The Troy Street Observer

May 18, 1951: Duke Ellington’s Mercer Sessions

Duke Ellington recorded four sides in Boston for the Mercer label on May 18, 1951. The question is, where did the session take place?

Mercer was a short-lived record label financed by Duke Ellington and run by namesake Mercer Ellington and Leonard Feather. It recorded small-group sessions by Ellington sidemen, sometimes including Duke himself, between February 1950 and July 1951. The Boston session was the only occasion on which the label recorded outside of New York.

Mercer Records label
A Mercer Records LP, with tunes from the Boston session. It has Strayhorn’s name, but it’s Ellington playing

This small group was called the Coronets, and it was a unique session in the realm of Ellingtonia. This configuration of the Coronets was a septet with the trombones of Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman, and Juan Tizol up front with Willie Smith’s alto saxophone, and Ellington, Wendell Marshall, and Louis Bellson in the rhythm section. Billy Strayhorn replaced Duke on one number. (The Ellingtonia site includes Jimmy Hamilton and Russell Procope on the session, but other sources including the Duke Ellington Panorama disagree, as do my own ears.).

The result was four sides: “Sultry Serenade,” in the Ellington book since 1947 and here featuring Woodman; two quite recent additions, “Swamp Drum” and “Britt and Butter Blues,” the latter featuring Britt Woodman and “Butter” Jackson; and “Indian Summer,” the Strayhorn side, made the pick of the session by virtue of Smith’s fine alto.

Ellington was in Boston with the Orchestra to play at Symphony Hall on May 16. And Strayhorn was in Boston working with the Johnny Hodges All Stars at Storyville. (I imagine numerous Ellingtonians descended upon Storyville after their show ended for a reunion with Hodges, Sonny Greer, and Lawrence Brown.) So the players were in place, but where did they make the Mercer recordings?

I’ve found no ready answer to this. Session indexes and Ellington books merely mention “Boston” as the location. A likely setting was the studios of Trans Radio Productions, at 178 Tremont Street. Engineer and owner Charles French had recorded the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops, as well as artists as varied as Nat Cole and Tom Lehrer. French may well have approached Ellington about recording the May 16 concert at Symphony Hall, and though that did not happen, their conversation may have led to a quickly planned session for the Coronets. Unless some documentation emerges to indicate otherwise, I’ll go with Trans Radio as the location of Ellington’s May 18 Boston session.

I haven’t found any of the four Boston sides recorded by the Coronets online, but I did find an earlier version of “Sultry Serenade.”

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