The Mooche was one of Duke Ellington’s signature pieces. Composed in 1928 by Ellington and the jazz promoter Irving Mills, it is an example of the Duke’s characteristic “jungle style,” with its exotic, pseudo-African undercurrents. These are the jazz age sounds which filled Harlem’s Cotton Club in the late 1920s.
According to Ellington, the title, underscored by the infectiously languid rhythm, refers to “a certain lazy gait peculiar to some of the folk of Harlem.” Set in a cooly melancholy C minor, The Mooche evokes colorful characters who have fallen on hard times. The instruments take on an extraordinary vocal quality. As they engage in their lamenting conversation, we can sense the distinct persona and the soulful commentary behind each voice.
The earliest recordings feature the haunting muted trumpet of James “Bubber” Miley, who would pass away a few years later at the age of 29, the victim of alcoholism and tuberculosis. “Barney” Bigard is heard on the clarinet. Additionally, the first version, recorded on October 1, 1928, includes guitarist Lonnie Johnson, and the scat singing of the vaudeville performer, Gertrude “Baby” Cox.
This recording is from November 5, 1928:
The Mooche was further developed in this version from 1952: