“A Drum is a Woman” is a musical story, put together by Duke Ellington, that was also used for a television special back in the mid-50s. This is an odd one in the Duke’s vast discography, and some critics are fairly dismissive of it, but to those who like Ellington’s more off-the-wall creative work, and those who just like odd musical creations, there’s easily enough here to at least arouse your curiosity. Although the story is presented with humor and a light attitude, that I assume would also appeal to the very young, its an important story about the origins of jazz and Duke should get a lot of credit for preserving this history in an appealing fable. The two main characters in the story are Carribee Joe, the drum playing jungle man who represents the African/West Indian roots of jazz, and Madame Zajj, the audacious woman/drum who is jazz herself. As the story unfolds, Zajj travels to many places; New Orleans (Buddy Bolden and Congo Square), New York (Be-bop), Paris and even outer space, and although she meets other “Joes”, she always longs to see her Carribee Joe again, as true today as it was then.
A lot of this album is taken up with narration and the ‘cute’ little songs that tell the story, and that’s what a lot of people complain about, but although Duke’s orchestra is a bit limited on here, what they do play is excellent and very original. Probably Ellington gladly took on creations like this because it gave him a break from writing dance tunes and gave him a chance to show off his classical level writing and arranging skills. Likewise, his musicians respond to cues for solos, that portray personality, with much humor and virtuoso creativity. As can happen in the best soundtracks, a lot of the music on here is not of any particular genre, but is just the right hybrid creation that is needed for that moment. Some of the most striking moments happen when operatic soprano Margaret Tynes sings on top of the full band’s African processions, an unheard of sound in the mid-50s, and probably a big influence on future exotic types like Sun Ra and Les Baxter. For those looking for an extended musical passage that really shows off what the band can do, the payoff finally comes on side two with “Ballet of the Flying Saucers”, an ambitious number that combines classical style development with swingin jazz energy that builds to a big ending. You can hear the future of 70s big band experimenters like Don Ellis and 3rd stream rockers like ELP on this one.
The final ingredient that makes “A Drum is a Woman” so appealing is Duke Ellington’s story, and his very witty vocal delivery. This was still back when the golden age of radio had lifted the art of vocal narration to a high level that would soon decline during the age of TV. Having said all that, the main problem with this record is the fact that it centers around a story, and once you know the story, repeat listens are less interesting. I have a lot of respect for this album, but I probably won’t be listening to it again for a while, except maybe that Flaying Saucer track. All the same, Duke has preserved his wisdom for the ages on this one, jazz may go anywhere and pick up any influence, but it finds replenishment in the African drum.