Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Kinda Dukish are resuming their Thursday gigs at the Highbury, Dads Lane, Birmingham B13 8PQ on Thursday May 4th at 8.30. Usual price - £5/£4.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Berklee Square

Here is more detail about Herb Pomeroy's involvement with teaching Ellington's music at Berklee. The source for this extract is Ellington's New England by Tom Reney.

The trumpeter and educator Herb Pomeroy, who spent several years on the road with Lionel Hampton and Stan Kenton before embarking on a 40-year-long teaching career at the Berklee College of Music, experienced Ellington from two perspectives. In the late '50's, Pomeroy established a seminar on Ellington at Berklee, the only course of its kind in the country at the time. Duke's unconventional composing and arranging styles, described by Pomeroy as "trial and error, seat-of-the-pants," baffled other musicians for years, perhaps even Ellington himself, who was notoriously tongue-in-cheek. "On one of the early occasions when we met," he recalls, "Duke said, 'Herb, I understand you're teaching a course on me up there in Boston. Maybe I should come up and take it in order to find out what I'm doing."

Pomeroy also played with the Ellington orchestra on numerous occasions, spelling the veteran trumpeter Cootie Williams. His first time with the band was unforgettable.

"We were playing the Starlight Lounge in Peabody, and I'm playing Cootie's book. You know, even with Duke it wasn't all concert halls and festivals. He had to have a book for country club dances and proms, and as I was looking through Cootie's book I noticed some music by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass,"Tijuana Taxi," as I recall. I thought, 'My God, the great Cootie Williams has to play this stuff.' I'm expecting a night of "Cottontail" and "Harlem Air Shaft." Well, after awhile, Duke introduced me as a new member of the band, saying 'Ladies and Gentleman, Herb Pomeroy wants you to know that he loves you madly, and he would like to play "Tijuana Taxi" for you.' Well, I was so taken aback that I got out my plunger and played something-- whatever it was, it wasn't very sincere. But I got through it. And then Duke thanked the audience for their kind applause and reminded them that 'Herb Pomeroy still loves you madly, and now he would like to play "Tijuana Taxi" for you once more.'   You know, it was Duke's way of saying, 'Welcome to the band, Herb!'"

Pomeroy survived this innocuous hazing ritual and remained wide-eyed in his appreciation of Ellington. "I was like a kid in a candy store every time I played on that band," he says. "I was checking out everything. The band itself was like a vibrant human animal.

Among the dates Pomeroy played with Ellington was one of the series of summer concerts presented by Elma Lewis in Franklin Park during her annual Marcus Garvey Festival. This was a highly favored venue of the Ellingtonians, who enjoyed the relaxed, down home air of the event and the opportunity it afforded for reunions with old friends and family. In Music Is My Mistress, Ellington described Lewis, who was one of the invitees to Duke's 70th birthday party at the Nixon White House, as "the symbol of Marcus Garvey come alive and blazing into the future of the arts. Her cultural center in Roxbury is above and beyond abnormal expectancy." He happily recalled the orchestra's "wonderful reception...and the soul supper afterwards."

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Missing Klink

I've written before about the recordings Duke Ellington made at the Gotham Studios.

Recently an LP on the Gotham label was put up for sale on Ebay. Unlike the $1,000 'Christmas album', this album consists entirely of Ellington recordings. Courtesy of the redoubtable discographical website ellingtonia.com, the details of the recording sessions are as follows...

The album was sold for $131.50

What is of particular interest about this copy of the record may be evinced from the vendor's description:

This vintage record was part of the " AL KLINK "(please Google this famous Glenn Miller & Jazz Tenor Sax's artist)Collection of Vintage LP records,mostly Jazz, I bought at a Long Island,New York House/Yard Sale about 15 years ago.I will be listing this Collection on ebay this week. This record,no jacket,is titled: " DUKE ELLINGTON AND HIS ORCHESTRA WITH FRED ROBBINS - GOTHAM RECORDING CORPORATION - 2 WEST 46TH ST., NEW YORK - ("OUTSIDE START" APPEARS ON BOTH SIDES?).There are a few scattered smudge,dings & scuff markings on both sides.Record not warped.No chips or cracks. Condition is fair.I did not play record.*** PLEASE NOTE: I AM NOT A RECORD COLLECTOR. I AM LISTING RECORD AS I OBSERVE IT.**** - Please e-mail any questions during auction.Record being offered " as is". 

Strange to think it was owned by the man whose legendary battle of the tenor saxes with Tex Beneke on Glenn Miller's In the Mood has been re-created note-for-note by generations of ghost bands.

Famously, Al Klink said, "Miller should have lived and the music should have died". Legions of blue-rinsed bobby soxers would beg to differ...

Another item up for sale from the tenorist's collection with an Ellington connection is this recording of The Minor Goes Muggin' on which Duke guested with the Dorsey band.

And, for the historical record, here are the other items...

To conclude the entertainment, whilst not the famous solo of the record (Miller's music did contain some improvisational elements!), Al Klink may be seen briefly doing battle in this version of Tar Paper Stomp from Miller's first motion picture, Sun Valley Serenade...

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Timon Space

Free Folger Friday: The Bard and The Duke will take place on Friday, June 9 at 6:00pm. Hear and discuss this jazzy take on Shakespeare's tragic tale as Dr. Maurice Jackson of Georgetown University delves into Duke Ellington's album Timon of Athens: Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play.

Details here.

Free Folger Friday The Bard and The Duke: details here.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Duke Goes To College

From Michael Good's blog, Songs and Schemas...

Herb Pomeroy, director of jazz bands at MIT from 1963 to 1985, was known for his performance and teaching of the music of Duke Ellington. But in his early twenties, he preferred other bands more, like Count Basie and Woody Herman. There’s a great three and a half minutes in the first of his three interviews in the Music at MIT Oral History Project when Herb recalls first discovering the greatness of Duke Ellington’s music. The interview was conducted by Forrest Larson on December 14, 1999 in the MIT Lewis Music Library. Fred Harris, the current MIT jazz director, was also present.
Herb: I had no idea what Duke Ellington was all about at this point. I dismissed Ellington. I had Count Basie records, Stan Kenton records – God help me. The furthest thing in the world from jazz: Caucasian Wagnerian crap, OK, and you can print that if you want! And other bands, Woody Herman’s band, Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Let’s say those three: Basie, Herman, and Gillespie. All of which were very valid, but none of which that had the profundity of Ellington – and I didn’t know this.
Basie could swing magnificently. Dizzy’s band, every time you heard it all these new creative bebop licks and harmonies and arrangements. Woody’s band, sort of a combination of the two.
And I can remember the instance that a light went off in my head. I knew that Ellington – by the time I got to be about 21 or 22, I knew that it was over my head – something there. Too many people who I respect say “listen to this.” And I went to hear a battle of bands with Ellington and Basie down in Rhode Island. There’s a ballroom just outside of Providence called Pawtuxet on the Rhodes – I think it still exists. But back in the ballroom days, 30s, 40s, and 50s, it was big.
I think I went primarily to hear Basie’s band. And on this night, all of a sudden, I was 23 at the time, something went off in my head. “Oh – there’s something more here than there is here.” Basie, I was loving and enjoying it for the excitement, the swing, the fire, and all that, the rhythm section. But then I started to see. And that for me was kind of one of these changes, like from the swing period to the be-bop period change that I went through in the mid-40s.
Fred: I’m sorry, can you recall what it might have been – orchestration, the saxophone section, I mean… ?
Herb: To say now – now let’s see, what was that? That was 46 years ago – to say now I don’t think would be an honest memory of what did happen in that very moment. It would be what I’ve come to know since then, and I started to talk about that. I want to say it had to do with that coming out of the Ellington band was the sum total of 15 or 16 human beings, each being themselves. But I came to know that later. So I’d like to think that I reacted that way then. I probably was not consciously reacting that way.
You know, I refer to in my teaching that most of the other bands were sort of push-button bands. The leader said, “Do this, and do it to this level of competency, and you’ll get a week’s pay.” And that’s an awful, terrible way of simplifying it. With Duke’s band he just says, “OK, play.”
Forrest: Yeah, they’re all soloists.
Herb: Exactly. Even within the ensemble they were improvising – not as far as the pitches, but their feeling, their sound. I mean, with Ellington, within the sax section, there’s not five saxophones trying to blend with the lead player. It’s five individuals totally being themselves as far as expression. To the point that, by certain standards of accurate section or the entrance playing, it was bad.
The sum total of five people is so much greater than the sum total of five
saxophonists. And I don’t think I realized that. I think that just
something – I was age 23, I was beginning to open up to there’s more to what my previous eight years of semi-professionalism had been leading me to.

And from Casa Valdez Studios, this...

The teacher who had the biggest influence on me during my time at Berklee was Heb Pomeroy. I was quite fortunate to play in his Concert Jazz Orchestra for three years, as well as a few semesters in his Line-Writing band and his small combo. Herb was a true master composer, arranger, educator, improvisor and band leader. His influence of how modern Jazz harmony, composition and arranging can not be overstated. For instance, for many years the Altered Dominant scale was called the Pomeroy scale. Unfortunately I never took any of Herb's composition and arranging classes, which I have always regretted. Herb taught an arranging class called Line Writing, a Duke Ellington arranging class and a Jazz composition class. He never published any books.  An All About Jazz article on Herb says this:
During Pomeroy's long tenure at Berklee, many people asked him to write a book. His detailed answer was “I could, but I find that this [Line Writing] course changes a little bit every semester as I try to fine-tune it with new rules and principles to match relevant musical needs." Pomeroy was an excellent musician, not only as a trumpeter, but as an educator. His teaching was the music itself, not any particular personal beliefs or stylistic preferences. By not writing a book, he demonstrated the ultimate trust for the future of jazz education, and music as an ever-changing, dynamic art form.
In an interview with Forest Larsen from 1999 Herb talked about some of the things he learned while studying at Schillinger House (which later became Berklee College of Music):

 "Well this fellow, Richard Bobbitt, who was the dean, he had studied with Stefan Wolpe. I hope my memory is accurate. Bobbitt learned from studying with Wolpe about voicing not through choosing notes because they are the root, the 3rd, the 5th, the 7th, the 9th, but making most – I don’t want to say all – most of the vertical structures structures that are created because of the intervallic relationship between the notes, not because they are a function… So, certain intervals – you know, there are consonances, there are dissonances. If we want to get richer, or we want to get darker, or we want to get brighter, the choice of interval between notes is more important than the function that the note is in the chord.

Which will also – I sort of based a whole course on this later on, when I started to teach – also will take away from the obviousness of the chords that have the root in the bass, from the chords that have the 3 – 7 tritone that announce “I am this chord” and there’s very little you can do about it. Instead of taking the notes because they are these very important – vitally important in certain areas of sound. But if you’re looking to broaden, whether you’re a classical composer or a jazz composer – this approach to intervallic choice of notes rather than function choice of notes I got originally from Bobbitt… I learned a great deal from this man about this, the intervallic approach to vertical writing as opposed to the function.

Even then I was saying to myself, “This is going to be valuable.” I tell you, so many students that I had at Berklee, and I don’t mean to wave the flag here, have come back to me – two, five, ten years after, not while they’re taking the course, after they’ve absorbed it – and said that this course was one of the most opening things that they studied in a school or classroom situation…

Most jazz ensembles – whether they be three or four horns and a rhythm section or a whole band – the instrumental sound is pretty similar. I don’t mean the harmonic sound. I don’t mean the style of the player’s vibrato. The purely instrumental sound when you hear whether it’s 4 horns in like an octet or you hear the 12, 13 horns of a full jazz orchestra – the instrumental sound, the layered effect of color of trumpets, color of trombones, color of saxes in this function kind of harmony that we’re talking about – is the same. Whether you listen to Basie of ’35, or you listen to Woody of ’54, or you kind of listen to Mel and Thad of ’85 – whichever of these bands. Nothing to do with rhythmic style, harmonic style, era – was it swing, was it bebop, was it whatever. This layered, as I call the layer-lit colors, each layer really separated from each other, not entwined like this getting a richer sound instrumentally, is the same.

Whereas if you use this non-function, this intervallic work, and put the instruments together so you rub color against color – put a reed between two brass, rather than put four brass and then four trombones and then five saxes, or maybe one or two overlapping – but I can hear a typical big band and it almost sounds like there are just the three primary colors, so to speak. I don’t hear any sense of rainbow effect going on there. So these are some of the things that I learned from these teachers which were not jazz tools, but they were music tools.

I knew then, and in hindsight I even thanked them even more. Because so many students – I mean, I’ve had many people who are professional writers in their home lands, directors of radio / TV studio bands, conductors of symphony groups who wanted to get into the jazz thing, leaders of big bands all over Europe, who came and studied at Berklee and would take this course. And I could watch, I could see in their faces while I was saying these things, I could see these looks, this opening. That was very gratifying, to know that you had…

I did not invent this, I merely organized the thinking. People say “oh, you created it.” No! Maybe that mathematical mind from back in my teens and all that allowed me to organize. When you teach as long as I did, and stand in front of the thousands and thousands, literally, hours I have stood in front of bands and rehearsed them, and developed an eye-ear relationship. I do not have a God-given eye-ear relationship; I have a developed eye-ear – see the score and hear it in my head. The number of hours that I was able to do that – and I feel very blessed with my own professional band, with the Berklee band, and with the MIT band, and then clinics all around the country and the world and all that – I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say it’s thousands of hours that I’ve stood there and heard it and seen it. It’s allowed me to perceive things about scoring techniques for jazz orchestras that I don’t think many people have had the opportunity to know.

The only person that I’ve been able to have a close association with who – we’ve talked about it some, but I just knew it from observing him – was Bob Brookmeyer. I think Brook has this same sort of ability, and he’s a marvelous writer.

I don’t know what kind of thoughts and things Gil Evans had in his head. I don’t know about Duke – I tried to find out from Duke, I played with the band and would question him. (Laughing) He’d be terrible – I’d say, if we were in a room and it was casual, I’d say “Duke, come here – on this tune, in the first two measures you do this”, and I’d play on the piano, “but I can’t figure out what you do in the next two measures.” And he’d say, “Oh, you’re doing it better than I could do it anyway” and just walk away. He wouldn’t show me anything!"

I recently got my hands on a document called The Pocket Herb, which is basically outline notes from Herb's Line Writing, Duke Ellington and Jazz Composition courses. For someone totally unfamiliar with Pomeroy's curriculum there may be many things that are unintelligible, but I think that any experienced arranger will find much of value in the document. For anyone who actually took these courses these notes will be pure gold.  

The Pocket Herb- notes from Herb Pomeroy's Line Writing, Duke Ellington and Jazz Comp courses 

Notes for Pomeroy's Line Writing and Ellington classes 

Abbreviations used in Pocket Herb:
A Alto Sax
AV Adjacent Voice Violation
AVOID Avoid Notes
B Baritone Sax
BNV Blue Note Voicings
C Consonant
CD Combination Dimished
Ch T or CT Chord Tone
D Dissonant
DBL Double
H Harmonized (as Opposed to writing melodic lines in each part)
HP Herb Pomeroy
LIL Low Interval Limits
NIS Not in Scale
P Perfect
PC Primary Climax
PD Prime Dissonance / Planned Dissonance
SC Secondary Climax
T Tenor Sax 


David Carlos Valdez said...
Abbreviations in Pocket Herb

A Alto Sax
AV Adjacent Voice Violation
AVOID Avoid Notes
B Baritone Sax
BNV Blue Note Voicings
C Consonant
CD Combination Dimished
Ch T or CT Chord Tone
D Dissonant
DBL Double
H Harmonized (as Opposed to writing melodic lines in each part)
HP Herb Pomeroy
LIL Low Interval Limits
NIS Not in Scale
P Perfect
PC Primary Climax
PD Prime Dissonance / Planned Dissonance
SC Secondary Climax
T Tenor Sax
Learn more about Herb Pomeroy here.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Sepia Cinderella

There is an interesting article about the film Sepia Cinderella on Mark Cantor's website Celluloid Improvisations.

The music for the film, in part, was provided by Mercer Ellington.

Below is an extract from the article about Mercer Ellington and his Orchestra.The full text of part 1 of this fascinating feature may be accessed here.

Mercer Ellington and his Orchestra 

For many years nobody questioned the presence of Walter Fuller’s orchestra in the film. Some mistakenly pointed to the Hines' trumpet star, but nobody questioned the main credit given to Fuller. The only recognizable musician was Budd Johnson, and it was assumed that he was a member of the Fuller band. As it turned out, by research twists obscure and not obvious, it is indeed Mercer Ellington’s big band! 

Mercer Ellington formed his first band in 1939; an article in the Baltimore Afro-American (August 1939) refers to “Mercer Ellington’s newly formed orchestra.” The band seen in the film, however, was assembled sometime in the spring of 1946, then booked at the Apollo Theater for the week of June 15, 1946 in a program that also included the Deep River Boys (vocal harmony group), The Clark Brothers (tap dancers) and Spider Bruce (comedian). A year later, on July 7, 1947, the band had a gig at Sparrow Beach in Annapolis. 

The band’s recordings are somewhat obscure: two issued sides for Musicraft recorded on May 17, 1947, and two more for the Sunrise label in May 1947. 

Mercer Ellington’s orchestra returned to the Apollo Theater for a program the week of June 15, 1946, and Mercer was still performing with the big band in late 1951. Ellington researcher David Palmquist cited a newspaper article that Mercer was disbanding, and going to work for his father as an advance man in 1952. Furthermore, Palmquist notes, it is possible that Mercer disbanded and reformed new units during this six year period. 

The key to solving the problem was string bassist Al McKibbon, a good friend who watched the film with me and recognized drummer Percy Brice. I contacted Percy Brice, who first stated that this was Mercer Ellington’s band. 

In a telephone interview (7/24/01), Percy Brice recalled, 

“I was the drummer on Benny Carter's band, and we broke up in Boston, in October 1946. I recall going with Mercer Ellington's band right away, but you say the film was made in December '46, and others have told me it was early in '47. But I really don't know, that was over fifty years ago. Anyway, the band was Mercer Ellington's, but Gil Fuller, he was the musical director. Now I've heard people say some things about him that were, well, not really very complimentary. But I have to say that he was always real, real nice to me.” 

“As I remember, Candy [Ross] and Charlie [Johnson] were on Benny’s band with me, and we moved over to Mercer. I wasn't with the band for that long, maybe just one or two gigs. I recall one at the Hampton Institute out in New Jersey. We had Ray Copeland and Sonny Stitt and Chippy Outcalt on the band ..... hey, and never any strings. They must have been added for the movie.” 

“After leaving Mercer I joined Johnny Otis for a traveling show, a great show, featuring June Richmond, the Ink Spots, Coles and Atkins .... and Cholly Atkins's wife, Dottie Saulter. Lewis and [Slappy] White were on the tour, too. Let’s see, after that I worked with “Cleanhead” Vinson, and the band was a good one. Then I worked with Hal Singer --- do you remember “Cornbread?” --- and the featured trumpet player was Blue Mitchell, years before he joined Horace [Silver].” It was Percy Brice who suggested that, “along with Budd, I think that is Bo McCain on tenor sax.” 

In a telephone interview (10/03) tenor saxophonist Alva “Bo” McCain recalled the genesis of the Mercer band: 

“I was with Christopher Columbus’s band, it was around 1946-47, and we were playing at Small’s Paradise. Columbus left to go with Louis Jordan, and his son [sic] Sonny Payne took his place, at least for a while. So we changed our name and called ourselves “The Madmen.” We had Ray Copeland (he came in a bit later), Harold Mitchell, Don Cole, Elwyn Frazier and Fletcher Allen. And me on tenor sax. The rhythm section changed a lot during this time. Anyway, this was the band that Mercer took over, although the only one, other than me, who may be in your the film is Don Cole, because there was a lot of turnover at first.” 

“This was an early big band job for me in New York, and I didn’t know many of the men when I showed up. Of course, I was familiar with Budd Johnson, and I might have met Percy Brice. But I recall meeting Bill Pemberton when we made the film. I didn’t know anyone else and can’t recall them after so many years. To the best of my memory, we got together and rehearsed for the film and did the recording and filming, but I don’t recall that we ever played in public.”  

Bo McCain also recalled that Luther Henderson was with the band, and suggested that I give him a call. I had known Luther for many years, and had never associated him with the Mercer Ellington band. In a telephone interview in the fall of 1996, Henderson noted, “I was with Mercer for quite some time, but it was an on-and-off sort of thing because the band was not working all that much. I did some recordings with Mercer, but that is not me in the movie, that’s Hank Jones.” 

In a telephone interview on November 22, 2003, Hank Jones spoke of his time with Mercer Ellington: 

“I was on that band and I certainly do remember the film, but not much about it. I don't recall ever having seen it. I wasn't with this band a long time .... soon after the film I played with the John Kirby Sextet, and you tell me they are in the film, too. Who knows? Maybe that's why Kirby thought of me when he needed a replacement for Billy Kyle.  

Actually, the band was just Mercer's in name .... he was just the leader in name. Gil Fuller .... it was his band, and he was the musical director. He also did the arrangements and put together the band for the film. The strings certainly were just added for the film, to make the band sound a little fuller for Billy and the girl singer. What was her name again? [Sheila Guyse] 

I don't recall the band playing in public, at least during the time I was with it. We did rehearse for the film, and I remember meeting Bill Pemberton for the first time at the gig.” 

The careful reader will obviously note that there is a conflict between what Hank Jones has to say about the nature of the band, and the recollections of those who have been previously quoted. The best that I can say is that this is a conflict that cannot be resolved at the present time. 

Band Personnel 

The instrumentation of the band on screen is unusual, to say the least, and it is probable that there were additional men added to the soundtrack sessions. The reeds and rhythm section are standard for the period, with three violins added for the film appearance. The brass, on the other hand, is composed of three trombones and one trumpet, and it is possible that the trumpet may occasionally sideline on trombone. The following is the band’s personnel as currently known:

  • unidentified trumpet

  • three trombones, from among the following, possibly in left-to-right order: probably Charlie Johnson; Candy Ross; possibly Alfred “Chippy” Outcalt or Don Cole

  • reeds: Budd Johnson, tenor sax, top left; Jackie Fields, alto sax top right; Alva “Bo” McCain, tenor sax, bottom left; Frank Powell, alto sax, bottom right

  • Hank Jones, piano

  • Joe Benjamin or Bill Pemberton, string bass

  • Percy Brice, drums

  • three unidentified violins

Here is the film itself...

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Yale Key...

The Duke & I
A professor explains how jazz legend Duke Ellington became a doctor in 1967.
Sometimes, it pays to be a rebel. When, after a decade of reasonably faithful observance of conventional behavior at Yale, I chose to deviate from established practice, my action led to a fascinating encounter with one of the true geniuses of modern American culture, Duke Ellington. Here is how it happened.
When I arrived as a professor at Yale in 1955, I discovered that one of my duties involved participation in a departmental nomination for receipt of an honorary degree at the upcoming Commencement. I took this responsibility seriously, and each year either proposed a nominee of my own or joined with other department members in supporting a candidate of their choice. For a full decade, I watched as our nominations went nowhere. This disappointment always occurred without explanation or indeed without any hint as to how and why our nominee had been found inadequate. Our frustration was compounded by the feeling that some of the successful nominations were inferior to our own. I, for one, resolved not to waste any more time on what appeared to be a sterile enterprise.
“I ventured out in the heavy rain to buy Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith a cigar.”
But in 1966, when I served as director of the division of the biological sciences, I decided to take advantage of my acquaintance with several members of the Brewster administration’s inner circle to pursue an independent course of action. As an amateur saxophonist and longtime jazz afficionado, I had developed a tremendous admiration for Duke Ellington’s compositions and their rendition by his nonpareil orchestra. Why not nominate the Duke for an honorary degree? No jazz personality had ever received such an award from Yale, and I thought that Ellington’s stature as a creative artist entitled him to such an honor. So I composed an appropriate statement and sent it on to my friend Ben Holden, then Secretary of the University, asking him to forward it to the relevant committee. But in my heart of hearts, I expected no greater success from this nomination than from the others I had made.
Imagine my surprise and joy when I received a phone call from Ben some months later. “Art,” he said, “you’ve done it!” “Done what?” was my rejoinder. “Your nomination of Duke Ellington for an honorary degree has been successful. And Kingman insists that you write the citation that he will read at Commencement. But keep everything secret until Commencement Day.” When I recovered from my shock, I agreed to do the write-up, deciding to construct a statement built around the titles of some of the Duke’s greatest creations. Here is what I came up with:
We are indebted to you for an important generalization: “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” Your musical compositions have set our hearts singing, our spirits soaring, and our feet tapping. We hope that today your “Mood” is not “Indigo” and that your “Caravan” will continue to “Take the A Train” in the direction of more “Sentimental Moods.” It might be said “You’ve Got it Good and That Ain’t Bad.” It is a special pleasure for Yale to confer on you the degree of Doctor of Music.
President Brewster read every word as I had written it.
The Duke’s given name is Edward Kennedy Ellington.Ben Holden told me that our irrepressible President could not resist playing with that name at the Corporation meeting when he announced the honorary degree recipients. His long pause after reading “Edward” and “Kennedy” caused considerable consternation when it created the impression among some Corporation members that a certain junior senator from Massachusetts was the recipient. Brewster’s final recitation of “Ellington” broke the tension amid considerable laughter.
“All those saints came marching onto the same platform on the same night.”
When sending the Ellington citation to Ben Holden, I made him promise that I would be the Duke’s official guide and companion during his visit to the campus. But in 1967 when the Duke received his honorary degree, my son Bill was graduating from Cornell University, and the commencements were to be held on the same day, at virtually the same hour. There was no way that, as a father, I could miss my own son’s commencement. So I swallowed my disappointment and didn’t get to meet the Duke.
Some years later, based in part on the Duke’s new connection with Yale, Willie Ruff, an adjunct professor at the School of Music, convinced the administration to establish the Duke Ellington Fellowship. Under that program, we have been treated to outstanding concerts by Willie, his musical partner—pianist Dwike Mitchell—and outstanding young Yale and New Haven musicians. The Fellowship even brought famous musicians like Dizzy Gillespie to town to play pied piper for New Haven schoolchildren. (The Fellowship’s 30th Anniversary concert will take place on October 25.)
For me, the culmination of this adventure was a gala occasion at Woolsey Hall in October 1972 when outstanding jazz musicians were brought together to inaugurate the Fellowship. My wife and I were invited to a pre-concert dinner in the President’s room with the musicians. At the table, my neighbor shook my hand, smiled, and said: “My name is Smith.” He turned out to be Willie “The Lion” Smith, who pioneered the “stride” rhythmic bass piano style that became dominant amongst jazz pianists! After dinner, Smith lamented that he had failed to bring a big cigar, part of his traditional costume when playing, so I ventured out in the heavy rain to buy him one at George & Harry’s (now Naples) on Wall Street. And when he and the Duke played duets at facing grand pianos, that cigar was part of the Lion’s equipment. Also recipients of Ellington Medals that night were jazz pioneers Eubie Blake, Art Blakey, and Noble Sissle; drummers Max Roach, Sonny Greer, Joe Jones, and Kenny Clarke; trumpeters Sy Oliver, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Dizzy Gillespie, “Cootie” Williams, and Clark Terry; trombonist Ray Brown; bassists Milt Hinton, Charles Mingus, and “Slam” Stewart, saxophonists Benny Carter, Harry Carney, Russell Procope, and Sonny Stitt; pianist Mary Lou Williams; and singers Joe Williams and Odetta. All those saints came marching onto the same platform on the same night. It was probably the greatest aggregation of jazz talent assembled at any one time in history.
Afterwards, when we mingled with the musicians, my wife saw the Duke seated on a chair against the wall, for the moment free of admirers. She hastened up to him, introduced herself, and told him of my role in the awarding of his honorary degree in 1967. He smiled broadly, asked me to approach him, then rose, kissed me on both cheeks and recited his mantra: “I love you madly.” As we parted, he took our name and address and promised to add us to his annual Christmas card mailing list. Alas, he died before he could keep that promise, but the memory of my encounter with the Duke will stay with me forever.