The Ellingtons:Weaving a tapestry of iconic music and social witness

Par Beryl Wajsman le 20 août 2013

“You’ve got to find some way of saying it without saying it.” ~ Duke Ellington

Over the years, I have found that serendipity should never be dismissed. It often produces the most remarkable surprises. And signals paths forward.

Several months ago I was invited to speak at a celebration of Rev. Darryl Gray’s thirty years in ministry. Soon after I spoke, an elegant woman shared memories of her encounters with “The Rev.” Her style and eloquence were from another era, and the applause after she spoke was so loud that I only heard the last syllable of her name. “Ton.” 

After the speakers were done, a couple were introduced and shared their tribute to Rev. Gray in song. What a couple and what music! This time I heard their names. April Ellington and Edward Ellington, Jr. daughter and son of the legendary Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, not only one of the giants of jazz but a man many consider the father of the urban jazz genre, and the children of the woman who had spoken earlier.

Their panache transported the audience back to a timeless period of grace and style that their father’s music defined. Duke Ellington said it best, “You’ve got to find some way of saying it without saying it.” No better definition exists of the understated verve and simmering passion of his music. I had to find out more.

April and Edward as it turned out have been performing for years as the Savoy Ellingtons. The name came about because of a publicity mistake by a promoter and it stuck. They do about 150-180 dates a year and travel the world over singing their father’s repertoire in their own inimitable style as well as their own compositions.

April and Edward did not start out on a path to show business. Their parents wanted them to go in a ellingtons.jpgdifferent direction even though they used to come on stage at the end of some of Duke Ellington’s performances when April and Edward were four and five years old. In fact, both were at Columbia University in New York. April in law and Edward, Jr. in pre-med. But April was restless and wanted something more.

She took off for LA and was soon working for the famed J.J.Johnson at KDAY radio where she became one of the youngest music directors on a major station in the United States. She convinced her brother to come out west. He did, and within a year they had put an act together, and debuted in an incredible venue.

One of their family friends was the famed LA restaurateur Sal Martoni. When “Uncle Sal,” as they refer to him, heard them, he suggested that they perform on the second floor of his restaurant which he had never used. He refurbished it and it opened with great fanfare as The Ellington Room. Almost everybody who was anybody in the music and entertainment world were there opening night and the rest, as they say, is history.

As true as they are to their father’s legacy, April and Edward bring their own unique and subtle treatments to the phrasing and harmony of the great repertoire they perform. 

Their dates take them extensively through the United States, Europe, Canada and South Africa. They adapt their performances for a broad spectrum of audiences and have sung Spanish, Italian, German and French in addition to English, with renditions of jazz, pop and international rhythms backed by a musical ensemble based on the big bands  that Duke Ellington created and led for so many years. In fact, Edward tells of a period in their career when they performed and recorded out of Nashville in a style Edward has coined as “countrypolitan.”

But as much as their music, their personal connection to this city and their personal lives fascinated me. The Montreal-New York axis was an entertainment circuit that lasted for decades, well into the 1960s. From the Normandie Room atop the Sheraton Mount-Royal hotel to the Esquire Show Bar, Montreal attracted the greatest talent. Duke Ellington played here many times. His famed 1964 concert at the Casa Loma was fortunately recorded by Radio-Canada, the tape was saved, and the concert – Duke Ellington Live in Montreal -  is now available on DVD. Ellington last performed here just two years before his passing in 1974, at a concert staged by Montreal’s own Sheldon Kagan.

Kagan has reminisced about that concert saying, “Duke Ellington was one of the most amazing persons that I have ever met. Aside from being a musical genius, I found him to be very down to earth. One day in the dressing room at Place des Arts, I walked in and he was at the piano. He asked me to sit down and played me a piece that he had just written and asked me for my comments.”

But aside from their father’s professional connection to Montreal, their mother’s love for this city was a pleasant and interesting bit of history. She had family here, and from the time April and Edward, Jr. were children, their parents kept a place here. April and Edward have performed at the Jazz Fest of course, but they also return to Montreal simply to relax and get away from it all for a while. April calls LA home, while Edward lives in Washington, DC where, they explained, the Ellington family has been for nearly six  generations since James E. Ellington arrived from North Carolina to work in the reconstruction of the capitol after it’s sacking in the War of 1812.

That Washington connection also produced another part of the Ellingtons’ story that gripped me. April and Edward were raised in Washington and New York. During the momentous years of the 1950s and 1960s, leading entertainers spent almost as much time with civil rights activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. working in the cause, as on stage. Duke Ellington was a giant figure and April and Edward grew up surrounded not only by legends from the music world like Harry Belafonte, but also by people whose last names were King, Young and Evers. 

The Ellington School for the Performing Arts is in Washington run by the Ellington Foundation, April and Edward explained, but just before they arrived here for Rev. Gray’s dinner, they had participated in the 50th anniversary commemorations of the assassination of Medgar Evers. Commemorations were held both in Jackson, Mississippi and in Washington. April and Edward performed at each event. And the tapestry of iconic music and social witness begun by their father continues to be woven by his children.

We started to talk about their schedule this year. It is a sadly special year. I had been looking for an idea to commemorate this year, a year marking the 50th anniversaries of the murders of President John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers and the 45th anniversaries of the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F.Kennedy. I told April and Edward how The Metropolitain had supported the “Gentle the Condition” concert in aid of anti-poverty organizations several years ago that was organized by the Garceau Foundation and our Institute for Public Affairs. Like thunderclaps, we started to bounce ideas around and compared who we knew where. Hardly a day now goes by when we are not on the phone, or calling Kennedys and Kings from Boston to Atlanta. We are looking at a November date for “Dare to Care” 50 Years After – A Concert for Human Dignity. But more on thethat in the weeks to come.

ellingtons_poster.jpgFor now, all of Montreal can savour the magic of the Savoy Ellingtons. They are giving a concert at the Rialto Theatre, Friday, August 23rd.It is a dinner theatre show. Dinner is served at 6.30 and doors open at 7:30 for those attending the show only, which begins at 8:30. For more information you can call  514-770-7773 or go to ticketpro.ca  In a time so often filled with drudgery, it’s rare to have a chance to experience some magic. Do it!

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Beryl P. Wajsman

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