Ellington, Mercer Kennedy

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Ellington, Mercer Kennedy

(b. 11 March 1919 in Washington, D.C.; d. 8 February 1996 in Copenhagen, Denmark), trumpet player, composer, and bandleader who took over the orchestra of his father, Duke Ellington, after the elder man’s death in 1974.

Mercer Ellington was the only surviving child of the noted composer and pianist Edward Kennedy (“Duke”) Ellington and his wife, Edna Thompson, a pianist and home-maker. A second child, a girl, died in infancy. The couple separated when their son was nine. Thereafter, the boy spent half of each year with his mother, who taught him to read music and play the piano. He also took trumpet lessons. Father and son were not close, however, and during the part of each year Mercer spent with his father, the members of the Ellington band served as his surrogate extended family in helping him to mature. In Due Ellington in Person (1978), Mercer’s biography of his father, the younger Ellington points out that while his father never did anything overt to hurt his son and his aspirations, whenever the younger Ellington did slip in some fashion Duke let his son suffer and recover on his own when some parental help should have been called for or at least offered.

Ellington’s family moved to New York in 1930. After graduating from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, young Ellington studied at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan. During World War II he was in the U.S. Army and worked at Republic Aircraft, meanwhile taking composition and orchestration classes at New York University. He also attended Columbia University. Following his military service he formed his own band, which included the vocalist Carmen McRae. This group was the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. At different times, Ellington organized other big bands for special performances, employing such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Cat Anderson, Chico Hamilton, and Clark Terry.

The younger Ellington worked as an arranger for his father’s band as well as those of Charlie Barnet, Cootie Williams, and Count Basie. He also composed numbers including “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Blue Serge,” and “Jumpin’ Punkins.” (“Pigeons and Peppers,” which he wrote at the age of eighteen, was the first of his pieces recorded by Duke, at a 1937 session with Cootie Williams presiding.)

From 1950 to 1952, young Ellington operated his own company, Mercer Records; in 1954 he was with the trumpeter Cootie Williams as a sideman and band manager. From 1955 to 1959 he was the chief assistant to his father, and in the 1960s, Mercer led the Duke Ellington band and recorded with all-star musicians taken from the latter organization. He was musical director for the singer Della Reese from 1960 to 1962, prior to becoming a disc jockey on New York City radio station WLIB for two years. At this point in his career, the elder Ellington induced him to join the main band as a trumpet player and manager. In that capacity (from 1965 to 1974) he gained more status within the band as he helped bring stability to the organization, which had been in financial disarray.

Following his father’s death, Mercer took over the band on a regular basis. As leader and his father’s replacement, young Ellington made European tours in 1975 and 1977. The Ellington revue Sophisticated Ladies (1981–1983), a Broadway musical comprised of Duke’s tunes, was a successful venture with the younger Ellington conducting the score. He also expanded the orchestra’s repertoire to include such works as Queenie Pie (Duke’s only opera) and Three Black Kings, upon which he had worked with his father. At the 1982 Kool Jazz Festival he conducted the original score for Black, Brown, and Beige. In addition, he made occasional recordings. One of these, Digital Duke, received a Grammy Award in 1988 as best jazz instrumental album. The CD Music Is My Mistress received a 1990 Grammy nomination.

In 1974, following Duke’s death, Mercer moved to Holte, north of Copenhagen, continuing a practice begun by some jazz musicians in the 1970s. At that time Denmark was a center for European jazz, and many African American jazz greats, such as Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster, found a refuge there from their nonrecognition in American jazz circles and an escape from the racism they experienced in their home country. Beginning in the late 1980s, while living in Copenhagen, Ellington booked only occasional band engagements. He met and married a Danish woman, Lena Margrethe Anderson, who survived him. They had four children.

With Mercer living in Denmark, the band was not often seen in the United States. The Duke Ellington Orchestra, with Mercer Ellington conducting, did, however, tour in the United States during the early 1990s. It also performed at the New Orleans Super Bowl and made annual visits to Japan and Europe.

Ellington died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-six. After his death, his son Paul (b. 1978) took over the Ellington band.

Mercer Ellington was a success in virtually every undertaking, with or without his father’s assistance. Seemingly, there was space for only one male at a time in the Ellington family, and for most of Mercer’s life this was Duke. The characterization of son by father in Duke’s Music Is My Mistress as “dedicated to maintaining the luster of his father’s image” is accurate. In retrospect, it may have been this goal that Duke was striving to accomplish throughout Mercer’s career. That Mercer succeeded is evident from the awards and recognition he received following his father’s death.

Mercer Ellington was a talented musician, composer, and businessman who was seldom given a chance by his father to succeed.

There is no full-length biography of Mercer Ellington, though with Stanley Dance he wrote a biography of his father, Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir (1978). Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (1973), provides little information about Mercer. Ian Carr et al., Jazz the Rough Guide (1995), and Roger D. Kinkle, The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz: 1900–1950 (1974), contain both biographical and brief disco-graphical material. Burt Korell, “Mercer Ellington: And the Beat Goes On,” International Musician (Apr. 1975), is a critic’s assessment of Mercer’s succession to Duke’s band. Michiko Kakutani’s “Life as Ellington’s Son Was Mostly ‘Mood Indigo,’” New York Times (29 Mar. 1981), is a brief but accurate evaluation of the father-son relationship. John McDonough, “Mercer Ellington: 1919–1996,” Down Beat (May 1996), is a memorial including considerable detail. Jet (26 February 1996) also contains a memorial with interesting information. An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Feb. 1996). A standard musical example is 1989’s Music Is My Mistress: The Duke Ellington Orchestra Conducted by Mercer Ellington (CD Music Masters no. CIJD-60-185), with personnel from various Ellington groups.

Barrett G. Potter