The talented 12 piece Mark Masters Ensemble is a stellar group of some of Southern California’s finest musicians, performing the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, one of the greatest song writing teams of the 20th century, focusing on the late 1930’s and early 1940’s period that placed solo bass innovator, Jimmy Blanton, and saxophone great, Ben Webster, at the forefront of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The saxophone section includes, Danny House, Jerry Pinter, Kirsten Edkins, and Adam Schroeder. The Trumpet section includes, John Thomas, Les Lovitt, and Ron Stout. The trombone section includes, Les Benedict, Dave Woodley, and George Thatcher. On bass is Putter Smith, and on drums is Kendall Kay.
Bassist Jimmy Blanton was the originator of playing more complex pizzicato and arco bass solos in a jazz context than previous bassists. Blanton used the bass as a melodic instrument, both bowing and plucking. Blanton’s uniqueness was in what and how he played with a distinctive, pronounced tone. Blanton started first on the violin, and then took up the bass at Tennessee State University, playing with the Tennessee State Collegians, and Fate Marable. After leaving the University, Blanton played with the Jeter-Pillar Orchestra in St. Louis. Blanton next joined Ellington’s band in 1939, and with Duke recorded the first piano-bass duets(Blues and Plucked Again). Blanton was featured in Ellington’s band, placed front and center on the bandstand nightly, which was unheard of at the time. Blanton also played in jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, contributing to the genesis of the bop style of playing the bass. Blanton’s importance to Ellington’s band, together with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, led Duke’s band to be known as the Blanton/Webster band. Blanton also played in small groups with Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart, Johnny Hodges, and Cootie Williams, who were all prominent members of the Ellington band. Blanton left Ellington’s band at the end of 1941 due to tuberculosis, and passed away at the age of 23, on July 30, 1942. Blanton revolutionized the way the doublebass was used in jazz. Blanton’s virtuosity put him in a different class from his predecessors, making him the first master of the jazz bass, and demonstrating its’ potential as a solo instrument. Blanton possessed great dexterity and range, roundness of tone, accurate intonation, and an unprecedented sense of swing. Blanton added many non-harmonic passing notes in playing accompanying lines, giving them a contrapuntal flavor, stimulating other soloists in their own harmonic explorations. Blanton’s originality was developed further by other musicians into the foundations of the be-bop rhythm sections in jazz. Until the styles of bassists like Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden of the !960’s, all modern bass players drew on Blanton’ innovations. There were few bassists who stood out as soloists in Blanton’s era. Notable bassists that swung were Walter Page, in Count Basie’s band, Milt Hinton, in Cab Calloway’s band, and Slam Stewart. Bassists who followed Blanton and built on his legacy over the next 20 years were Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, and Charles Mingus. Blanton made the bass sound like a giant guitar, changing it forever. Jimmy Blanton can be heard on 8 recordings in his short but influential career.
Saxophonist Ben Webster was one of the 3 most important tenor sax players of the 1930’s and 1940’s era of jazz, along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Nicknamed the “The Brute” or “Frog”, Webster’s tone was tough, raspy, and brutal on stomp tunes(with growls), and warm and sentimental on ballads. Webster was indebted to Johnny Hodges who taught him to play the instrument. Webster first studied the violin, was self taught on the piano, and was helped by Pete and Budd Johnson. Webster played with Lester Young’s family band, and in Kansas City joined Benny Moten’s band, which included Count Basie, “Hotlips” Page, and Walter Page. Webster would play with several orchestras in the 1930’s, that included Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Willie Bryant, Cab Calloway, and Teddy Wilson. Webster joined Duke’s band in 1935, recording “Cottontail” and “All Too Soon”, and his contributions with Jimmy Blanton were so important Duke’s orchestra was known as The Blanton-Webster Band. Webster left Duke’s band in 1943, would work with several groups, and return to Duke’s band in 1948. Webster recorded the famous “King Of The Tenors” album in 1953 with Oscar Peterson, and toured with Norman Granz’ “Jazz At The Philharmonic” with Oscar Peterson, Harry”Sweets” Edison, and other top musicians. Webster later recorded with the great Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Jimmy Rowles, Leroy Vinegar, and Mel Lewis. In 1965, Webster moved to Europe, living and playing in London, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. In 1971, Webster reunited with Duke and performed and recorded with Earl Hines, Buck Clayton, Bill Coleman, and Teddy Wilson. Webster passed away on September 20, 1973. A foundation was started in Webster’s name, and confirmed by the Queen of Denmark. The Annual Ben Webster Prize is awarded each year to a young outstanding musician in Denmark. Webster’s private collection of recordings and memorabilia are archived at The University Library of Southern Denmark, Odense. From 1938 till his death in 1973, Webster used the same saxophone, and instructed in his will that it never be played again. Webster’s saxophone is on display at Rutgers University. In Southern Copenhagen, a street was named after Webster, “Ben Webster Ves”. Ben Webster recorded 25 albums as a leader, and recorded on 26 albums as a sideman.
Duke Ellington was a composer, pianist, and leader of his own orchestra for over 50 years. Ellington established a National Profile at The Cotton Club in Harlem in the mid 1920’s, toured Europe in the 1930’s, embracing the phrase “Beyond Category”, referring to his music as part of American music, rather than to the musical genre, Jazz. Duke had some of the best musicians, and melded them into the best known orchestra unit in the History of Jazz. Many of Duke’s band members stayed with him for several decades. Duke was a master at writing 3 minute tunes for the 78 rpm recording format. Duke wrote over 1000 compositions, and has the largest extensive recorded body of work as a personal jazz legacy. Many of Duke’s pieces have become standards, and Duke also recorded tunes of his band members,like Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and “Perdido”. Duke had a 30 year collaboration with composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn, and together they composed many extended compositions, suites, and short pieces. After the 1956 Newport Jazz festival, Duke enjoyed a major revival, and embarked on world tours. Duke recorded for most American Record Companies of his era, performed in and scored many films, and composed numerous stage musicals. Duke was known for his inventiveness, eloquence, and charisma. Even after his passing in 1974, Duke’s successes continued to rise, posthumously receiving the esteemed Pulitizer Prize for Music in 1999. Considered one America’s greatest composers, Duke received 14 Grammy Awards from 1959 to 2000. Duke was nominated for a Grammy Award 24 times, and 10 of his recordings are in the Grammy Award Music Hall of Fame. Duke had 80 hit records from 1927 to 1954, recorded 270 albums and appeared on nearly 1300 recordings in a 6 decade career. Duke would say,” music is my mistress”, “we love you madly”,” it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”, “there are only two types of music, good music and bad music”. Duke wrote for each musician in his orchestra that reflected their character and personality. Music was Dukes’ total life, and his commitment and dedication to it was incomparable and unalterable. Duke was a giant among giants in Jazz. Of the last century, Duke is one of a half dozen of the greatest musical minds of all time. Duke’s compositions have been revisited by countless artists and musicians around the world as a source of inspiration and a bedrock for 1000’s of musician’s careers. Musicians like Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Charles Mingus, and Stevie Wonder are a few artists who have dedicated pieces of music to Duke. 100’s of albums have been dedicated to the music of Ellington and Strayhorn by artists famous, and obscure. Duke Ellington’s instrument, was, his orchestra.
Billy Strayhorn, the composer, pianist, lyricist, and arranger, collaborated with Duke Ellington for 30 years. Strayhorn wrote “Take The A Train”, “Chelsea Bridge”, “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing”, “LushLife”, “Lotus Blossom”, “RainCheck”, and “BloodCount”. Strayhorn collaborated with Duke on “DayDream”, “Something To Live For”, and helped arrange Duke’s band within band recordings, providing harmonic clarity, taste, and polish to Duke’s compositions. Strayhorn’s arrangements had tremendous impact on Ellington’s band. Duke wrote for the personnel he had, showcasing their personalities, and the sound of soloists like Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Lawrence Brown, and Jimmy Blanton. Drawing on the contrast between players or sections to create a new sound for his band, Strayhorn brought a linear, classically schooled ear to Duke’s works, setting down in permanent form the sound and structure that Duke sought. In Duke’s autography, he listed Strayhorn’s “4 Major Freedoms”, 1) “Freedom from hate, unconditionally”, 2) “Freedom from self pity(even through all the pain and bad news)”, 3) “Freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might possibly help another more than it might help himself”, 4) “Freedom from the kind of pride that might make a man think that he was better than his brother or his neighbor” Strayhorn arranged and performed on dozens of recordings with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges.
Saxophonist Danny House plays alto, tenor, clarinet, and flute. He has appeared on over 40 recordings with the likes of Count Basie, Frank Capp, Ray Anthony, Stan Kenton Alumni Band, Jack Sheldon, The Manhattan Transfer, Anita O’Day, Keely Smith, Bob Curnow, Kenny Drew, and many others. Saxophonist Jerry Pinter plays soprano, alto, tenor saxes, and clarinet and flute. He has appeared on over 60 recordings that include Grammy nominated recordings with the Woody Herman Band, and with many jazz greats like Phil Woods, Steve Huffsteter, Lee Konitz, Carl Saunders, Stan Kenton Alumni Band, Bob Curnow, Jack Sheldon, Anita O’Day, Joey Sellers and numerous others. Jerry is currently a music instructor at Saddleback College.
Tenor Saxophonist Kirsten Edkins has recorded “Art and Soul”, her most recent CD, and has recorded with the Big Bands of Clare Fischer, Bernie Dresel, and Bill Holman, Wayne Bergeron, Seth McFarlane, teaches at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music and Occidental College, and is in the horn section of the T.V. show “The Voice”. Baritone saxophonist Adam Schroeder is an instructor of Jazz Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a successful T.V. studio musician, has 2 recordings as a leader, and has played with the L.A. Philharmonic, Michael Buble, Diana Krall, Sting, and the big bands of Supersax, Bob Mintzer, Clayton-Hamilton, Count Basie, and Gordon Goodwin, and Maureen McGovern, John Pizzarelli, Clark Terry, and Ray Charles.
Trumpeter John Thomas has held the lead chair for Count Basie, Chick Corea, Woody Herman, Maria Schneider, Bill Holman, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Burt Bacharach, Joe Williams and many others. Thomas has played on 100’s of albums, T.V.series, and motion pictures, is a full time professor at USC, and is a senior specialist for the Fulbright Scholarship Board. Thomas has played with dozens of major artists, played on 3 Grammy award winning albums, and 2 others that received Grammy nominations.
Trumpeter Les Lovitt has appeared on 30 recordings that include with Woody Herman, Stan Kenton Alumni Band, North Texas State One O”Clock Lab Band, Herbie Hancock, Sam Phillips, Brian Setzer, Eric Burdon, T-Bone Burnett, Gregg Allman, Glenn Frey, and many others.
Trumpeter Ron Stout is an instructor at Bob Cole’s Conservatory of Music at Cal State Long Beach University. Stout has played in most of L.A.’s best Big Bands, that include Woody Herman, Les Brown, Frank Capp, Clayton-Hamilton, Roger Neumann, Bill Watrous, Glen Garrett, Maria Schneider, John Fedchock, Bill Holman, Bob Florence, Buddy Childers, Jack Sheldon, Arturo Sandoval, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Phil Norman, Matt Zebley, Vic Lewis, and Supersax. Stout has worked with dozens of groups that include from Motown, a wide range of vocalists, and with some of the best jazz combos like Stan Getz, Horace Silver, Pepper Adams, Poncho Sanchez, Scott Hamilton, Al Cohn, Buddy DeFranco, and numerous others.
Trombonist Les Benedict has played and recorded with jazz legends Clare Fischer, Gerald Wilson, Buddy Collette, Joe Zawinul, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Elvis Presley, Quincy Jones, Glenn Miller, Bette Midler, Prince, Cy Coleman and many others. Benedict has performed with symphony orchestras, operas, movies and is an active educator, having taught at Idyllwild Arts College, College of the Canyons, UCLA, and USC.
Trombonist Dave Woodley has appeared on nearly 30 recordings with Gary Urwin, Graham Moncur 111, Lee Konitz, Pat Longo, Stan Kenton Alumni Band, Bill Watrous, Carl Saunders, Pete Christlieb, and numerous jazz talents.
Trombonist George Thatcher has over 100 recording credits with artists like Randy Newman, Nancy Wilson, John Daversa, Josh Groban, James Horner, James Newton Howard, Mark Isham, Diana Krall, John Williams, Brad Mehldau, Kyle Eastwood, Neil Diamond, Air Supply, David Foster, The Emotions, Gene Harris, Sonny Criss, Mike Barone, Jerry Goldsmith, Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman and on numerous motion picture soundtracks. Thatcher has performed with Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Al Hirt, several Symphony orchestras, and operas.
Bassist Putter Smith has played with jazz greats like Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Diane Schuur, Lee Konitz, Bruce Forman, Jackie and Roy, Carmen McRae, Gary Foster, Art Farmer, Blue Mitchell, Erroll Garner, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Mason Williams, Percy Faith, Burt Bacharach, Ray Charles, The Manhattan Transfer, Johnny Mathis, Sonny and Cher, The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers, and has taught at the Musician’s Institute, and at the California Institute of the Arts. Smith has acted in 3 films, including James Bond’s “Diamonds Are Forever”.
Drummer Kendall Kay has worked with Cecilia Coleman, Ron Eschete, Theo Saunders, Poncho Sanchez, Steve Huffsteter, Bob Shepard, Kenny Burrell, Phil Upchurch, Jon Faddis, Kenny Drew, Jr., Nick Brignola, Bobby Shew, Alan Broadbent, Kyle Eastwood, Frank Strazzeri, Jeff Colella, Bill Perkins, Larry Karush, Rickie Lee Jones, Rod Stewart, John Pisano, Tom Ranier, Scott Whitfield, Kristin Korb, Lee Konitz, Larry Koonse, Cathy Segal-Garcia, Jack Jones, and appeared on over 100 recordings.