Duke Ellington and ‘Take the A Train’

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

This is as close as I’ll ever get to live a fairy tale. It happened when I was living in beautiful New Orleans, my beloved “Big Easy,” and was Al Hirt’s bassist. Al had a fabulous club on Bourbon Street, smack in the heart of the French Quarter. Great performers and musicians of the era, like 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, and many others, used to make the rounds at Al’s club, usually doing stints of one, sometimes two-weeks.

On one occasion, Duke Ellington and his orchestra, which at that time included legendary musicians such as Cat Anderson, Paul Gonsalves, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Mercer Ellington, Harry Carney, and others, invaded Al’s club for a two-week gig. Joe Benjamin, a fine gentleman and superb bassist, manned the bass chair. Some of his credits included stints with Clifford Brown, Billie Holiday, Clark Terry, Sarah Vaughan, to name a few. I’m talking top shelf musician here.

There was a lounge adjacent to the club, in the rear area. This was an amazing place to hang out—believe me, musicians love to hang out—and trade war stories. And there I was, a very young man, able to rub elbows, listen to amazing anecdotes, night-in night-out till the wee hours and for a glorious two-week period, with all of these giants of jazz. These were people I had admired since forever. Understand, I grew up in Costa Rica, where my parents instilled in my siblings and me a love for music in general and jazz in particular, ever since we were very young. And I was only a short five years removed from living in Costa Rica before this occasion. Up until then, all of these fabulous musicians, even though they were my musical idols, in reality had only been “distant rumors,” if you will. Can you say star struck?

It is common for musicians, especially in larger ensembles, to gravitate towards other musicians in their respective sections, i.e. brass players to brass players, to talk about this or that warm-up technique, this mouthpiece versus that mouthpiece, etcetera. Woodwind players 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.” It’s all about “the pocket.” We do realize that in reality we “hold it all together”. I, therefore, befriended Joe, (bass player to bass player), and 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 demeanor.

And now, for the “A Train” story.

At the beginning of one particular set one night, I was listening very intently (as I did every night), at my usual vantage point, located, where else, right behind the rhythm section. I mean, how often could a young dude be able to listen to the great Duke Ellington and his orchestra, live, in the flesh, for two weeks?! At a certain point of the set, Duke started playing “A Train,” which he did by playing an extended introduction, in 3/4 tempo, with just piano, bass, and drums.

Suddenly, as I was there, taking in every note, every chord—every beat—I felt something come upon me. I sprung out of my chair and swiftly walked over to Joe and asked him if he would allow for me to play that tune. He knew I could play, and said: “of course,” quickly handing the bass over to me. My mind went blank, except for “oh, my God, I’m ACTUALLY playing with Duke Ellington! My dad would just eat his heart out if he could see me!!” I’m pretty sure I played the right changes, and I also remember Duke (with whom I had spent some time in Al’s backstage lounge along with all the other cats) looking at me, nodding his head and smiling at me. When the tune ended, I just handed the bass back to Joe, who just smiled approvingly, and I simply sort of “floated away,” in utter disbelief as to what just had happened, what I just had done. I think a smile remained on my face for a solid month!! I also think just about any musician would have felt the same way.

A side story: that same year, Duke and the band went to Costa Rica for a one-niter. Of course my father, who had been a bass player in his youth and, throughout his entire life, one of Duke’s most fervent fans, attended the event. Naturally, I told him to look up Joe, which he did. Because the band was flying right after the concert, early the following day, my dad told me that he and Joe—turns out the two of them were less than seven months apart in age—along with some of the other cats in the band, got to hang out together over coffee and anecdotes, in true “Bohemio,”jazz musician fashion, at the “Soda Palace,” a local all-night outdoor spot located in downtown San José. I would have killed to be there! My father even gave Joe and a couple of the guys a ride to the airport. When I sent Joe a Christmas card that year, I thanked him for being so nice to my dad. His reply? “The pleasure was all mine.” What a kind man…I’ll never forget that because I’m sure the whole experience was one of the highlights of my father’s life.

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