Mercer Ellington On Piano Jazz

Mercer Ellington. i i

Mercer Ellington. Tom Marcello/Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Marcello/Wikimedia Commons
Mercer Ellington.

Mercer Ellington.

Tom Marcello/Wikimedia Commons

Set List

"C Jam Blues" (E. K. Ellington)

"Prelude to a Kiss" (D. Ellington)

"Chelsea Bridge" (B. Strayhorn)

"Moon Mist" (M. Ellington)

"Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (M. Ellington)

"Portrait of Mercer Ellington" (M. McPartland)

"In My Solitude" (D. Ellington. E. DeLange, I. Mills)

As the son of one of the towering figures of 20th-century music, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, born March 11, 1919, in Washington, D.C., was all but destined to follow in his father's footsteps. He spent his entire career working in and out of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, holding posts as trumpeter, composer, arranger and band manager. Mercer led his own bands throughout the '40s and '50s, and many of the members went on to play for his father. During the ASCAP strike of the 1940s, Mercer wrote new tunes for his father's orchestra that became standards, including "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," "Jumpin' Punkins," "Moon Mist" and "Blue Serge."

When Duke died in 1974, Mercer took over the orchestra, taking it on tour through Europe in 1975 and 1977 (his son, Edward Ellington, played in the band in the late 1970s, while his other son, Paul Ellington, later took over conducting duties). In the early 1980s, Mercer became the first conductor for a Broadway musical of his father's music, Sophisticated Ladies.

Mercer Ellington performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra up to the day of his death from a heart attack, a month shy of his 77th birthday; the organization stills performs today under the direction of Paul Ellington.

Mercer And 'Pop'

On this episode of Piano Jazz, recorded in 1994, Mercer Ellington joins host Marian McPartland to discuss working for his famous father, composing and Billy Strayhorn, and to play a piano duet of "C Jam Blues."

"I played that tune for grade-school kids," McPartland says. "And it's just made for kids who don't know much about music. It's such a wonderful tune."

"Well, Pop was great in figuring out how to be ignorant, and successfully so," Ellington says. "In other words, to be uninhibited, he wrote several songs like that."

The session shifts to the elegant side of Duke, as McPartland performs a solo take on one of her favorite Ellington tunes, "Prelude to a Kiss," followed by "Chelsea Bridge," written by Duke Ellington's longtime musical collaborator, Billy Strayhorn.

"One of the most sensational things about Billy Strayhorn is that he wrote these romantic tunes like 'Lush Life' and 'Chelsea Bridge' while he was working at a drugstore in Pittsburgh or standing on the corner in Chicago," Ellington says.

Mercer Ellington's own compositional skills shine in "Moon Mist" and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," also performed solo by McPartland. Though overshadowed by his famous father, Mercer was a solid composer, arranger and manager for Duke's band. Ellington reminisces about "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," saying, "He called me up one morning and told me he had a record date at 9 o'clock and needed one more tune, so I put together what I could and raced down [to the recording studio]."

The session ends with "In My Solitude," a tune that hints at Duke's spiritual life.

"It took him some time to get the courage to reach inside and speak about God," Mercer says. "And I think 'In My Solitude' was his first attempt."

McPartland turns in an inspired solo performance of the tune, her own elegant touch a perfect, reverent match to Duke Elllington's music.

Originally recorded Jan. 24, 1993. Originally broadcast May 21, 1994.

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