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Tracks Unwrapped


(Cotton Tail)


There is a website ( where you can answer nine questions and it will tell you which sort of animal they think you are like (if you try it, be careful not to click the advertisement arrows). You might turn out to be a Cottontail.

According to them: ‘Cottontail personalities are small, gentle individuals with a tendency towards shyness and whose instinct is to run at Cotton Tail rabbitthe first sign of danger. Their extraordinarily acute senses are well-developed and always on the lookout for any impending peril ... Almost all mammal personalities find them to be irresistibly attractive and they rarely need to employ their personal resources to succeed in their careers or relationships. Their quiet, solitary behaviour is often mistaken for timidness, but cottontails are actually quite aggressive in their search for resources.’

Here we are talking about the American Cottontail rabbit, genus Sylvilagus, elsewhere described as: 'having stub tails with white undersides that show when they retreat, giving them their name: "cottontails"... Ben Webster(they are) very sexually active creatures, and mated pairs have several offspring many times in all seasons, it is more likely than not that none will survive to adulthood. Those that do manage to avoid being eaten (by snakes and birds of prey), grow very quickly and are considered full grown adults at three months.’

Ben Webster is recognised as being one of the top swing tenor players (Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were the others in the vanguard); his playing is described as ‘tough, raspy, and brutal tone on stomps (with his own distinctive growls) yet on ballads he would turn into a pussy cat and play with warmth and sentiment.’ One description says: ‘Webster had broad shoulders, a fine beaked nose, and imperious flanking bags under his eyes, and he radiated a powerful handsomeness. But in his last years he gained an enormous amount of weight; his legs gave out and he used a cane, and his playing became halting and even incoherent. Yet he never lost his sweetness.’

I find it difficult to link Ben Webster to the description of the Cottontail rabbit. And yet Ben's link to the Ellington tune is historic and enduring. Perhaps the link does not have any hidden meaning, it may be that Ben Webster just took a brilliant solo on the tune and the association stuck. Of course, that doesn’t help us in understanding why Ellington named the tune ‘Cotton Tail / Cottontail’ in the first place.’


Come on, Wail
Wail, Cotton Tail
Benny Webster, come on and blow for me

That's Cotton Tail


The tune is based on the rhythm changes from Gershwin's I Got Rhythm. With its saxophone riffs and Webster’s solo it was first recorded by the Ellington band in 1940.

So here is Cotton Tail. Duke Ellington and his Orchestra: Wallace Jones, Ray Nance, Cootie Williams (trumpets), Rex Stewart (cornet), "Tricky" Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown (trombones), Juan Tizol (valve trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet / tenor sax), Johnny Hodges (alto sax, soprano sax, clarinet), Otto Hardwick (alto sax, baritone sax), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Duke Ellington (piano), Jimmy Blanton (bass), Sonny Greer (drums).






Staying with Ben Webster for a moment, one summary of the man that I like is in the New Yorker Magazine (click here). The article tells us much about the man and his playing: ‘Webster's ballads were intimate and cajoling, but never sentimental. Everything tightened when he played the blues. The breathiness vanished, and his phrases became short and hard; he preached and badgered. His ballads insinuated, but his slow blues were in your face.'

Here is a video of Ben Webster playing Somewhere Over The Rainbow in the UK in the 1960s with Stan Tracey (piano), Rick Laird (Bass) Jackie Dougan (Drums).




'Webster swung irresistibly in medium tempos. His blues moved at a run, and if he played a thirty-two-bar song he would alter the melody discreetly in the first chorus, then elbow the melody aside, replacing it with pure blocks of sound. Fast tempos sometimes got away from him. He'd coast through his first chorus and, either angry or perhaps hungover, start growling, an abrasive sound that would finally end a chorus or two later with a shuddering, out-of-my-way tremolo. But sometimes this abrasiveness worked, as in Webster's celebrated roaring solo on Ellington's Cotton Tail.'

In this video, the Ellington band plays Cotton Tail in the film Hot Chocolate with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers from Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, the emphasis here is on the dancing rather than Ben's solo, but it does give us a picture of the Ellington Orchestra at the time, even though it looks very 'staged'.




Ben Webster’s story as told in that New Yorker article describes one of many musicians who, despite their genius, saw their popularity wane as fashion in music changed: ‘In 1964, Webster, who had never been to Europe, was offered a month-long gig at Ronnie Scott's club in London. He went, and he never came back, thus joining the dozens of black American jazz musicians who immigrated to Europe in the fifties and sixties. His life had all but dried up (in America) ... he discovered almost immediately that he was relished not only in England but in Sweden and Norway and Denmark and Holland, and in due course he settled in Amsterdam ...

Here's a video of Ben Webster playing Danny Boy in Denmark in 1965 with Kenny Drew (piano), Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (bass), and Alex Riel (drums).




In 1969, Benn moved to Copenhagen, where he was shepherded by a nurse, Birgit Nordtorp. He worked almost steadily, but his drinking, which had begun to accelerate in the forties, was getting in the way. .. normally as sweet as cream, (he) became so fractious when he was drunk that he had long been known among American musicians as “the Brute.” He died in 1973 in Amsterdam.


The first lyrics for Cotton Tail were by Duke Ellington and clearly related to the Ben Webster’s solo


Come on, Wail
Wail, Cotton Tail
Benny Webster, come on and blow for me

That's Cotton Tail


A little later, Jon Hendricks wrote alternative lyrics for the tune and picked up on the Cottontail rabbit theme. Interestingly, the cottontail is a native of America, but Hendricks based his lyrics on the Beatrix Potter story of Peter Rabbit who stole lettuces from the garden of Mr McGregor in Hawkshead in the Lake District. Peter Rabbit had brothers and sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. The song was recorded by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Here they are singing Cottontail.





Peter Rabbit

Way back in my childhood,
I heard a story so true
of a funny bunny stealin' some root from a guy that he knew.

His mamma got worried
She told the bunny one day
Better watch for the farmer, heed what I say or he'll blow you away.

(Oh..) He knew his mamma is right.
So why don't he do what she say?
Maybe he just don't dig it
Or maybe a habit, or 'cause he's a rabbit.

The other rabbits say I'm taking dares, and maybe I'm wrong but who cares?
I'm a hooked rabbit! Yeah I got to cure a habit.



The lyrics are quite long (click here) and have some contemporary suggestions: '.. stealin' some root .. ', 'I'm a hooked rabbit! Yeah I got to cure a habit.' I doubt whether Hendricks was aware that a hundred years earlier the poet and opium addict Thomas de Quincey was just down the road from Hawkshead in Grasmere.

So what other references might be behind Ellington’s naming of the tune? There is an old African American folk rhyme called Molly Cottontail (or Graveyard Rabbit) that also includes the word ‘wail’:


Ole Molly Cottontail,
At night, w'en de moon's pale;
You don't fail to tu'n tail,
You always gives me leg bail. (to run away)
Ole Molly Cottontail,
You sets up on a rotten rail!
You tears through de graveyard!
You makes dem ugly f hants (ghosts / spirits) wail.


The Cool Cottontail

We also come across the term in The Cool Cottontail, the sequel to John Ball’s book In The Heat Of The Night. In this story, detective Virgil Tibbs finds himself at a nudist colony in Los Angeles where the victim (who was not one of the guests) is found floating dead in the pool. Set against this backdrop, 'the guests of the resort prefer guarding their secrets to solving the murder mystery, particularly when the investigating detective is black'. But here we are introduced to a quite different definition, (although I wonder?) ... In this book "Cottontail" is a person who covers their genitals when sunbathing, hence a white streak about the hips. "Cool" means "dead". It seems the term is not unusual in the world of nudism.


I can find little reference to Duke Ellington naming his 'Cotton Tail' tune with any sexual reference, but we have to take into account that and others tell us that ‘Cottontail' is American slang for an attractive woman (while ‘Cotton Top’ is an old person), and the Playboy 'Bunny Girl' has a similar reference. 'Bunnies wore a costume called a "bunny suit" inspired by the tuxedo-wearing Playboy rabbit mascot, consisting of a strapless corset teddy, bunny ears, black pantyhose, a collar, cuffs and a fluffy cottontail.'




So one day when I was deep in the meal
that farmer pulled a big "creep and steal"
came at me with a big shot gun, and did I runnn!
So hit the gate better be ready to wail
And when you do, you show the man your tail.
.......I've heard the old story
One rabbit's foot will bring luck.
But they're much more lucky, luckier, natch, if that rabbit's attached!



Check out this video of tenor saxophonist Frank Wess playing a swinging version of Cottontail with the Barcelona Jazz Orquestra.




It has been argued that Duke Ellington's Cotton Tail was more than just a successful, popular tune with a great solo. ‘It changed the face of jazz’ Gunther Schuller has written, ‘and foretold in many ways where the music’s future lay.’ The rhythmic inflections, melody line, and overall daring of the piece point ahead.... Ellington would continue to help lay the foundation for what would soon become known as bebop.”


We are taken in that direction with this version of Cottontail by the Polish band Larsen, Bukowski, Lemańczyk, Sowiński from their album Jazz Alone Together.




We end with this video of a very fast version of Cottontail with trumpeters John Faddis and Jack Sheldon scorching the number in 1985 on the Mervin Griffin Show.





You pick up what I say?
Hard head rabbit, if you keep your habit.
Your mamma told ya when you hop, that if you stop to cop the crop.
He gets salty & guns for you
because carrots and you make a very good stew.


Mr McGregor


Son, he's got you on the run so you better find a quiet little corner where the farmer never comes.
You got plenty patches so you snuggle in between them,
Dig what I mean, cottontail you gotta keep your bean.


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Sophisticated Lady
Jeep's Blues
Just A Gigolo
I'm In The Seventh Heaven

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2015