The Troy Street Observer

Dec 22, 1949: B Sharp Boston

Today’s post may, or may not, have something to do with Boston jazz, and determining whether it does might require the services of an Ellington scholar. The subject is “B Sharp Boston,” recorded by Duke Ellington in New York on December 22, 1949, and issued on a Columbia Priceless Edition single.

Record label, B Sharp Boston
“B Sharp Boston,” Priceless Editions PE-7, 1951

“B Sharp Boston” might be Duke’s musical reaction to the events recounted in this blog’s Dec 18 post on the breakup of the Sabby Lewis Orchestra. Sabby was well known in New York, and the breakup would have been big news in the jazz community there. Ellington was Sabby’s friend, and Duke admired his piano playing. And the friendships went up and down the line in both bands—some grew up together in Boston, others worked together in New York, and everybody knew everybody. I’m sure Duke had all the sad details on the breakup before he sat down to lunch on December 19.

On December 22, Ellington recorded about a half-dozen tracks, and all featured vocalists except “B Sharp Boston.” Joining Ellington on that one were Ray Nance, trumpet; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Jimmy Hamilton, tenor; Johnny Hodges, alto; Harry Carney, baritone; Wendell Marshall, bass; and Sonny Greer, drums. It was paced by Marshall’s walking bass and featured solos by Nance, Hamilton, and Carney. Ellington was credited as the sole writer, and before anyone asks, it is not an early version of 1953’s “B Sharp Blues.”

There is no evidence to support the theory that “B Sharp Boston” was an expression of Ellington’s reaction to Lewis’s situation, but the timing was right, and Duke’s octet with two brass and three saxes matched Lewis’s usual lineup.

Columbia Records had plans for the vocal numbers recorded on December 22, but “B Sharp Boston,” with its impromptu feel, wasn’t part of any project. Eventually Columbia found a place for it as a Priceless Edition, and released it in 1951 with “Primping for the Prom” on the flip side.

Priceless Editions were promotional releases given to purchasers of other Columbia recordings at the time of sale. But they weren’t 10-inch, 78 rpm records. They were 7-inch records, and in 1950-51, they played at the LP speed of 33-1/3 rpm. (Later releases played at 45 rpm.)

“B Sharp Boston” settled into obscurity, and was not released on LP in the U.S. in Ellington’s lifetime, although it was included in a French collection in 1973. It’s one of many overlooked Ellington items recorded by Columbia between 1947 and 1952 that deserve a wider hearing.

So was “B Sharp Boston” Ellington’s musical message to Sabby and his other Boston friends—“thinking of you,” perhaps, or maybe “get a grip”? Or was the tune something he had on the shelf for a while and just got around to recording on that particular December day? If anyone steeped in Ellingtonia knows the origins of this tune, I’d love to know.

And even if there’s nothing to this speculation, it’s still a good excuse to play “B Sharp Boston,” the latest addition to my YouTube channel.

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