Jazzistry's International Jazz Day Tribute: On The Road With Duke Ellington

Apr 28, 2015

As April and Jazz Appreciation Month comes to a close with International Jazz Day this Thursday, April 30th, I would like to share a personal jazz experience and how my musical appreciation continues to grow through my friendship with saxophonist Vincent York of Jazzistry.

When popular music focused on heavy metal, glam and arena rock in the mid to late 1970s, I searched for music with deeper meaning and less pyrotechnic effects.  I found my solace first in traditional blues.  Shortly thereafter I re-discovered my mother’s favorite music – jazz.  Born in 1929, the music of her youth was big band, swing and jazz.  Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Michel Legrand, Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington were in her record collection which I raided for my early jazz education.  When I learned that the Duke Ellington Orchestra would appear at The Ohio Theatre in 1976, I bought tickets to treat my mother to the concert as a way to thank her for her musical guidance and great taste.

Duke Ellington died in 1974.  His son Mercer took the Ellington Orchestra back out on the road the day after his father’s funeral and – much like his father – Mercer hardly ever rested until he passed away in 1996.  The 1976 band had many younger members including pianist Mulgrew Miller and saxophonist Vincent York, the founder of Jazzistry.   Reacting to changing times and newer personnel, Mercer had added new compositions and modern approaches to the repertoire.  As a newcomer to jazz, I was pleased by whatever I heard.  My mother, however expressed that she missed the classic Ellington sound.  But, she had the highest praise for Mercer Ellington who was gracious, charming and entertaining as the orchestra leader and concert host, following in his great father’s footsteps. 

In the early 1990s, The Duke Ellington Orchestra appeared at EMU’s Pease Auditorium.  Ever the professional, Mercer Ellington built time in to his schedule for interviews and publicity.  He spent a glorious hour with Michael Jewett.  The two reflected on Ann Arbor’s jazz history, the importance of the Ellington Orchestra and the joy of jazz.  As Mercer Ellington left the studios, Michael and I remarked on his generosity, his comfortable but elegant manners and his obvious sincerity.  We knew we had experienced the genuine article – a consummate musician – performer and entertainer.

This Thursday, Vincent York will share stories about his days with The Duke Ellington Orchestra as well as music from the Ellington repertoire for his annual International Jazz Day Concert.  Vincent shared some thoughts on his time with Mercer Ellington and his affection for the music

As a kid, The Duke Ellington Orchestra was not my favorite band. I was a Basie man. After playing in the Ellington Orchestra, I became an Ellington man. I can remember when I got my first call from Mercer Ellington.  It was my final semester as a graduate student, at the University of Michigan. I was working on my recital during the week, and touring with Ellington Orchestra on weekends. That was so exciting. It was my teacher, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, who made it all possible. 

Reverence for mentors and teachers keeps the jazz flame burning brightly.  Whether he tells tales about his father, Tiny York, his teacher Alvin Batiste or Mercer Ellington, Vincent York believes in passing it on as do WEMU hosts.  We hope you will be there to receive the jazz message from Vincent York with an outstanding Ellington tribute ensemble featuring trumpeter John Douglas, baritone saxophonist Mark Berger, trombonist Edward Gooch, pianist Glenn Tucker, bassist Marion Hayden and drummer Sean Dobbins at Kerrytown Concert House this Thursday for International Jazz Day and the culmination of Jazz Appreciation Month presented with support from 89.1 WEMU.