Stories of Standards: "Perdido"

May 11, 2018

Juan Tizol in 1943

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Juan Tizol wrote “Perdido” as an instrumental December 3, 1941, while riding a train sitting next to Herb Jeffries. Tizol immediately handed the music to Duke Ellington, who made an arrangement and recorded it that very night. Ellington’s January 21, 1942, recording is considered the definitive version. The song refers to Perdido Street in New Orleans. Simplicity of form, short phrases and irresistible swing feeling have made it a major vehicle for jazz jam sessions, often ten minutes or more in length, with multiple instrumental solos. In 1944 Ervin Drake and Hans Jan Lengsfelder wrote lyrics, first recorded in 1950 by Sarah Vaughan with the Norman Leyden Orchestra. Over 125 instrumental versions and 26 vocal versions of Perdido have since been released.

Juan Tizol (1900-1984) came to the mainland from Puerto Rico in 1920 and was playing in the pit band at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D. C., when he met Duke Ellington. He played with the Ellington orchestra for the next 15 years, spent a while with the Harry James Orchestra, and returned a couple of times to Ellington, once in 1951 and again in 1960. From the late 1950s onward he primarily focused on studio work in California. Tizol was one of a very few trombonists who favored the valve trombone with its advantage of quickly changing pitch; he was best known as the author of “Perdido” and “Caravan”.

Ervin Drake (1919-2015) studied graphic arts and social sciences in college and, despite a number of successes as a lyricist beginning in the early 1940s, didn’t formally study music until 1963, when he enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music. His lyrics ranged from “Tico-Tico” (1942), “Perdido” (1944), “Good Morning, Heartache” (1946) to “I Believe” (1953) and 1961’s “It Was a Very Good Year” which Frank Sinatra took to the top 10.

Hans Jan Lengsfelder (1903-1979), lyricist, composer, writer and theater owner, was born in Vienna, Austria, and moved to the United States in 1932 (or 1939). Best known for his role in co-writing the lyrics to “Perdido”, he also wrote “Hayfoot, Strawfoot” (1942) as well as plays and operettas that are still performed in Europe.