YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Honoring a Legend

UCLA, where Duke Ellington and his band once gave a historic concert, is the site for the celebration.


The significance of Duke Ellington's contributions to the 20th century soundtrack, and the influence that his music had upon virtually every jazz composer who ever put pen to paper, was never more clear than they are today, on what would have been his 100th birthday.

"There are people who call Ellington the 20th century Bach, and with good reason," explains guitarist-educator Kenny Burrell, director of the Jazz Studies Program at UCLA. "Not only was he a working composer, but he was also taking new materials from the society--stride piano, the blues--and turning them into forms that were never used before. He never worried about whether something was old or new. He simply took all of these elements and made high art out of them. And what that amounts to is that Ellington, in a sense, is the Bach of this century, laying the groundwork for the music of the next century."

Tonight, at UCLA's Royce Hall, the Jazz Studies Program in UCLA's School of Arts and Architecture kicks off a three-day celebration of Ellington's life and music with a gala concert featuring an all-star big band under Burrell's direction. Proceeds from the performances will benefit UCLA's Jazz Studies Program and establish scholarships in Ellington's name. Among tonight's participants will be drummer Louis Bellson and trumpeter-bandleader Bill Berry, both former Ellingtonians.

Friday night's program at Royce showcases the "Symphonic Ellington," with the UCLA Philharmonia Orchestra and guest stars Milt Jackson, John Clayton, Herbie Hancock, Ray Brown and others.

On Friday and Saturday, the university will convene an array of prominent musicians and jazz scholars for a two-day Ellington symposium at Schoenberg Hall Auditorium. In addition, today at 5:30 p.m., an Ellington sculpture by artist Robert Graham will be installed near the university's Schoenberg Hall. The work is a 1/3-scale maquette of the original, which was installed in Central Park's Duke Ellington Square in July 1997.

Beyond the time spent here for movie appearances (beginning in 1930) and for his 1941 musical, "Jump for Joy," Ellington's visits to Los Angeles were mostly for frequent tour performances.

During one of those stops, jazz history was written, appropriately, at UCLA, when the Ellington Orchestra made a hitherto unpublicized appearance at Royce Hall on Jan. 21, 1937.

According to Larry Orenstein, a 1941 UCLA graduate, the concert took place because he and close friend Hal Levy, then a columnist for the Daily Bruin, were avid jazz fans. After hearing the Ellington Orchestra perform in Culver City at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club, they introduced themselves and persuaded Ellington that the appropriate venue for his music was in a concert auditorium such as Royce Hall.

Amazingly, when they told him they had no budget to pay him but that the event would be free to students, Ellington agreed to play, giving Orenstein and Levy three days to prepare. They immediately bypassed official channels, certain that the university's Committee on Music, Lectures and Drama would never allow an appearance by a jazz orchestra--an utterly unprecedented event at the time. (Benny Goodman's famous Carnegie Hall concert wouldn't take place until 1938.) But Orenstein knew the Royce Hall custodian-manager, and simply told him he needed it for a Thursday afternoon event.

Royce Hall Was Jammed for Four-Hour Concert

Fliers and posters were quickly produced and, despite the fact that it was the middle of exam week, Royce was jammed with students at the scheduled 3 p.m. start time. But the Ellington Orchestra didn't show up until 5, after mistakenly going to USC before being directed to what was then described as "that little university across town." The program, nonetheless, was a dramatic success, with Ellington performing a four-hour program.

The concert was never reviewed, never written about and is not mentioned in any of the voluminous Ellington reference material. Yet it was Ellington's first concert appearance in the U.S.--six years before his Carnegie Hall program in 1943--and, apparently, the first U.S. appearance by a jazz orchestra in a concert setting (assuming one does not include, as one should not, Paul Whiteman's "symphonic jazz" concerts of the '20s).

Levy, who became a successful lyricist and music publisher, died in 1981. Orenstein, who after graduation worked as a trumpet player and singer with Whiteman and others before becoming an advertising executive in the '50s, will be honored for his role in creating the 1937 concert with an introduction from the stage at tonight's concert.


Duke Ellington Centennial Celebration. Today at 5 p.m. at Schoenberg Hall, installation of Ellington sculpture; free. Tonight at 8 at Royce Hall, an all-star big band performs Ellington music. Friday at 8 p.m. at Royce Hall, the UCLA Philharmonia Orchestra with special guests in "Symphonic Ellington and the Great Masters of Jazz and Latin Jazz." Concert ticket prices $30, $24, $19 and $13 (for UCLA students with full-time ID). Ticket info: (310) 825-2101. Friday and Saturday at Schoenberg Hall, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., the Duke Ellington Centennial Symposium. Free. (310) 206-1315.


"There are people who call Ellington the 20th century Bach, and with good reason."

KENNY BURRELL, director of Jazz Studies Program at UCLA

Los Angeles Times Articles