Duke Ellington and ‘Take the A Train’

Duke Ellington and Rodrigo Sáenz
Duke Ellington in 1954, courtesy Wikipedia

The closest I’ll ever come to living a fairy tale. It happened while I was living in beautiful New Orleans, my beloved “Big Easy,”  “Birthplace of Jazz,” and where I first resided upon my arrival in the United States. I still wasn’t over the fact that I had actually gotten the bass  chair in the great Al Hirt’s sextet!

“Jumbo,” as he was affectionately known throughout the world, had a very unique club on Bourbon Street, right smack in the heart of the French Quarter. Many well- known performers and musicians of the era, such as Antoine “Fats” Domino, Errol Garner, Buddy Rich (with his, at the time, brand-new big band), Gene Krupa, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Louie Prima, Jimmy Smith, Carmen Cavallaro, Little Richard, Dizzy Gillespie, Wayne Cochran and the C. C. Riders, and The Dukes of Dixieland, among many others, used to make the rounds at his joint, usually doing stretches of one or two-weeks.

In the Spring of 1970, the phenomenal Duke Ellington and his legendary orchestra, which at that time included such music luminaries as Cat Anderson, Paul Gonsalves, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Mercer Ellington, Harry Carney, et al, converged at Al’s club for a two-week tour of duty. Joe Benjamin, a fine gentleman and awesome musician, manned the bass chair (more about him later). Among his numerous credits were stints with Clifford Brown, Billie Holiday, Clark Terry, Sarah Vaughan, just to name a few. I’m talking about a top shelf artist here!

The club had a bar/lounge, which was located in the rear area. This was a superb place to hang out (and trust me, we musicians love to hang out!) and trade war stories. And there I was, a very young man, being able to rub elbows with and listen to amazing anecdotes from these elegant folks, all giants of jazz, night-in and night-out, till the wee hours, and for a glorious two-week period! These were people I had been admiring  for as long as I could remember. Understand, I grew up in Costa Rica, and even though our parents had instilled in my siblings and me a love of music in general and jazz in particular from a very early age, and I was only a little over three years removed from living in the motherland before the event in question, all of these fabulous and very talented folks (even though they were my musical idols) had been sounds and photos that only existed in my father’s extensive record collection. Star struck doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling I experienced for that unforgettable  two-week stretch!

It is common for musicians, especially in larger ensembles, to gravitate towards other musicians in their respective sections. I.e. brass players will talk to other brass players about this or that warm-up technique, mouthpiece “A” versus mouthpiece “B”, etcetera. Woodwind players will talk about reeds, ligatures, and such. As far as rhythm section members are concerned, it’s all about this bass player’s or that drummer’s, or that band’s “pocket.”  “The pocket” is what it’s all about. It is the perfect, the ideal blend of rhythmic accuracy and soul. The push and pull that feels practiced yet human. We do realize that, in reality, our mission in music is to “hold it all together”. As bass players, Mr. Benjamin and I took to each other and quickly became friends. We spent a lot of time talking about life in general and music in particular. I was in awe of his bass-playing credits and prowess, life experience, sophistication, and super laid-back, “steady on his feet” demeanor.

And now, for the story. . .

One particular night, at the beginning of a set, I was listening very intently (as I did every night) from my usual vantage point, which was strategically located (where else?) right behind the rhythm section. I mean, how often could a young dude like me have a chance to listen to the great Duke Ellington and his orchestra live, up close and personal, for two weeks straight?! At a certain point during the set, Duke started playing “Take The A Train,” one of his (and Billy Strayhorn’s) signature pieces. He did so in the usual manner, by playing an extended introduction, in 3/4 tempo, with just piano, bass, and drums.

As soon as  the tune started, I (suddenly) felt a mysterious force, like a jolt of energy come over me! I sprung out of my chair and swiftly walked over to Joe and asked him if he would allow for me to “sit in.” He knew I could “handle it” because he had heard me play, and said: “of course,” while quickly turning the bass over to me, so as not to affect the performance. After all, they were right in the middle of the tune!

 Without skipping a beat I started “swinging!” My mind went blank, and all I could think was: “OH, MY GOD, I AM ACTUALLY PLAYING WITH DUKE ELLINGTON! My dad would just eat his heart out if he could see me!!” That  memorable song had been “mother’s milk” to me and I knew it forwards and backwards. I also remember glancing over at Duke, who gave me a fatherly look while smiling approvingly. It should be mentioned that, as a rule, older jazz musicians love to see and hear younger ones playing their brand of music. Technically, it was “a good move on my part,” albeit risky, given that I had no idea how he would have reacted to my fearless attitude. But I wasn’t thinking about that.

When the tune ended I handed the bass back to Joe. He simply smiled. I just sort of “floated away,” in utter disbelief of what had just happened, what I had just done! Could somebody please pinch me? I think a satisfying grin remained on my face for quite some time!! I also believe any musician would have felt the same way. This was a perfect example of the stars “lining up.” Since then I have lived and re-lived that unforgettable moment in my mind at least a million times! God, if only smart phones had existed at back then. . .

In December of that same year, Duke and his orchestra visited Costa Rica for a one-niter. Naturally, my father (who had been a bass player in his youth and, throughout his entire life one of Duke’s most fervent admirers) attended the event. I told him to look up Joe, which he did. In the gallery section of this website there is a picture of my dad at the concert after party, standing by in awe and listening intently, to this exceptional gentleman “do his thing.”

Because the band was flying out early the following day, my dad told me that he and Joe (turns out that they were less than seven months apart age wise), along with some of the other cats in the band, hung out “over coffee chat and anecdotes,” in true “bohemio,” jazz musician fashion, at the “Soda Palace,” which at that time was the most popular 24/7 outdoor spot in downtown San José. I would have loved to have been there! My father even gave Joe and a couple of the fellows a ride to the airport. I sent Joe a Christmas card that year, thanking him for being so nice to my dad. He charmingly replied: “little brother, the pleasure was entirely mine!” What a kind, gentle man…

I’ll never forget that because I’m sure the whole experience was one of the highlights of my father’s life. And mine as well. . .

Please come see me at Luana’s on Friday, February 23, from 7 to 10. I will be singing and playing songs from “The Great American Songbook” with my world class trio. See you there!! 

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