Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 13, 1999. All rights reserved.
Duke & Son & Grandson
In show business a hard act to follow can be more than
just a cliche. Imagine the challenge of following in the footsteps
of someone who is already renowned as a legend in his field. Imagine
that you are following that person — at least in part — because
you are his progeny and share the same last name. And now imagine
that this spotlight has been thrust upon you as a teenager, before
you have even graduated from college.
Ask Paul Mercer Ellington, 20 years old and leading a world-class
orchestra, one with a reputation that precedes him by a half-century.
For the last three years, the young Ellington has been conducting
the orchestra that his grandfather founded in 1927. What do the inner
core of jazz critics have to say about all this, given Paul’s age?
"I tend to not worry about what the critics say, and I try to
learn as much as I can from the people around me," says Ellington,
referring to the musicians in the orchestra. Paul Ellington is the
son of former leader Mercer Ellington (Duke’s son), who died in 1996;
and grandson of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, who died
in 1974, four years before Paul was born. "I tell some of them
they don’t sleep with all the original scores in their bedroom,"
adds Paul, who turns 21 in November.
"I can pull out any original Duke Ellington score and I refer
to them as often as I need to," he says. Paul has attended the
Manhattan School of Music, but has not yet graduated, though he intends
to get back there.
"As much as I can learn from the people around me, hopefully,
they can learn, energy-wise, from me. Hopefully, people are excited
to be seeing the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and I try to bring some
of that excitement into our live shows," he explains, "the
same kind of excitement you’d have if you were going to see a rock
‘n’ roll or hip-hop show."
Ellington was born in 1978 and raised in Copenhagen,
Denmark. He has only been in his comfortable Lincoln Center condominium
since he turned 16. His mother, the widow of Mercer Ellington, has
multiple sclerosis, he explains, and he’s been taking care of her,
off and on, since he was eight. The family still maintains a residence
in Copenhagen, he adds.
"She’s had MS for 13 years, and it would have been nice of the
Grammy Awards people to invite us to the Grammys, but they didn’t,"
he says, of the February, 1999, broadcast that included a tribute
to Duke Ellington performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra,
under the direction of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Given his proximity to Lincoln Center, what does young Paul make of
the Ellington Centennial tribute concerts that have been going on
there this year, organized by Jazz at Lincoln Center and conducted
mostly by Marsalis? Ellington says he’s been to many of the events,
including the historic kick-off party in January.
"I definitely think it’s good. It’s putting my grandfather’s name
out there," Ellington says. "However, they don’t play the
music the same way my band does. It’s not the same kind of intensity."
The young man stresses, however, that he in no way means to belittle
Marsalis or the LCJO. "When my guys go out and we play a concert,
we have a good time and we still have that essence, that this is a
jazz band and we’re here to have fun, too," he explains.
Ellington points proudly to the longtime members of the Ellington
Orchestra, performers like Mark Gross on alto sax, Charlie Young on
lead alto, trombonist Gregory Royal, and saxophonist and vocalist
Shelly Paul, all of whom played with his dad’s band for upwards of
20 years. Other longtime members of the Ellington Orchestra include
trumpeter Barrie Lee Hall Jr. and drummer Rocky White, both of whom
played with Duke’s original band for several years.
How is it working with anywhere from 16 to 18 veteran jazz musicians,
all of whom are considerably older than he? "You gotta have respect
for somebody," he says, adding that he began conducting the band
when he was 18 and was also saddled with management responsibilities.
Now, the group has its own agency that handles bookings and management.
"We’re working five months a year now," he notes, "and
you have to respect the person who is paying you. They’re all happy
with the way things are going, and we’ve been together almost four
years now, so the band is very tight."
Paul says his father told him not to worry too much about the business
of being a bandleader and not to get too "buddy-buddy" with
the musicians in the band. "He showed me how to make sure all
the music publishing rights would remain in the family, and he said,
`The musical life is very sporadic, and you never know.’ And then,
he told me to have a lot of kids," he adds, laughing.
What does young Ellington say to the people who think of the Ellington
Orchestra as a "nostalgia" act? After all, Count Basie’s Orchestra
is still together, although not in its original form by any means.
And we won’t even talk about those perennial doo-wop groups from the
"It’s not a ghost band, as much as people might think or say that
— and they’d better not write that," he cautions. He gets
his back up when critics take pot shots at the legacy of his father
and grandfather, both of whom had their periods of struggle when differing
musical fads came to the forefront of the American musical consciousness.
In Duke’s case, first it was bebop replacing the big band sounds in
the late 1940s and early ’50s, and then it was rock ‘n’ roll in the
1960s. New styles notwithstanding, Duke continued to compose new music
until he became too ill to do so. In Mercer’s case, the band struggled
through 1970s’ disco and the rap music revolution that emerged in
Aside from classic Ellington fare like "Satin Doll," "In
A Mellow Tone," and "Take The `A’ Train," tunes that have
become "standards" in the jazz world, the band also plays
a few of his own compositions. The show at Princeton University will
feature two of them, "Le Jam" and "Many Sides of Ellington."
Like organist Jimmy McGriff and many other thoroughly modern jazzmen,
Ellington does his composing on his computer, and the piano is always
nearby. "We don’t play `Satin Doll’ or `Sophisticated Lady’ that
much, but we bring out stuff from `Far East Suite’ and we normally
play `Arabian Dance,’ a composition that’s not played often. When
we go to Japan we’ll bring out `Diminuendo’ and `Crescendo In Blue’
a 13-minute blues piece," he says.
The Princeton audience should be ready to hear lots of Ellington compositions
they have never heard before. "All of the guys in this band are
great musicians," he says, not Ellington-only musicians. "They
can get other jobs, and they do get other jobs, but they love this
music. And since there are people that still want to hear this stuff,
then it’s my job to make sure they have a chance to hear it."
— Richard J. Skelly
Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Directed by grandson Paul Mercer
Ellington. $17 to $26. Saturday, October 16, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.