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WEEKDAY MAGAZINE – Duke Ellington: An American Composer and Icon

These are exceprts from Duke Ellington: an American Composer and Icon by Mercedes Ellington and Steven Brower

 

Visit Woodlawn Cemetery this Sunday, June 24 at 2:00pm for a FREE Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity to meet Mercedes Ellington, dancer, choreographer, director and producer, as she discusses her book about the life and works of her grandfather “Duke Ellington: An American Composer and Icon.” Seats are limited so please register at www.WoodlawnTours.org.

 

In the topsy-turvy world of a touring musician’s life, my family would often find themselves celebrating Christmas in July-whenever the great man (the Duke) turned up in New York, that was Christmas. In our business, the holiday season is when people want entertainments, for the band, or “family” as I came to know them, would be away—they traveled practically fifty-two weeks of the year. So when the family (consisting of my father, grandfather, their band and all their families) did get together, it was a very warm meeting because it was so rare. Duke would always come with presents—once it was a typewriter, another time it was a set of LPs of the Nutcracker Suite. At one point, I wanted to know what to call him—he wasn’t the grandfatherly type and certainly didn’t look like one to me, either—so I talked to my father, and he said I should just ask him. Other people would call him “Maestro” and things like that. I asked and he said, “Call me Uncle Edward.” He did not want to acknowledge his age. If my father wanted to get his father mad, he’d call him “Pop.”

As a child, I got used to meeting famous artists—they were just people to me. I didn’t think it unusual that the great Ella Fitzgerald would occasionally babysit me in a hotel room. The fact that she was a phenomenal singer didn’t come into it. She was a great person when she befriended me, and our relationship was very important to me because I didn’t have many. She loved kids and wrote me letters, but I as very bad about keeping in touch. I remember spending whole days backstage at the Apollo Theater and meeting Pearl Baily and Louie Bellson.

My grandfather was not exactly the grandfatherly type. He was always on the road, not at home with a pipe and slippers. He carried a bible and thesaurus everywhere he went. He loved unusual words. Almost as much as he loved his women.

He did not want to be designated as a jazz musician. People were always trying to nail him down into one mode or the other and he refused to be pinned down. He always said he composed “American music” because that opened up the scope of things. This just proves that the commonality among people is one of the things that Ellington wanted to accentuate. He was always on the path of acknowledging what was really happening in the world. Duke Ellington tore down racial barriers, playing to both African American and white audiences, a rarity during those racially divided times. The idea of people being drawn together through music was his goal. He was constantly writing, every day.

The music of Duke Ellington is of such a structure that it crosses generations and puts everybody on an even scale. Duke Ellington was very charming and very gracious, and he appreciated his career to such an extent that, when he was invited to play in different countries, he would compose a suite dedicated to that country. He loved to go places that he was not supposed to go to. When people used to tell him to stop writing, he would replay that as soon as you stop working, everything starts breaking down, the body starts falling apart. “Retire?” my grandfather would say when asked why he kept on working. “Retire yo what?”

Visit Woodlawn Cemetery this Sunday, June 24 at 2:00pm for a FREE Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity to meet Mercedes Ellington, dancer, choreographer, director and producer, as she discusses her book about the life and works of her grandfather “Duke Ellington: An American Composer and Icon.” Seats are limited so please register at www.WoodlawnTours.org.

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Mercedes Ellington is Duke Ellington’s granddaughter and a composer of dances and theatrical situations. She made history as the first and only person of color in the June Taylor Dancers on The Jackie Gleason Show. She has performed in many Broadway productions, including No, No, Nanette and Sophisticated Ladies, and programs at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. She is the founder of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts.

To submit writing for publication on WEEKDAY MAGAZINE, click here.  Fiction, non-fiction, commentary, news, news analysis, and poetry are welcome.  Bronx slant always preferred.

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