Sophisticated lady: an interview with Mercedes Ellington
The first thing you notice about Mercedes Ellington is her beauty. When she walks into a room, heads swivel and not because she's the granddaughter of one of the world's most famous jazz musicians, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. She has a body that would be the envy of most teenagers, toned and poised and she carries herself like the dancer she still is despite the fact that she has entered her eighth decade. It is not polite to dwell on a woman's age, but the barely believable fact of the matter is that she is 71 years old, although she could pass for 50 any day.
Elegantly dressed in a lightweight trouser suit and butcher boy's cap set at a jaunty angle, she glides into the coffee shop of the Palladium Theatre Dubai to talk about her grandfather's legacy and her work leading a new group of young musicians who are carrying it into the future. Tonight the band gives its first public concert on the shores of the Arabian Gulf, at the Palladium. This week they have also taken part in two educational workshops followed by private concerts in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, in association with the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (Admaf).
In the words of the Ellington hit of the 1950s, this is one sophisticated lady, but nothing like the disillusioned woman of the song. Her brown eyes gleam with humour and intelligence as she talks about her life as a dancer and choreographer and the fierce independence that drove her to forge a successful career of her own without asking any favours of her grandfather or father. She speaks without rancour about her early years when she faced racial prejudice in the fetid atmosphere of post-war America. And it soon becomes clear why, despite her fractured family life when her parents divorced, she managed to forge solid and affectionate relationships with both her father and grandfather and has gone on to become the keeper of the flame.
In some ways, she had it much easier than her father, the orchestra leader Mercer Ellington, who was always going to suffer in comparison with his own father, the incomparable Duke. "It was bad for me but it was worse for my father because he was a male and expected to do the same things, and all those expectations cast a shadow on his life," she says. "I was freer and I was a woman so that didn't imply that I would necessarily take over or be in competition or conflict with the Duke Ellington organisation, which is something of a power within itself."
Even though dance became her passion, she was always aware of the business of running a big band and learnt to spot the many unsavoury people who swarmed around Duke Ellington hoping to make a fast buck on his coat tails. "It was a business and not very well run for a long time even during his lifetime. There was lots of trickery and things going on, people running off with money. Even at the end, when he was dying in the hospital, he had a change of clothing with him in the room and people stole that, trying to get souvenirs.
"I was always very independent. I felt that if you ask people for something you make yourself vulnerable because then you owe them and I don't like that feeling. I think it's one of the reasons I got on so well with him because I think he knew that." Ellington toys with a tuna pasta salad as she speaks, carefully picking out pieces of cheese. She doesn't eat dairy, one of the reasons she stays slim, she says. It's her third visit to the region. Two years ago she directed and choreographed the musical Satchmo, a retrospective based on the life of Louis Armstrong and his four wives, co-written by the Broadway star André de Shields and the New York playwright James Mirrione, arts and culture co-ordinator at the UAE University at Al Ain.
When Mirrione heard that Mercedes Ellington was reforming the big band he suggested to Hoda al Khamis Kanoo, the Admaf founder, that they be invited to the UAE on an educational visit. In the past week they have held the workshops at the university in Al Ain and in the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, followed by two concerts for students and invited guests. Kanoo, a long-time patron of the arts, hopes the visit will help to build bridges between cultures and inspire future generations of UAE musicians. "The Duke Ellington Big Band is known for its educational initiatives in its native New York, and it will play an important role in the artistic education of our youth as it brings the legacy of a true musical master to Abu Dhabi," she says.
One such initiative, founded by Mercedes Ellington, is the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts in New York, which puts on special birthday concerts and other celebrations of the musician's life and is now discussing offering scholarships to young musicians. Out of that came the idea of reforming the big band, something Ellington admits she had no idea she would ever be doing. "People kept calling me up and asking to do it, but I'm a dancer and choreographer and wondered what do you do with a big band. But eventually I said: 'OK, I'm going to bring my world to the world of the big band and create something that resembles a show involving dance and singing, like a mini Broadway show and jazz concert combined.'
"The band had all split up and now there's only one trombone player in his eighties or nineties left from the original band, who is now a Catholic priest living in Connecticut," she says. Her younger brother Paul runs the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Few of the new big band members were even born when Duke Ellington was alive, yet Mercedes says they remain true to his spirit: "There's nuances of the old band with these kids and I don't understand how they get it, but they do listen to the recordings and figure out how to do it. It's not just about imitating. They have the feel of it.
"They tend to focus on the personalities of the original musicians. I hear them talking on the bus about their approach to the music. They're really very mature about how they conceive or perceive their renditions. There's a kind of reverence about it." Tonight the 15-piece ensemble will perform for the public at the Palladium, Dubai. Her own memories of Duke are warm yet respectful of the legend. In the topsy-turvy world of a busy touring musician's life the family would often find themselves celebrating Christmas in July or whenever the great man turned up in New York.
"The band was travelling practically 52 weeks of the year so we didn't really get to see each other that often. But when the family did get together it was a very warm meeting because it was a rare occasion and sometimes that is very good. "It was different from most families who get together at Christmas or Thanksgiving, but in our business that's the time people want entertainment so they were touring. Any time they came to New York, that was Christmas. It could be July. He would always come with presents, once it was a typewriter, another time it was a set of LP records of The Nutcracker Suite."
As a child she got used to meeting famous artists and didn't think it unusual that the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald would occasionally babysit her in a hotel room. "They were just people to me. The fact that she was a phenomenal singer didn't come into it. She was a great person when she befriended me and the relationship was very important to me because I didn't have many. She loved kids and wrote me letters but I was very bad about keeping in touch," she confesses.
On one occasion Ellington travelled with her grandfather and his orchestra to Moscow, taking a two-week leave of absence from the Broadway show No No Nanette, starring Ruby Keeler. "I just had to go because it was the home of the ballet so I said to my grandfather 'I'm coming' and I made my own arrangements and got my own visa. When we arrived there were fans running along beside the plane with flowers and police trying to hold them back. In those days the authorities were still having that game they played with the wattage, still trying to block the music, and yet people still knew all about Duke Ellington.
"At one point when I was younger I wanted to know what to call him. He wasn't the grandfather type and he didn't look like a grandfather to me. I talked to my father and he said I should ask him. Other people would call him Maestro and things like that. So I asked him and he said 'call me Uncle Edward'. "Actually I didn't even know what to call my father because I never really had a mother and father. When my parents divorced my mother married a federal judge and went to live in Philadelphia and I lived with my grandmother. It just felt normal to me. Musicians' lives are fragile and they are not the best at keeping their families together."
Ellington was brought up by her mother's parents in Harlem and was sent to a nursery school at 18 months. Dance lessons began soon afterwards. Later she attended the Roman Catholic Our Lady of Lourdes Grammar School. It was there that she had her first brush with racial prejudice. "Every Tuesday they had a Polish woman called Madame Povitz come to teach us dance," she recalls. "She had a studio downtown and I wanted to attend her Saturday classes, but we were always told they were full. My grandmother found out the woman didn't have any people of colour in her classes so she went to the reverend mother and raised a rumpus about teaching religion and love and yet having a woman in their midst teaching dance who is prejudiced.
"So they gave me the lead in the St Patrick's Day show as compensation, but I never got into the Saturday class." She carried on with her dance studies and won a scholarship to the Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet. When her beloved grandmother died suddenly of stroke she had just won a place at the prestigious Juilliard school of performing arts and she had to make a decision whether to go and live with her mother or with her father and his new family in New York.
"My grandmother was always at the window when I came home from school. This day she wasn't at the window and the police were there and she was dead on the bed. I had already got into Juilliard so I went to my father's but felt like an intruder in Long Island. I had a very strong attachment to the story of Cinderella because I lived it. They gave me the attic as a bedroom. It was an imposition on an already established family. My saving grace was getting a job in West Side Story in Australia and I moved out, and that was the beginning of my independence.
At that time the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League had been running campaigns to force the entertainment business to hire people of colour. Ellington found herself caught up in the battle and was often sent to auditions knowing she would never get the parts. "It was kind of depressing. Even in Broadway shows there would be a whole clan of Spanish people and people of colour auditioning and we knew we were not going to get hired but we would go anyway. It would be an opportunity for us to see each other and we'd have coffee afterwards. Diahann Carroll was in one of the shows so we figured this time we would break through but they still said No."
Her big break came in 1963 when she was sent to Radio City Music Hall to audition for the June Taylor Dancers, then a major feature of the popular Jackie Gleason Show and to her amazement she was hired. "It was quite a big milestone because I was the first. When they announced to the remaining girls that 'you are the June Taylor dancers' and I was still standing there I felt as if I was going to faint. The first person I was running to call was my mother and by the time I got dressed and got out to use the phone she already knew. They sent people with me to every interview so that I would say the right thing and not to be too blatant about it."
When Gleason decided to move his operation to Miami Beach he hired a train to transport his artists, calling it the Great Gleason Express. "We had a pit stop along the way and we all got out for a photo opportunity somewhere in Alabama and I said, 'I'm not getting out.' But they persuaded me and I had this big hat and sunglasses on thinking surely they won't even know that I'm here. As we were standing outside the train somebody yelled out, 'What's that coloured girl doing there?' So I was waiting for the riot to start and was moving towards the doors but Gleason grabbed me and pulled me close to him and said, 'You stay right there.' Later I found out that he and my grandfather were friends.
"Every time we had rehearsals after that he would walk into rehearsals he would call me 'that coloured girl' just to make me laugh and people who didn't know about the incident would cringe." She stayed with the show for seven years and later danced in and choreographed a host of Broadway productions including the hit show Sophisticated Ladies and a regional company production of Dream Girls. Along the way she has had reconstructive surgery on both knees but was back in dance classes within weeks on both occasions and is writing a book on her knee surgery and recovery.
Now she finds herself in a new phase of her life as the guardian of the Duke Ellington legacy. "I didn't decide to become the keeper of the flame, it was kind of forced on me. I didn't sacrifice the other part of my life and managed to forge it all together," she says. "I feel the responsibility to ensure the accuracy to make sure people get it right." She has no plans to retire and says quite simply: "As my grandfather used to say, retire to what? That's the thing about ageing. If you retire you end up with your brain turned to mush."
Ellington has never married and lives with her longtime partner Kent Drake, a professional singer who is also an accomplished artist in an Upper West Side apartment in New York with their exotic Himalayan cat Jazzmeen. She says firmly that her grandfather did not want to be designated as a jazz musician. "People were always trying to nail him down into one mode or the other and he refused to be pinned down. He always said he composed American music because it opens up the scope of things."
The Duke Ellington Big Band performs tonight at Dubai Palladium. For details see www.thepalladiumdubai.com.
Updated: May 27, 2010 04:00 AM