Jazz Institute of Chicago

An Ellington study group

An Ellington study group
By Melvin Saxton

Presented May 7, 1998 at the 16th Annual Duke Ellington International Conference, Chicago, Illinois.

On May 9, 1981, the Duke Ellington Study Group was formed. The group included Dick Buckley, Gordon Ewing, Joe Igo, Don Miller, Henry Quarles, the author Melvin Saxton, Gunther Schuller, John Steiner, Jack Towers, Jerry Valburn, and Richard Wang. All of these individuals were Ellington enthusiasts.

Several days before the event, Chicagoan Don Miller had learned that Gunther Schuller would be in Chicago for a conducting appearance. Don knew of Schuller’s deep understanding of Ellingtonia and he had read much of what Gunther had written on Duke.

Don also knew that Joe Igo was personally acquainted with Schuller. So he called Joe and asked if Joe would invite Schuller to an “Ellington” brunch around the conducting schedule. Joe called and Schuller accepted. The time was set for 11am on May 9. For the occasion, Don “borrowed” the home of a friend, Stephen Thomas, with all the amenities.

Milwaukeean Joe Igo recruited fellow Wisconsinites and long-time friends, John Steiner and Henry Quarles. Ewing and Buckley came in from the western Chicago suburbs, I from the south, and Wang and Miller from Hyde Park. East Coasters Jack Towers and Jerry Valburn were not easy to locate—they were not at their homes. But they were found in St. Louis together, and they immediately changed their plans to come to Chicago.

Not all of the excitement surrounded Gunther Schuller. Over the years John Steiner and Jack Towers had often, but separately, recorded the Ellington orchestra in public performances, often under difficult conditions. Each knew of the other’s work, but this would be their first meeting. There were other exciting introductions, but the star of the day was Gunther Schuller. We truly picked his brains!

For eight and a half hours, we engaged in spirited conversation, much of which was recorded. The day ended with each of us filled with new information. Seeds were planted which would grow, some sooner, some later, some more than others, and each in different ways.

We go international.

Only a few months later, in October of 1981, we would take on an international flavor, which all meetings would retain ever since. Charles Delaunay of France and Benny Aasland of Sweden were coming to the US at the same time. So Jerry Valburn hastily arranged a series of activities to occur over several days in several places. We headquartered in Jerry’s basement in Plainview, NY, staying in nearby homes and motels. We had a brunch at the West End Cafe in New York City, expanding the group with Tom Whaley, Bob Wilber, Aaron Bell, Phil Schaap, Brooks Kerr, Ruth Ellington, and many others in the New York area.

In 1982, the Study Group offered an addition to the program of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors (IAJRC), which was holding their annual meeting in Detroit. At a breakfast hosted by Jerry Valburn, we gained the delightful and inspiring friendship of many Canadians, especially from the Toronto area. New Yorker Brooks Kerr talked about and performed many of Duke’s works from the very early days.

We open up the meetings.

As the curtain came down on Detroit, the question was posed by Washington resident Jack Towers: “OK, we’ve met in Chicago, New York, and Detroit. When do we meet in Duke’s hometown, Washington, DC?” So we did. For many, the history of the Duke Ellington Study Group began in Washington in 1983.

There are some of us who know that it really began two years earlier. The group grew. as did the meeting. For some, Joe Igo in particular, the Study Group died in Washington. He felt that the meeting forced the researchers to become performers for people who had nothing better to do than sit and listen. “It’s a Zoo!” he said.

Joe’s challenge remains. As Don Miller said, “Do we gather to exalt ourselves using Duke as a tool, or do we make tools of ourselves to exalt Duke?” All for the love of Duke — love you madly.

[Comments by Sue Markle] If the 16th Annual Conference happened in 1998, then the first must have been 1982. Obviously it wasn’t. Melvin Saxton sets the record straight about how one small group of actively working Ellington devotees became the nucleus around which existing clubs (such as New York’s The Duke Ellington Society) and individuals from around the world somehow coalesced into a larger group with the urge to meet at least once a year. Not all of the people in the larger groups could be active, but they were, and are, devoted to the Duke and his music.

Following Washington, 1983, was Chicago, 1984, a meeting that was more like a conference and less like a breakfast club. It had “speeches”and “concerts,” oriented not only to interaction between insiders but also to attracting the listeners deplored by Joe Igo. Of course it had an admission fee. And so the Conference grew — more people, more scheduled “events” for larger audiences, and, of course, bigger fees for attendees.

And this year, there was an unlisted and spontaneous Breakfast Meeting of some of the usual suspects. So it goes.

Remembering that the arrival of the Ellington Orchestra anywhere in the world for over 50 years brought out huge crowds, that many devotees pressed as close as possible to the stage, that an inordinate number were known by name to at least some of the friendly performers, and that all devotees have delicious memories of interacting with the music and its makers, there must be a million stories to be shared. And while the music is (I’m given to understand) difficult and less played than some of the “easier” stuff by schools, colleges, and other jazz groups, there is and always will be much to say technically about what the great composers (Ellington and Strayhorn) were doing.

I think we still gather for the love of Duke, Joe Igo notwithstanding. The question we can ask as the century of Ellington (b. 1899) and therefore of those who knew him and heard his band, or who played in his band, comes to an end is who will be listening as the years go by?

All Ellington photos are courtesy of
Lester Levy at The Jazz Photo Source
Copyright (c)1998 Lester Levy.
All Rights Reserved.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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