IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, composed in 1905 by Williams and Van Alstyne, may have seemed nostalgic even when it first appeared. The lyrics describe some caressing and blushing and a promise of pastoral fidelity although they are now apart. But no one has been thrown out of the Garden.
To establish the song, here’s a 1929 Max Flesicher SCREEN SONGS cartoon — a whole show in itself, with a comic prelude, the cynical vaudeville patter (is the singer Billy Murray?), then two verses, two choruses. The satire of the cartoon jostles the innocence of the lyrics and melody. (As the lyrics describe pastoral pleasures — the birds, bees, and flowers — the sandwich refuses to be eaten, the dachshund is nearly caught in the shrinking building: slapstick proliferates.)
Here’s Duke Ellington’s version from August 15, 1933:
This has been one of my favorite recordings for years, showing once again how beautifully jazz improvisers take the most simple material and make it spacious, relaxing in the freedom that simple melodies and harmonies afford.
It begins with the reed section stating the first notes of the melody against a simple stride figure from Ellington’s piano — a stripped-down Willie “the Lion” Smith motif, perhaps? — that suggests both a vaudeville vamp and someone ambling down the street. The reeds and piano (over Wellman Braud’s happily prominent string bass) converse in a most pastoral manner . . . suggesting that a sweet band is taking the stand (although Duchin could never have managed that piano figure with such swing) until ominous rumblings are heard in the background.
Did a large dog make its way into the Brunswick studios? No, it’s just Cootie Williams with his plunger mute. I think in the second half of the chorus either Freddy Jenkins or Rex Stewart takes over to continue the sweet satire. If, in the first thirty seconds, the Jungle Band was peeking sideways through the sweet foliage, the second half of the first chorus is more raucously comic — the apple tree gets connected to horse racing, to a repeated blues phrase, and the trumpet soloist ends his chorus with what sounds like a genuine guffaw. Obviously more than “the dull buzz of the bee” is evident here.
So far, by the way, one might think this a small band recording — a three-piece rhythm section, a reed section, and one or two trumpeters at most. None of the annunciatory “big band” power of trading sections.
The next eight bars suggest that satire — or at least a distinctively mocking voice — has taken the upper hand. Could anyone mistake the half-muted plunger sound of Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, offering his own wry commentary on what exactly might be going on in the wildwood — certainly blushing and caressing are the least of it, for the imagined lovers have given full vent to their animal passions! Then Tricky (in the next eight bars) seems to jam his plunger mute fully into the bell of his horn, sounding like another musician completely, ending his chorus with a huge guffaw or Bronx cheer.
So far we’ve had the counterpoint between the decorous (although swinging) reeds delineating the melody and the much naughtier brass voices. Ellington saves his most dramatic soloist for the next chorus — the golden sound of Johnny Hodges, turning this simple melody into a blues, then adding a Louis-inspired upwards phrase to move us completely away from melodic embellishment. There is no satire here — rather a mixture of the blues and a dramatic aria.
One more chorus remains. What sounds like the whole ensemble (did Ellington have all his thirteen players in the studio for this or was it a smaller band?) — muted brass playing staccato phrases, supported by the reed section . . . but wait! A beautiful embroidery of woody, swooping phrases (“that’s Barney Bigard on clarinet / you ain’t never heard nothing like him yet”) decorates the clipped phrasing. That phrasing, to my ears, is so reminiscent of music for a tap-dance routine that I wonder if Ellington began playing this piece in theatres for a group like the Four Step Brothers.
And after a decorous, rather formal ending, the piece closes with a reiteration of those brass mockeries, doo-wahs that look backwards to the Jungle Band and IT DON’T MEAN A THING. Whatever happened under the Old Apple Tree might have been less nostalgic, in Ellington’s imagination.
On paper, this is a very simple series of inventions: the reed section (and then the brass) keeps stating a pared-down version of the melody, while a small number of soloists improvise over it. But what a variety of sounds! And although I may have heard this recording several hundred times, and I know who and what is coming next, it never fails to be a delightful surprise. No drama in volume, just a beautiful series of dance-vignettes celebrating individual sounds.
Twelve years later, Ellington returned to the piece and offered it regularly as part of his 1945 radio broadcasts from theatres. One such version, recorded on May 26 in Chicago, made its way onto a V-Disc, which is how we have it here. The band is larger: Rex Stewart, Shelton Hemphill, Taft Jordan, Cat Anderson (tp) Ray Nance (tp,vln,vcl) Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Claude Jones, Lawrence Brown (tb) Jimmy Hamilton (cl,ts) Johnny Hodges (as) Otto Hardwick (as,cl) Al Sears (ts) Harry Carney (bar,cl,b-cl) Duke Ellington (p) Fred Guy (g) Junior Raglin (b) Sonny Greer (d).
The outlines of the original performance are still visible, but the whole recording has a rather leisurely — even lazy — feel to it, as if this was a piece that Ellington’s band didn’t have to work too hard to perform:
And just in case you’d like another taste of the Apple . . . here’s my own personal Paradise, a sublime quintet:
May your happiness increase.