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
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
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
Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Grandson Paul Mercer Ellington
leads the band. $17 to $26; students $2. Saturday, February 9,
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