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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

1950s.

"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

the 1980s.

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

Duke Ellington Orchestra, Princeton University Concerts,

Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Directed by grandson Paul Mercer

Ellington. $17 to $26. Saturday, October 16, 8 p.m.


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