolosis.
Alvin "Junior" Raglin replaced him, and there were times during the transition when they both played.
The exact dates are unknown:
'We assume that the Ellington orchestra did occasional one-nighters during the remainder of October. In these, a second bassist was being worked into the band, as it had become apparent the Jimmie Blanton would soon have to enter a hospital... Blanton's partner on these occasions was Alvin "Junior" Raglin... who Ellington had pulled out of the Wilber Baranco Trio... probably at the time of the October 10 - October 12 trip to the Bay area...Blanton may still have been with the band for [the Mayan Theater November 1 and 2 concerts].'
- Steiner in DEMS 05,1-7:
'Blanton was mentioned in a review of an opening day performance at the Golden Gate Theater, San Francisco, CA, 5 to 11Nov41. (Kevin Wallace, "Duke Ellington's Band Hailed at Golden Gate," San Francisco Examiner, 6Nov41, p24)
Raglin's joining the Orchestra was reported in the 28Nov41 California Voice:
...The occasion was merely one of the Hot Club's monthly jam sessions. About all we heard all evening was a gang of untalented kids who were disgracing the noble name of swing... we were about to leave in disgust when some obscure kid named Alvin "Junior" Raglin surged into a guitar solo. He hadn't progressed past the first phrase before every swing fan in the jernt was on the edge of his seat waiting to be "knocked out." It was a beautiful item that Junior created that night and he was rewarded with fervent "all-reets" and "all-roots" that constitute swingdome's highest tribute. And it was thus before Bay Region swing fans. Soon after he hooked up with Wilbert Barranco and Jerome Richardson out at the Alabam. While there he displayed marked ability in both guitar and string bass. But regardless of his unmistakable talent any gambler would have given you at least One Thousand to One Against the unknown Raglin being a permanent fixture with Duke Ellington by November 1941! The thing that couldn't happen here - did!!! The peerless Jimmie Blanton, who incidentally has no equal as a creative bassist, health gave out on him. Boss Duke had him examined by the greatest lung specialist on the West Coast. The medico recommended that the kid be placed in a sanitarium and be allowed to rest for at least two years. And so he had only one alternative, and that was to retire Blanton and secure adequate substitution. And as the band was all signed sealed and delivered for Southern California's Trocadero starting on November 27th, he could not wait for John Kirby, Israel Crosby, Vernon Alley, or any other great name to come from the East Coast and he was confined to Northern California for a choice. And so by process of elimination he arrived at his only logical choice, the versatile ex-Modesto boy Alvin "Junior" Raglin. (Ken Freeman, "Music and Musicians," California Voice, 28Nov41,p5)'
- Barry Ulanov:
'Jimmy Blanton was a weak boy, physically, a victim of congenital tuberculosis. But he wasn't seriously aware of his fragile lungs until overcome by the racking pain of coughing fits in California in the spring of 1942 (sic). He went off to a sanitarium at Monrovia near Los Angeles.'
- Barney Bigard:
'...while we were playing in Los Angeles he took very sick. They rushed him to the hospital and they found out that he had tuberculosis. They kept him in that hospital and I hadn't seen him in a while then one day I went over there to see him. He was lying in the bed laughing and talking and he was supposed to be getting better, but they told him that he couldn't play his bass any more and he kind of lost the will to live..." '
'We were doing wonderfully with him...Then he got sick, with TB.
It was in Los Angeles, when we were playing Jump for Joy. He and Billy Strayhorn were sharing a room. One day he came home, packed up his things and told Strayhorn he had a chick he was going to live with. He wasn't actually going to live with anybody, and he didn't even tell Strayhorn that he was sick. He had gone to the doctor, and the doctor had told him, and to avoid exposing Strayhorn to it he packed up and made this excuse.
When he got very sick, and the whole thing came out and everybody knew what was going on, I tried to do something about it. I called doctor after doctor until I found out who the top people on TB were in Los Angeles. I made a date and took him down to the big city hospital, where there were three beautiful young specialists. The all knew him; they were fans of his, and they talked about his music.
"I'm getting ready to leave town," I said. "Will you take care of him?"
"Yes, we will," they said. "Leave him right here. He'll just have to stay in the ward a couple of days or so until we can get him a room." A room in wherever it was they sent their people to for special care. He hadn't been there two days when some cat went down and said to him, "Why, the idea of Duke leaving you here in the ward!" He packed him up and took him out somewhere near Pasadena, I think it was, somewhere along a railroad siding. It was supposed to be a recuperating place, and each patient had his own little square box to live in ...
When I got back to town, there he was, on his cot. They had nothing there, no X-rays or anything. "Well, you can't move him," they said, and he should have been moved a month before I got there. I took one look and knew he was gone. It was just horrible that a man's life should have been wasted that way. If that cat hadn't been so smart, and stomped his authority around, the doctors in the hospital would have had him in a very highly specialized place as we had planned. I felt terrible about it. I knew his mother, and this was almost the first time he had ever played with anybody but his mother, down there in Tennessee.'
- Heymann quoting Vuijsje :
In 1941, Ben was told not to share a hotel room with the young bass player any more because he suffered from tuberculosis.
- Heymann quoting Ben Webster from de Valk:
I got really mad, and I said, "How dare you tell me such filthy lies." But when Ellington himself told me as well, I had to believe it.
- Frank Buchmann-Moller:
'Ellington soon had him hospitalized at Los Angeles General Hospital...After the orchestra left town, Lee Young visited Blanton and had him instead transferred to the Dore Sanatorium in Monrovia, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He was given a single room and spent most of his time alone. "I remember the cottage Jimmie was in," Rowles recounts. "White sheets, white room. All he had in this little room was a picture of Ben Webster. I drove Ben ... way out there ... to see Blanton... I went in to pay my respects to Jimmie. When Ben came out of that little cottage, he was a wreck, because he knew. Ben was in Chicago when Blanton died a short time later. Ben really raised hell then. He tore Chicago up...(Buchman-Moller devotes several pages to Webster's close friendship with Blanton and Strayhorn.)
Blanton's death... affected Ben deeply. He never got over it; even thirty years later tears would come to his eyes when he thought back. When he received the news, he broke down and was unable to play. His drinking increased and he began to gain weight. His behavior became more violent...'
- In the question and answer session following Mr. Heyman's Blanton lecture at the 2014 Duke Ellington International Study Group Conference in Amsterdam, he confirmed a suggestion by DESUK member Roger Boyes that Blanton remained on Ellington's payroll until he died, and that Ellington paid to have the body returned to Chattanooga for burial.
Mr. Heyman later confirmed Ellington paid for Gertrude Blanton's travel by train (Rock Island Railroad) from Chattanooga to Los Angeles, paid her expenses while there, and paid to ship Jimmie's remains to Chattanooga. His supporting evidence includes:
- Long Island Press 1942-01-19 p.20:
'Bells to...Duke Ellington: For assuming medical care of his bass player Johnny (sic) Blanton, who also remains on salary until he recovers from an illness that promises to be long. '
- Three expense items recorded in Ellington's 1941 business records and noted by Peter Townsend at page 115 of his Pearl Harbour Jazz: Changes in Popular Music in the Early 1940s, The University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
- Steven Lasker:
'...Klaus' [Stratemann] research on the period is largely based on research I provided as found in the California Eagle, which Klaus was never able to obtain in Germany. I proposed the mid-October date for the transition because of the Downbeat reference (1941 12 15, p2) that reported
Junior [Raglin] and Jimmy [Blanton] worked duo in the band on several one nighters so that the successor could get the 'feel' of the band. Since I didn't know about the one-nighters in the Bay area in mid-November, I thought it must have been one nighters in that region in mid-October. Now that I know about the mid-November dates, it's obvious that was the transition period, more so now that we know from the SF Examiner review Ken found that Blanton was with the band on its opening night at the Golden Gate Theatre on November 5. The Billboard reported Blanton was hospitalized in November ...Ellington tells us ... Blanton was medically diagnosed with TB during the run of Jump for Joy, but kept it a secret from the band...
The band became aware Blanton was ill during their week at the Golden Gate Theatre, November 5-11. While in San Francisco, Ellington hired Raglin to replace Blanton. As mentioned above, Downbeat reported the two bassists "worked duo in the band on several one nighters" which can now be dated to November 14-18. There's no evidence to establish Blanton was with the band after November 18. The band then returned to L.A. where they played a week (November 19-25) at the Orpheum Theatre. The contract for Ellington's Soundies called for the band's services to be rendered the week of Monday, November 24, 1941 and the marquee of the Orpheum Theatre is seen in the opening frames of "Hot Chocolate." Raglin is the only bassist seen/heard in the Soundies...
...The hospital in question is Los Angeles County General Hospital (LACG)...
The evidence suggests to me that Raglin's first night with the band was 1941 11 14 (unless gigs are found for the 12th and 13th, currently open dates in TDWAW), while Blanton's last night with the band was 1941 11 18. If not holy grail, at least wholly logical.'
Mr. Lasker located this in Downbeat 1942-02-01, p.10:
Duke's New Bassist An Old Favorite Here
by FLOYD MURRAY
Seattle--Seattle remembers Junior Raglund [sic] when. Less than two years [ago] he was picking bass and guitar in a little phone-booth-sized speakeasy on lower Jackson street here. From there he went to the top. The top in this case is the rhythm section in the Duke Ellington band.
In 1939, along with his jobbing in after-hour spots, Junior played bass in the Gene Coy band which, at the time, was headquartered here. When the Coy band left this territory Raglund left too, but dropped from the band in Sacramento. Later he took over the spot left alone by Verne Alley at the Club Alabam in San Francisco when Alley left [in 1940] to go with the newly formed Lionel Hampton band [on the recommendation of Claire Phillips, later Claire Gordon]. [Claire had heard Alley when she was living in the Bay area and going to school at UC Berkeley.]
When Jimmy [sic] Blanton was struck by illness late last year Duke reached into the Alabam for Raglund who was no new-timer to the Ellington gang. They'd jammed together every time Duke's band was in the neighborhood.
"A Wonderful Job"
Recently Junior returned to Seattle for a theater engagement but this time as a regular member of the Ellington rhythm section. "It's wonderful," beamed Raglund, "to work in this band. I guess I'm plenty lucky." "Plenty lucky" may be the modest way Junior puts it but local jazz fans have forseen the big time for Raglund for some years now.'
- Stratemann p.171-172
- Barry Ulanov, Duke Ellington, Da Capo, New York, 1975, pp.233-235
- Barney Bigard, edited by Barry Martyn: With Louis and the Duke, Oxford University Press 1986, pp.74-75
- Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress, Doubleday, 1973 and Da Capo Press, 1976, pp. 164-166
- Email Heyman-Palmquist 2014-11-21 and earlier (see below), citing
- Vuijsje, Bert; met bijdragen van Simon Korteweg en Johan van der Keuken: Jazzportretten - Van Ben Webster tot Wynton Marsalis; ISBN 90-6012-589-X; Uitgeverij Van gnnep Amsterdam; pagina 15-16
- Jeroen de Valk, Ben Webster: His Life and Music, Berkeley Hills Books, 2001, p. 60
- Frank Buchmann-Moller, Someone to Watch Over Me: The Life and Music of Ben Webster, University of Michigan Press, 2006, pp.62-67
- Jimmy Fidler, "Hollywood Roundup,"Long Island Press 1942-01-19 p.20 (The samecolumn appears as Hollywood Roundup in The Evening Standard, Uniontown, Penn. 1942-01-18 p.13 and as Today in Hollywood, The North Adams Transcript, 1942-01-13 p.4
- Pittsburgh Courier 1942-08-15 p.21
- Peter Townsend, Pearl Harbour Jazz: Changes in Popular Music in the Early 1940s, The University Press of Mississippi, 2007, p.115
- Emails, Sept/Oct 2014, Heyman/Lasker/Steiner/Palmquist
- Email Steven Lasker 2014-10-07
- Email Steven Lasker 2017-04-04 re Downbeat 1942-02-01