One day in 1936, Ellington remembered, trombonist Juan "Tizol came up with [part of Caravan]. See, it wasn't in tempo, he stood [and played it] sort of ad lib. He played it, [the] first ten bars, we took it and worked out the rest of it."
Juan Tizol in 1943. The Puerto Rican-born valve trombonist Juan Tizol—who first met Ellington in 1920 at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.—joined the Ellington orchestra in 1929. He rarely recorded solos with the band, but his big tone and agility made him a valuable member of the ensemble. As a composer, he contributed to Perdido, Conga Brava, Lost in Meditation, and other numbers recorded by Ellington. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection.
Ellington first recorded it in 1936 with a septet. In 1937, he recorded it with his big band of sixteen musicians, and this became the best-known version. From Sonny Greer's dramatic opening percussion effects to the final unresolved chord, this classic recording of Caravan paints an intriguing picture of some distant and exotic place. Its serpentine melody conjures an image of, perhaps, a Middle Eastern snake-charmer's trick, or a camel caravan undulating across the rolling sand dunes. Yet at the same time, Caravan's rhythms bespeak Tizol's Latin American roots. Caravan is one of the Ellington orchestra's first conscious efforts to incorporate influences from other cultures into its music.
Caravan has been recorded by a wide variety of musicians, including Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole, Chet Atkins, the Carpenters, the Ventures, Les Paul, Bobby Darin, Phish, and the Latin artists Candido, Tito Puente, and Prez Prado. It is included in the movies Chocolat, Ocean's Eleven (2001 version), Ocean's Thirteen, the Woody Allen films Alice and Sweet and Lowdown, and the television programs The O.C. and The Simpsons.
Caravan is best-known as an instrumental. But when it was initially published, lyrics were included. They are credited to Irving Mills, Ellington’s publisher and manager.
And stars above that shine so bright,
The myst’ry of their fading light
That shines upon our caravan.
Upon my shoulder as we creep
Across the sands so I may keep
This mem’ry of our caravan.
This is so exciting
You are so inviting
Resting in my arms
As I thrill to the magic charms
Beside me here beneath the blue,
My dream of love is coming true
Within our desert caravan.
Caravan Sheet Music, 1937
This sheet-music edition, for piano and vocal, was published in 1937. Caravan became something of a hit, and in recognition of its popularity earned an award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), to which Ellington gained membership in 1935.
Caravan Cover, 1937. Sam DeVincent Collection of American Sheet Music, National Museum of American History Archives Center.
Caravan Sheet Music, 1937. Sam DeVincent Collection of American Sheet Music, National Museum of American History Archives Center.
Caravan Sheet Music, around 1960
In the first decades of the 20th century, sheet music sold in large quantities, and publishers could afford to commission illustrations for the covers, as in the first edition of Caravan. In later years, as recordings rose in sales while sheet music declined, publishers often resorted to generic designs, such as this 1960s cover.
Caravan Sheet Music, around 1960. Sam DeVincent Collection of American Sheet Music, National Museum of American History Archives Center.
Caravan Band "Parts," 1936 or 1937
These three trumpet parts for Caravan—bearing the names of Cooty (Cootie Williams), Rex (Stewart), and (Artie) Whetsel—date from 1936 or 1937.
Caravan Part, Rex, 1936 or 1937. Duke Ellington Collection, National Museum of American History Archives Center.
Caravan Part, Whetsel, 1936 or 1937Duke Ellington Collection, National Museum of American History Archives Center.
Caravan Part, Cooty, 1936 or 1937. Duke Ellington Collection, National Museum of American History Archives Center.
Caravan Score, 1937-40
Most composers' scores carry the names of the instruments (1st trumpet, 2nd trumpet, etc.). As was typical for Ellington, this short score for Caravan bears the names of key individuals in his band, because he orchestrated his pieces with specific players in mind. In various places you see trombonists (Juan) Tizol, (Lawrence) Brown, and Tricky (Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton); saxophonists Rab or Rabbit (Johnny Hodges) and Otto (Hardwick); clarinetist/saxophonist Barney (Bigard); and trumpeter Cooty (Cootie Williams). Seeing which player is assigned which note provides scholars with a much fuller understanding of this piece, and enriches the listening experience for the trained ear. Though the score is undated, the identified individuals help date it to 1937-40, when the above-named were in the band.
Caravan Score, 1937-40. Duke Ellington Collection, National Museum of American History Archives Center.
Caravan Sheet Music, undated
To keep the music fresh, Ellington and Strayhorn would sometimes create new arrangements of the band's standard works, such as Mood Indigo, Caravan, and Take the "A" Train. Strayhorn arranged many pieces for the Ellington band, and this undated version of Caravan, playfully labeled "Cara-Vann," was one of them.
Caravan Sheet Music, undated. Ruth Ellington Collection, National Museum of American History Archives Center.