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Broadway's Ellington -- as a son sees it

By Amy Duncan / July 28, 1981



New York

Mercer Ellington is riding high these days, or so it would seem. The bandleader is on stage nightly at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater here, leading his band in a tremendously successful musical tribute to his famous father. Duke Ellington."Overall, I feel very happy about it," he told me recently. "It's given a focus to Ellington's music so that the things he did have been highlighted to this present generation -- it's helped to close the gap. And it's good Broadway."

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Yet with all the success of "Sophisticated Ladies," the younger Ellington is not completely satisfied. Great as it is, he doesn't think this show entirely does justice to his father.

"I think if they had adhered a little bit more to the purist, it would have been a magnificent show, a masterpiece," he asserts. "I expected them to make an entertaining show, not necessarily overimpressive, but a simple sort of choreographed concert that would present Ellington."

Unfortunately, that's not exactly the way things turned out. Originally conceived as a motion picture, "Sophisticated Ladies" became instead a live show.

"The idea was to approach the motion picture people in the process of doing the Broadway show.But everyone got so involved in the show -- it wasn't that they lost interest in the picture -- it was just that they were completely enmeshed in the idea of putting on a Broadway show."

During the early performances in Philadelphia and Washington, "Sophisticated Ladies" underwent tremendous changes -- the book was dropped, a new director -- Michael Smuin -- was hired, some numbers were expanded, others abandoned, and the rehearsal schedule was grueling.

"The show, if anything, was overrehearsed by the time we approached opening night in New York," Mercer Ellington said. "We would do things like start off at 10 in the morning on a matinee day, then rehearse between the matinee and the evening show. And then the next day when there was not a matinee, we'd start the rehearsal at 10, rehearse until 6, take time off for dinner, and then do the 8 o'clock show, and so forth. And this is the way it went for a month and a half. The kids were tired, but finally the show got itself together, and we opened and found out the thing had come across."

But, he adds, a little wistfully, "The format changed, almost from day to day. The original idea was to start off with a big band, which represents the Duke Elliington Band, on stage, and then go back in time as different sections of the bandstand are pulled away, until it's a 12-piece band, then a 10-piece band, 6-piece, and finally just Ellington as solo pianist. It was very effective."

So Mercer finds himself in a rather awkward position: Here he is, involved in a highly successful Broadway show, visible on stage at every performance, yet he feels somewhat at odds with the Broadway vs. the Ellington concept. I asked him if he felt there was a conflict between the Broadway and jazz styles.

"I don't think there should be any conflict," he answered, "and if there is some rub, then I think jazz should take precedence, because Ellington is what the show is about. Let me give you an idea what I'm talking about. We did 'Rockin' in Rhythm,' which is a jazz piece. The producers thought it should have more excitement -- can-can kicks and all that kind of stuff -- so they extended the number, which is really great Broadway -- it's a fantastic ending for the first half. But that's not Duke Ellington's concept of 'Rockin' in Rhythm.' And I felt that if Ellington had a concept, let the choreographer be genius enough to use what had been put down. This is the basis of my disagreement with the producers and the choreographers."

Although Mercer praises the members of the cast, such as Gregory Hines, Phyllis Hyman, and so forth, he feels that more familiarity with Duke's music on the part of these young performers would have enhanced "Sophisticated Ladies." To present Ellington as he was -- that's all Mercer really wanted. . . .

"It's like Dixie. When you hear pure Dixie, there's no way around it, it's still great. You get the Preservation Hall or any band together where the guys were around and know how that music was played -- you can't beat it. The faces may have changed, but the communication and the feeling of what that art is still exists. And if it proved itself 20 years ago, it will still have the same effect."

So does Mercer Ellington feel that a purer concept of Duke's music would reach audiences just as well?

"Yes, I think so."

In fact, he'd like to do another show some time -- a show closer to the heart of Ellington's music, a show that Ellington himself wrote, such as "Jump for Joy ," or his opera "Queenie Pie," or "Beggar's Holiday," Duke's version of "The Three Penny Opera."

"I'd like to give one of those shows the professional edge of a great director -- a Broadway show director. Having gotten Ellington's name on the map , on Broadway, has been accomplished. Now I would like to have a success of Ellington's which is Ellington."

But wouldn't Mercer run into the same problems again with directors and producers? He thinks not, because this time he'd have a lot more say about how it would be put together.

"It's not a matter of personal control," he affirms, adding that the issue is to have competent, sensitive people working with you.