Duke Ellington Catalog: Bento serves up the “Duke”
Retired art critic and
“Bento Master” Owen
Duke Ellington laid down more than a thousand tracks in his lifetime, from scratchy swing singles in the mid ‘20s to full-length jazz LPs in the early ‘70s. His complete works would occupy hundreds of full-length audio CDs. It’s a baffling amount of music to keep track of, however you look at it. But for a dedicated collector like Owen Findsen, it’s heaven. “When you organize all these recordings, put them in one place, you get to see things that other people don’t usually think about,” he says. “It gives you a real insight into his career and his music.”
Findsen organizes his collection using a vast Bento database that contains everything from liner notes to actual audio files. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years, but I haven’t been able to find the right program to make it happen,” he says. “With Bento, entering the data and audio files is just easy.”
From Fan to Aficionado
Findsen got hooked on Ellington when he was a teenager. “My brother was into jazz, but he didn’t like Ellington,” says Findsen. “Ellington was the only thing he didn’t have, so I picked it up.” And there was a lot of Ellington to pick up, even then. The jazz master released records under his own name and many aliases. Findsen’s collection and fandom grew. Then the jazz aficionado landed a dream job—arts and entertainment reporter at a big daily newspaper, the Cincinnati Inquirer. He eventually became the art critic and stayed on with the paper for 40 years.
Seven years ago, Findsen retired. That’s when he decided to give his sizable collection some much-needed attention. “We used Macs at the paper and I’ve always been a Mac user,” he says. “I had been looking for an easy-to-use, flexible database and when Bento was released, I upgraded to Mac OS X 10.5 and purchased the program.”
Findsen set up his Bento database in a matter of minutes and entered info for more than 100 songs in just a few hours. It’s no easy task when you consider exactly how much information Findsen has about each recording. “I’ve included all the general information, like album title and song title, but I also have information about what musician played which solos and how many times the band recorded that particular song,” says Findsen. Add album artwork and a digital audio file and you have one hefty database.
The database sounds straightforward, but here’s the thing: Ellington recorded multiple takes of the same song for different record labels. In some cases the songs were recorded under a different name. “If you buy a few compilations, it’s easy to get mixed up,” says Findsen. “I mean, he recorded Mood Indigo 15 or 20 times and each take was different. You just have to organize it all.”
Findsen modified a basic Bento template to create his database. “I was very pleased with the templates,” he says. “They’re very clean and it’s simple to just drag another field into your database if you need it.”
The retired critic has entered more than 700 tracks into his Bento database so far. It includes well-known songs, second takes, rehashed versions and even some far-flung cuts that Ellington recorded abroad. Each entry includes liner notes, cover art, info about band members and, now, digital audio. “I have my turntable plugged into the computer while I’m doing entries, so by the time I’m done entering all the notes, it’s time to start recording another song,” says Findsen. “Now I can listen to the songs right in Bento. It helps me sort out which one is a duplicate, which one is a second take, which one is a live recording.”
It’s not the first time Findsen has attempted to sort out his record collection. But it is the first time he has been successful. “I had tried years ago putting it all into a conventional database, but nothing worked out,” he says. “I would end up filing the same record 10 times and there wasn’t a good way to know which songs were duplicates. With Bento, I have all the information at my fingertips—even the song itself. I can’t imagine doing this with any other program.”
Findsen estimates that he’ll have more than 1,000 songs in his database by the time he’s done cataloging the first 25 years of Ellington’s 50-year career. What will he do with all that detailed info? “Once I have it all entered, I’ll see a lot of things I didn’t notice before,” he says. “His career begins with the invention of the 78 RPM recording process. At that time he was confined to three-minute compositions and his songs were like haikus. Then his composition style changed drastically with the LP—he had much more time to play with. Through all of it band members changed, and the world was changing. I think it’ll give me a better grasp on the social history of the world when he was writing and playing music.”
The retired newspaper man is flirting with the idea of writing a book about Ellington’s life. He will, of course, draw on the data in his Bento database to write it. “The book would be more of a social history of the 20th century using Ellington and his contemporaries as the central focus,” he says. “They’re a group of musicians who were too young to be drafted into WWI and then they were too old to be in WWII. They were this in-between generation that went through it all and their music became the soundtrack to world events. If I do decide to write the book, my Bento database will be an invaluable source of information and inspiration.”