DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — Everything was grooving along as usual for the Novel Jazz Septet until a few years ago when someone requested a Duke Ellington tune no one in the band had ever heard.
For Barney Balch, the band’s trombonist and de facto leader, that moment was the beginning of a years-long odyssey.
“I remember our saxophonist, Bruce Boege, saying we have a collective experience of 200 years of playing jazz and how could we not have heard of this song?” said Balch. “I realized at that point that there was this gigantic iceberg out there. Most of the Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn tunes people know and love represent about 2 percent of the songs they actually wrote.”
Ellington and Strayhorn, who toured for decades together with Ellington’s orchestra, penned something on the order of 3,500 songs, the majority of them by Ellington. Most everyone with a sweet tooth for jazz knows Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and “Take the A Train,” but there are thousands of songs cloaked in the passage of decades or, more specifically, stored away in a collection of more than 450 boxes at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Since that fateful audience request several years ago, Balch has been mining the lost songs from the boxes and rearranging them for his jazz septet.
“The joy is in the journey,” said Balch. “It’s become a life passion for me and for the band as well. The goal is to pull these songs together, dust them off and perform them, to get them out there again.”
But Balch said he has discovered far more than just music. Sometimes he stumbles across snippets of what the orchestra’s grueling tour schedule was like for a band of pre-civil rights African-Americans who in some places weren’t allowed to sleep in the hotels where they played or to eat at local restaurants. Balch found grocery lists in the margins of sheet music and scribbled-out orders that the band would send to restaurants with the fairest-skinned person available. He also found a series of aching poems that he suspects were written by Strayhorn.
“Not only was he black, but he was homosexual,” said Balch. “That was a pretty rough combination in those days. Reading those poems made a real impression on me. It was all about the loneliness of being on the road all the time and the difficulties of that life.”
Though Ellington is credited with writing most of his orchestra’s songs, the documents show that he wrote to his band’s strengths. Many of the scores were broken down by nicknames such as “Rabbit” or “Cootie,” who were otherwise known as sax player Johnny Hodges and trumpeter Charles Melvin Williams, respectively.
Toward the end of his 50-year musical career, as Ellington reached his twilight years, he struggled to keep his big band going but never stopped pushing the boundaries of jazz. Balch said the Novel Jazz Septet tries to illustrate the progression of Ellington’s genius with the songs they choose to perform and record.
“The evolution of the work is really worth highlighting,” said Balch. “You can just see how jazz was evolving and these guys were way ahead of their time.”
During performances, Balch usually asks who in the audience saw Ellington or Strayhorn perform. He has noticed that positive responses to that question have dwindled but that the music still captivates people of all ages.
So what would the Duke think of his old songs being performed again? Balch said he has often wondered that as he has sifted through dusty documents at the Smithsonian or labored over a new arrangement of one of Ellington’s pieces.
“One obviously never knows what Ellington and Strayhorn would think of it,” said Balch. “In the end, it’s about trying to take some of the creativity they started and carrying it into another century.”
The Novel Jazz Septet, whose repertoire ranges through Ellington, Strayhorn and far beyond, will play at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Skidompha Public Library on Main Street in Damariscotta. The band’s two albums are available for purchase at the website www.cdbaby.com — where clips of the tracks can be heard — and at several retail locations in Maine including the Mexicali Blues chain, Grasshopper Shops in Ellsworth and Searsport, the Purple Baboon and Aarhus Gallery in Belfast, Zoots Cafe in Camden and Maine Coast Book Shop and the Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta.