Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Keeper of the Flame Mercer Ellington Carries on Tradition of His Famous Father

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Keeper of the Flame Mercer Ellington Carries on Tradition of His Famous Father

Article excerpt

MERCER ELLINGTON may be 76 years old, but that doesn't mean he's thinking about retiring. He chuckled when the subject came up during a recent phone conversation.

"It's not like having worked in a bank all my life from 9 to 5, and now I'm finally getting off and doing what I've always wanted to do," he said. "I'm fortunate enough to be doing what I've always wanted to do."

What he does is make music. He took over the Duke Ellington Orchestra when his famous father died in 1974. Since then he's toured the world, reaffirming his father's place in musical history.

Despite Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington's relative fame as the composer of standards such as "Satin Doll" and "Mood Indigo," his entrance into the mainstream American musical pantheon has been anything but smooth.

The Pulitzer Prize board infamously rejected Ellington in 1965, and his orchestra didn't win a Grammy until 1968, 65 years after the band's formation. Duke Ellington was circumspect regarding the Pulitzer snub, saying, "Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young."

His father's incomplete recognition still sparks anger in Mercer.

"We have some people who have the audacity to declare that Duke Ellington was an `entertainment' composer," he said. "What the hell is that? I don't buy that."

Mercer's good-natured disposition returned immediately. He explained that his many decades as a performer had reduced his inhibitions.

"Like Lena Horne says, when you get this old, you don't give a damn. You say what you think and feel. Well, that's what I think and feel."

Born March 11, 1919, in Washington, D.C., Mercer grew up certain he would follow in his father's footsteps. He was 7 when he saw his first concert, in Salem, Mass. The featured performer was his father, of course, helming a lineup featuring Harry Carney, Tricky Sam (Joe Nanton), Bubber Miley and Barney Bigard. "That was the most fun," Ellington said.

From that moment, he added, he was sure music was his destiny.

At age 20, Mercer formed his first band. St. Louisan Clark Terry was a member, along with young Dizzy Gillespie. He formed his second band after a stint in the Army. Making her recording debut with his group was a young vocalist named Carmen McRae. The legendary singer, who died last year, is considered one of the greatest jazz divas ever. To Mercer, she was a friend foremost.

"We used to hang together," he recalled. "She was the ringleader. She would take us to go and hear Billie Holiday."

In addition to McRae, Ellington has worked with a who's who of jazz singers, from Sarah Vaughn to Joe Williams. He says his orchestra plays differently behind each vocalist.

"We try to stay behind the vocalist to make sure the words are understood. Other times we blast the vocalist out to spur her on and make her sing through the band, which is very exciting. …

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