Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the February 6,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Ellington, Third Generation

Paul Mercer Ellington, Duke’s grandson, and the current

leader of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, speaks with no-nonsense


His conversational reflexes are fast; his responses are spontaneous.

His response to a question reminds me of hitting a tennis ball against

a wall. Paul is like that wall, which just plain bounces the ball

right back at you without considering whether or not to return it.

In a telephone interview from his home in New York, I ask Paul what

it was like to conduct the venerable Duke Ellington Orchestra for

the first time. He notes that his father, Mercer Ellington, leader

of the band at the time, offered him the chance to conduct when he

was barely 17. And he shoots back, with good humor, "The first

time I conducted I didn’t know what the hell I was doing." Paul

is about as poised as was his elegant grandfather, but less courtly.

Paul Ellington became the leader of the band in 1996 after the


death of Mercer Ellington, who was in command for 22 years after Duke

Ellington died in 1974.

Now, more than six years after that first stab at conducting, Paul

at age 23, and comfortable in front of the band, directs the


of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at Richardson Auditorium on Saturday,

February 9, at 8 p.m. Sponsored by Princeton University Concerts,

the program leans toward standards written by three generations of

Ellingtons — "Satin Doll," "Mood Indigo,"


"Don’t Get Around Much Anymore," among others, as well as

non-Ellington pieces intimately associated with the band such as Billy

Strayhorn’s "Take the A Train," which became the band’s


theme song.

The preceding evening, music of Duke Ellington is also featured in

a show starring Mary Wilson, founding member of The Supremes. Entitled

"Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies," it takes place at

New Brunswick’s State Theater, Friday, February 8, at 8 p.m.

I ask Paul to compare the Duke Ellington Orchestra under Duke, Mercer,

and himself. "The only thing that’s different," he replies,

"is different personalities. Duke was the Michael Jackson of his

era. We’re just trying to pay homage to him. We’re not trying to


the wheel. We just want to do justice to the music that he wrote so

long ago. We’re not a ghost band." There are still musicians in

the band who played with Duke. Paul mentions drummer Quinten White,

trumpeter Barrie Lee Hall, and trombonist Buster Cooper.

The three Ellington generations share a joyous approach to performing.

"When my band is on stage they’re having a good time," Paul

says. "It’s not a production line. Jazz is not perfect. Duke


invented a grace note. It was a mistake the first time. But he liked

it and he kept it. My Dad said, `If you’re making mistake in jazz,

play it again, and play it harder the second time so people don’t

think it’s a mistake.’"

While Duke’s music inspires adulation, his personal relations were

not notably commendable. In 1992 Mercer Ellington told Bruce Anderson

of U.S. 1, "The greatest compliment you ever got from Duke


was silence. He would gladly tell you what was wrong with something,

but if he liked it, he wouldn’t say one word."

The Duke was famous for being a man of the world. Born in Washington,

D.C., in 1899, he converted the jazz improvisation of small numbers

of musicians into the American big band format. Under his inventive

leadership, jazz, which had been the province of untutored musicians,

became a world-recognized American phenomenon that attracted


who could read music and who knew what a concerto was all about.

"Overall, today ," says Paul, "musicians are more


They’re not necessarily better, but they’re better educated."

The imaginative Duke found ways to make new sounds from conventional

instruments. By the late 1930s, his orchestra was attracting


that propelled the band all over the planet a generation before jet

aviation became commonplace.

Yet Duke’s son Mercer and his grandson Paul may be more comfortably

cosmopolitan than the founder of the band. Mercer’s wife was Danish

and their son Paul was born in Denmark, the youngest of five children.

The family shuttled back and forth between Copenhagen and New York.

From the age of eight, Paul toured internationally with Mercer, whom

he considers a very admirable father.

"If my school in Denmark would let me out," says Paul, "he

would let me go with him. I was in school in Denmark only 100 out

of 200 school days in the year. My dad got tutors for me."

Nowhere is the contrast of personalities at the head

of the Duke Ellington Orchestra greater than in the parenting


of Duke and his son Mercer. "Duke was not a good father,"

Paul says. "My dad was the complete opposite. He always had time

for me."

Duke, who was only 20 years old when Mercer was born, attempted to

keep Mercer out of the band. "Dad wanted to play in the


says Paul, "but Duke didn’t want him to. In 1964 Duke needed a

road manager, and my father agreed to take on the job if Duke would

let him play trumpet in the band. Duke really wanted him to be the

road manager, so he let him play." At the time Mercer was 45 years

old, and Duke was 10 years away from death.

Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1972, Duke insisted on working as it

became clear that he was fatally ill. Refusing to give up, he


in January, 1974, and the band’s tour dates were canceled. He


his 75th birthday in New York’s Columbia Presbyterian hospital on

April 29, and died in May.

Mercer took over the band, conscious of being the child of its


and a youngster in the memories of many band members. "Some of

those men held my hand to take me to the movies or the amusement


Mercer told Anderson, "and then I had to become their boss. But

at least I had the sense to talk to them before I issued an order.

I think they knew I wasn’t going to get a big head."

Unlike Duke, Mercer nurtured the musical gifts of his son and


them. "I had always messed with intervals when I was a kid,"

Paul says. "The first few seconds of `Only God can Make a Tree’

are mine. I was about 12 when I wrote that. It’s a lot of perfect

fifths and sixths."

Mercer taught Paul music theory and Paul learned it well. "I went

to Manhattan School of Music before my dad passed away," Paul

says. "I went through three levels of music theory in the first

semester. If you understand, they let you move ahead."

Paul commands an ensemble’s worth of musical instruments. He started

out with guitar and switched to piano. "They’re very similar,"

Paul says. "You can play chords on both of them." He also

learned "percussion and stuff," and he owns a saxophone.

Mercer was sympathetic after Paul’s first attempt at conducting the

orchestra. "He told me that when you mess up, you learn much more

than you would if you did everything right," Paul says.

In addition, Mercer gave Paul advice about how to manage the band.

Talking to Richard Skelly of U.S. 1 shortly before a 1999 Princeton

performance, Paul remembered that his father gave him some practical

advice about the business side of running 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." Mercer

also warned him not to get too "buddy-buddy" with the


in the band (U.S. 1, October 13, 1999).

Now Paul expands on what lay behind Mercer’s advice to keep his


from the band. "Nobody likes the boss," he says. "Most

of the time you might hang out together and things are good, but you

can’t get too close to anybody who works for you. If you’re just


by and you’re close to the people who work for you, you can’t help

everybody, and you’re not going to make everybody happy all the time.

If you’re well-to-do, you don’t want to get too close and let people

take advantage of you."

Mercer’s death came suddenly in 1996, when he was 77 years old.


Mercer expected that Paul would carry on his musical interests, Paul

had no advance warning about taking over the band. "I flew back

to Denmark about three days before my father died because he had


and then he had a few heart attacks when we got there."

"When my dad died, all the dates for the band got pulled,"

Paul says. "Everybody got nervous. At first Uncle Barrie led the

band — Barrie Lee Hall. I know him so long I call him Uncle even

though he’s not really my uncle."

"The band was in disarray after my father’s death," Paul says.

"I thought I’d better come out of school, manage the orchestra,

and get us some more gigs."

Paul understood how the band felt about his father’s death, but he

took over with amazing toughness. "You don’t want to go on when

your fearless leader passes away," he says. "Uncle Barrie

took over for a while. But for the band to give anyone a shot would

have been out of the question in their mind. Then I took over. I said,

`You guys are better educated than I am and more experienced, but

it’s my band. Either you learn to live with me and love me or you

get out.’ We had a couple of conversations about that. The guys who

were trying to do their best got mad at the guys who were not playing

well." Paul was not yet 18 at the time.

For all his steeliness, Paul is sensitive to the musicians in his


"When they’re improvising, the soloists do whatever they want.

I determine how long they should play. If they’re playing their butts

off I give them more time."

Since July, Paul, who turned 23 in November, has been married to April

White, a Canadian singer. Classically trained at Vancouver’s Royal

Music Academy, the musical arenas in which she thrives are acid jazz

and rhythm and blues. Maybe sometime soon she and Paul will begin

having the large family that Mercer recommended. And maybe some of

those offspring will carry on the Ellington tradition into a fourth


— Elaine Strauss

Duke Ellington Orchestra, Princeton University

Concerts ,

Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Grandson Paul Mercer Ellington

leads the band. $17 to $26; students $2. Saturday, February 9,

8 p.m.

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