While bebop pioneers such as Parker and Gillespie were stretching the limits of improvisation, and jazz composers (including the Duke himself) were busy cooking up longer works for the concert hall, the constraints of 78rpm disc technology (which was superseded by the similar limitations of the 45rpm seven-inch in the Fifties) spurred Ellington and his band to produce a string of recorded masterpieces in the late-Thirties and early-Forties, including "Cotton Tail", "Take the `A' Train", "Ko-Ko" and "Concerto for Cootie".
All are full of unforgettable details, but one of the most spine-tingling moments is the four-bar break that occurs three times in "Harlem Air Shaft". Almost a minute into this upbeat "urban tone poem", the band stops dead at Sonny Greer's crisp hi-hat beat. For a moment the wailing, shivering reeds, their vibrato perilously close to self-parody, appear to stall, to drop the beat altogether, and the track hangs as if over a precipice. But within a few seconds, the rhythm section returns (they were counting hard all the time) with a drum fill and the full band crashes back in at the correct tempo - trumpet soloist Cootie Williams riding the on-beat pulse.
The second time that this happens there is a different kind of thrill altogether, that of seeing daring high-wire performers do it all over again. Another less frenetic eight bars swing by before the band performs the break for the third and final time, and the trumpeter then kicks into overdrive for the final four bars of the chorus.
The music that is crammed into that short break says a lot about Ellington's art - the freedom, discipline, audacity and vulgar showmanship, not to mention the virtuoso musicality and the challenge of making dance music while also keeping the intellect engaged.
On the sleeve of the LP At His Very Best (which includes "Air Shaft"), Ellington is quoted as saying: "So much goes on in a Harlem air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker... You smell coffee. A wonderful thing, that smell. An air shaft has got every contrast. One guy is cooking dried fish and rice and another guy's got a great big turkey... You hear people praying, fighting, snoring... I tried to put all that in `Harlem Air Shaft'."
Well, maybe he did. But he and his band put in much more. Whether it's a romanticisation of overcrowded housing, a celebration of the human spirit, or just a great big band track, "Harlem Air Shaft" would sound as good by any name: this is mid-20th-century creative music personified - three perfect minutes that are bursting with optimism and swing.Reuse content