Sept. 15--Dear Trish: Many years ago, Duke Ellington was booked into the El Paso County Coliseum, not a good site. The crowd was better than I expected. The music was very good. My impression was that Ellington was not pleased with the booking. I was able to get close and converse with him.
Can you tell me what year this was? My guess is the 1950s.
The Duke Ellington Orchestra played the Coliseum on Oct. 9, 1947. The report announcing the date read: "Duke Ellington will bring his band to El Paso Thursday for a dance at the Coliseum from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30.
"Special bus service will be provided from San Jacinto Plaza.
"A large audience of spectators is expected. A special section will be set aside for Negroes."
Ellington first played El Paso as early as 1940, when he played at the Sun Carnival Coronation Ball at Liberty Hall.
He was again scheduled to play for the Southwestern Dance Association Club on September 7, 1946, but cancelled that appearance due to illness.
Ellington made his way back to El Paso, and Liberty Hall, in 1969 playing a fundraising event for the Myrtle Avenue United Methodist Church.
The Herald-Post's Joan Quarm reviewed the concert March 3, 1969:
"We want you to know that we do love you -- madly -- Duke Ellington. Last night at Liberty Hall you gave us an evening unlike any we have ever known there, from the very first moment when the very first musician ambled casually onstage, to the very last, when he rose to amble away. The musicians themselves, arriving one by one, a little late, mostly walked as though their feet hurt. They are men who have grown old with music, until they begin to play, when they become men who have grown young with it. Then they forget the feet and reach our heart.
"What music that group creates! What musicians they are, the greats of Duke Ellington! The names are jazz history. Cooty Williams, Johnny Hodges, Cat Anderson, for a beginning; with Tony, Shirley, Harry Lawrence, Harold, Johnny and Trish added; and very young, very able Jeff at the bass, as the one white musician, the one stringed instrument, onstage.
"They print no program, list no names, for Duke Ellington makes the decisions according to mood, and so the program varies. Nonchalant, he strolls in, erect, tall, and untouched by his years. He dances a little, if that feels right, or conducts gently from the piano bench, or sits there tapping feet. Clapping, swinging shoulders to a good rhythm. Perched high behind him, Rufus Speedy Jones awaits his big drum solo at the end of the concert.
" 'Black and Tan,' 'Creole Love Call' and 'The Mooch' lead in, syncopated, introducing various soloists, who leave their places as if by chance, drift down to the mike, and electrify it. Duke Ellington announces clearly and humorously, but soon we forget to listen for names.
"So much is familiar, so much is exciting, that we lose ourselves in what a tenor sax, a clarinet, a trumpet can do. Smooth as silk, sweet as ice cream and as cool, come the notes. Hot as Harlem on a Saturday night in July come the crescendos. "Sunday at Eleven" announces the leader, and the hall rocks.
"Some of the music is religious, in keeping with the purpose of the concert, which is to raise funds for Myrtle Avenue Methodist Church. No, all of the music is religious, for it is good, and that is a kind of praying. Rev. Nathan, who arranged for the orchestra to come here, is a pastor who realizes that. The notes of the baritone Tony Watkins singing about forgiveness and prayer are no more serious, and no less, than the single heavenly sustained note of the bass sax, held so long that it could find heaven; or the blues of Shirley Witherspoon, or Ted Anderson's interpretation of 'The Birth of the Blues,' or any of the rest of it. Lovely, lovely, lovely!"
Ellington died May 24, 1974. This editorial ran the following day:
"When the boy was born in Washington, D.C., President William McKinley was in the White House, and black entertainers seldom appeared before white audiences.
"But a new day was about to dawn, and in the jazz years soon after World War 1, he went to New York with a handful of fellow musicians to seek his fortune. He found it, and with it worldwide fame and acclaim.
"He may well have been the greatest composer of indigenous American music. Irving Berlin, for all his continuing popularity over an enormous span of productive years, plowed no new furrows. Certainly George Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' shows the influence of the prior work of Edward Kennedy Ellington.
"It was said of him that although he played the piano, his real instrument was the orchestra -- the full-toned orchestra of the earliest days of the big bands. He was the Toscanini of the Cotton Club, the Stowkowski of the posh night spots of the world's capitals, where his suave stage presence earned him the obvious appellation 'Duke.'
"He received innumerable awards, among them the French Legion of Honor and America's highest civilian decoration, the Medal of Freedom. Sweden elected him to its Royal Academy of Music.
"One honor was denied him. In 1965, the Pulitzer jury recommended him for a special prize in music, but was turned down by higher authorities for some peculiar reasons of their own. The Duke wasn't especially hurt. 'Fate doesn't want me to become too famous too soon,' he said. He was then 66. The Duke didn't need a Pulitzer Prize -- neither then, nor now that he is dead at 75."
Trish Long is the El Paso Times' archivst and spends her time in the morgue, where the newspaper keeps its old clippings and photos. Email her at email@example.com.
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