May 15, 2021 • 1:45 pm

As I’ve said several times, I’m reading a biography of Duke Ellington, which is a superb book. I’ve heard many of his songs during the last 2 decades or so, and this one, “Ko-Ko”, is my favorite of them all. I can’t take credit here for my discerning taste, as “Ko-Ko” is almost universally regarded as one of Ellington’s best. It was recorded on March 6, 1940, an epochal day in jazz.

It’s amazing that this is even considered jazz. It’s dissonant, lacks melody, has no “swing”, and in fact conjures up a menacing mood. But it’s a masterpiece of instrumentation and imagination..

This is the best of all Ellington’s versions, and it was done by the “Blanton/Webster” version of the Ellington Band, with Jimmy Blanton on bass (he died of TB at only 23) and the great Ben Webster on sax. This is the version that Ken Burns had the sense to include on his CD of his excellent “Jazz” television series.

The composition of the band can hardly be any better: many of these musicians stayed with Ellington for decades, and were fantastic players and contributors to the music (Ellington was rarely the “composer” in the traditional sense, with band members contributing substantially to “head arrangements”). If you know jazz, you’ll appreciate this lineup below:

Composer, Lyricist: Duke Ellington Guitar: Fred Guy Producer: Michael Brooks Mastering Engineer: Darcy Proper Drums: Sonny Greer Bass: Wellman Braud Bass: Jimmy Blanton Alto Saxophone: Johnny Hodges Alto Saxophone: Otto Hardwick Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone: Barney Bigard Tenor Saxophone: Ben Webster Baritone Saxophone: Harry Carney Trumpet: Cootie Williams Trombone: Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton Trombone: Lawrence Brown Trombone: Juan Tizol Trombone: Wallace Jones Cornet: Rex Stewart

I’m stunned that although Wikipedia has an article on Charlie Parker’s song “Ko-Ko”, another great jazz classic (with no relation to Ellington’s song), there is no standalone entry for this song, though there’s an entry on what appears to be a foreign Wikipedia page. Somebody needs to rectify this!

29 thoughts on ““Ko-Ko”

  1. It’s dissonant, lacks melody, has no “swing”, and in fact conjures up a menacing mood.

    Never heard it before, but I thought it swung. Wasn’t what I was expecting — though it was excellent.

  2. Yep, always liked this version. It’s fun to compare Bird’s versions of this tune. The syncopation from the interlaced voices make it unique and interesting. But I didn’t get the “no swing” comment – it’s got *tons* of it!

  3. I’m a jazz professor and I’ve used Ko-Ko in my classes for decades, and PCC(E) will have to take a hit on this one:

    it swings.

        1. Oscar Peterson was known for his speed and technique, but as the piece above demonstrates, he could also play with great heart & soul.

      1. The reason this isn’t coming through is the recording. Granted I used terrible equipment for this but this is typical for such jazz recordings made back then.

        If you listen carefully, the delicious guitar strums – long on 1 short on 2 – as well as the salient rhythm section pulses is [1] buried in the mix [2] quiet – usually – for Duke and [3] conversion of format = signal loss/truncation.

        The sum of that leaves the bass out in front, giving it a heavy, lumbering feel – I think the word was “menacing”.

        My 2 cents.

      2. I think it swings at the start and finish, but not so much in the “middle eight” (so to speak).

      3. There’s a rhythmic definition of swing that is fundamental, but there also has to be proper articulations and phrasing, too. The rhythmic element is dividing a beat into 3s, not 2s, never playing on the 2nd middle division, and generally accenting the 3rd one, not the first one. Latin jazz and jazz/rock don’t swing in this technical, rhythmic sense, but do use the same articulations and phrasing concepts.

        It’s further complicated by other uses of the word “swing” which can mean anything from establishing a great groove (which means playing the beat exactly consistently and in unison with everyone else) to merely playing well in context with everyone else.

  4. I can’t take credit here for my discerning taste, as “Ko-Ko” is almost universally regarded as one of Ellington’s best.

    If we’re talking tunes universally regarded as among the Duke’s best, I gotta go with his joint composition with Juan Tizol, “Caravan”:

    1. This performance is great! What is the “trombone with valves” that opens the melody?

  5. Couldn’t find the Duke Ellington cut on the Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’ album, only the Charlie Parker one. However, I had the ‘Koko’ cut from the 1940 Fargo ‘radio check’ recording, so those NoDakers certainly were in for a treat on the night.

  6. Eliington reaches your mind, Basie reaches your heart.

    For contemporary Big Band music, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band is tough to beat. Many of the Big Phat Band arrangements are published. It’s like they are daring you to try and play them.

    The better I get at music, the more I realize how far I have yet to go. Time to woodshed.

  7. It swings. I think I personally like “Caravan” better, but it probably depends on the day I’m listening. There are standalone articles on “Ko-Ko” in the German and Esperanto versions of Wikipedia.

  8. That Ko-Ko is a kinda eerie, wonderful and slightly hallucinating piece, thanks for that. But I agree with several here that it does swing.

  9. In Milan, around 1990, I translated the sleeve notes for some previously unreleased recordings made by Bud Powell in the period represented in the Tavernier film “Round Midnight”. For the film, Powell was morphed from pianist into saxophonist Dexter Gordon (one of Powell’s music buddies) who played his character in the film (nominated as best actor).
    Film well worth seeing: Herbie Hancock got an Oscar for the score. Appearances by John McLoughlin, Scorsese, Philippe Noiret. Quite close to the biographical details for Powell that I translated in the sleeve notes.

    I have tried to find the disc and the label, but found nothing on the Internet: the Milan based record company is Black Saint which has produced a good number of Jazz recordings since 1975 (several hundred). The owner, whom I knew, died about 10 years back and the company is now taken over.

  10. I believe that story about the boy who’d never seen a woman who lived on Mt. Athos. THAT is a weird, weird place. With an interesting story.

  11. I can’t remember when I was too young to like Duke Ellington’s music. My favorite, if I can claim such a thing, is “The mooche”. The two clarinets at the beginning, commented on by a muted trumpet, are an absolute gas! As is the moment when the trumpets come in around 1:15, playing behind the beat. Playing around with the rhythm, that’s jazz. It’s in the Duke’s “jungle style” and it swings.

  12. I’d like to share a quote about the importance of sound over technical analysis to help with trying – even struggling – to hear the feel on this very old recording, because I think composer’s true intention is lost due to a number of intractable problems. I think if the swing is too hard to perceive in this specific recording, it isn’t the listener’s fault. And all the theory in the world is not the thing to rely on – sound is the most important:

    “I think people will recognize you more for your sound than they will by what you play. Because no one knows what you play, you know? You – you can’t expect someone in the audience to say “oh, wow, ahh [I think he’s] playing a tritone away, and he’s playing these ideas up a half step, then he’s moving down to a pentatonic rah rah rah” – they don’t – but, they can relate to a beautiful sound. Anyone. […] even a non musician can relate to a beautiful sound. You know what I’m saying?”

    George Garzone
    Clinic at Bird music shop in Moscow, Russia
    Published February 6, 2014
    At t=5:08 : https://youtu.be/dTIwWFa2Rnw

    … fortunately, the only effective way to learn to hear it is simply listen to more music – good picks!

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