Ellington Conference Digs Deep Into Duke’s Legacy, Unearths Historic Gems


Duke Ellington was the subject of the 24th International Duke Ellington Study Group Conference, which ran from May 19–23 in New York.

(Photo: DownBeat Archive)

During the opening panel at the 24th International Duke Ellington Study Group Conference, which ran from May 19–23 at multiple venues in New York City, conguero Candido Camero played a prominent role in the discussion of Ellington’s 1956 musical allegory album, A Drum Is A Woman.

Candido, who appeared on the album, announced that he had turned 95 on April 22, and during his presentation reminisced about Carmen de Lavallade. She danced the role of Madam Zajj, a personification of African rhythm, on CBS’s television broadcast of “A Drum Is A Woman” on May 8, 1957.

Bandleader-percussionist Bobby Sanabria, a fellow panelist, born 25 days after the show aired, called Candido “the connecting thread of drum multiculture.”

Regarded as innovative in the era of black-and-white television, the production, according to de Lavallade, was an unprecedented challenge to the cast: “All these sets were on one giant, circular stage with the Ellington band both playing live and miming the not-yet-released Columbia recording. I was lip-syncing singer Margaret Tynes as I moved. And we did it all in 60 minutes, scurrying over props during commercials, [across sets] from the Caribbean through New Orleans to 52nd Street and outer space.”

To begin the conference, a kinescope was screened for conferees at the Paley Center For Media. Whereabouts of the original color film are unknown.

The conference was organized by dancer-choreographer Mercedes Ellington, eldest of Duke’s four grandchildren and president of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts, founded 12 years ago as an educational non-profit. Another conference planner, Michael Dinwiddie, is DECFA board chair and an associate professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. He’s also a longtime theatrical associate of Ms. Ellington.

Neither had final figures on attendance, but Dinwiddie estimated registered delegates at more than 100, with attendance at some presentations numbering more than 300 scholars, students, collectors, associates and fans.

Dinwiddie cited presenter Steven Lasker, who organized two earlier conferences, as well as David Palmquist, who runs the website The Duke—Where and When, and Lynne Mueller, who planned the Ellington Conference in 1993, as invaluable consultants in structuring this year’s conference.

George Avakian, 97, producer of Ellington Columbia LPs, was among the attendees with personal connections to Duke. Jazzmobile Inc. director and keynote speaker Robin Bell-Stevens, daughter of Ellington bassist and educator Dr. Aaron Bell, addressed women’s increasing contributions to jazz and to the Ellington oeuvre.

Several other panelists had strong—if not familial—bonds to Ellington’s legacy. “Sophisticated Ladies” panelist Valarie Pettiford, for example, is a cousin of Ellington bassist/cellist Oscar Pettiford. And trombonist Art Baron, a member of Frank Owens’s DECFA Big Band, was the only alumnus present from the band led by Duke. He offered an exquisite tribute to Joe Temperley, a baritone saxophonist in Ellington’s legacy orchestra who had died eight days earlier.

Other legacies were noted. Dedications throughout the conference were directed toward Ellington trombonist Buster Cooper, who died May 13.

Presentations explored the depth and influence of Duke’s storied career. Intrepid researcher, collector and multiple Grammy Award-winning producer Steven Lasker projected on the high wall of St. Peter’s Church images of the 1924 and 1925 red label Blu-Disc sides, Ellington’s earliest recordings with Alberta Prime and the six-member group The Washingtonians, which included drummer Sonny Greer.

Lasker owns what are believed to be the only existing copies of the Blu-Disc sides. He has determined that Ellington made his first recordings on July 27, 1923, and again the following month. These never were released.

Matthias Heyman, 33, a doctoral candidate at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, whose dissertation is on Ellington bassist Jimmie Blanton, analyzed the techniques of his subject’s predecessors and followers and projected the only known (silent) footage of Blanton playing.

The conference closed at St. Peters’ Church with a traditional Jazz Vespers, feautring Cindy Scott singing a powerful “Come Sunday” and Gene Bertoncini rendering a soft, reflective “Mood Indigo.”

The day before the concert, the auction firm Guernsey’s staged what it called “An Unprecedented Auction of Duke Ellington’s Personal Treasures,” described as “a wonderful array of personal belongings … approximately 250 rarities to be sold at unreserved auction.”

The rarities reportedly ranged from the Key to the City of Worcester (minimum bid: $150) to Duke’s white baby grand piano (minimum bid: $1,000,000). All were being sold by Ellington’s nephew Stephen James, the only other relative at the conference. The piano had no bidders.

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