FREE CONCERT FOR FAMILIES and CHILDREN
FRIDAY, APRIL 29, 1PM
AT THE DUKE ELLINGTON STATUE, 110TH AND 5TH 
 
Singers, Dancers, and some great jazz bands will celebrate
DUKE ELLINGTON'S BIRTHDAY  
 
Presented by Mercedes Ellington and the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts, the program will feature the Blue Millenium Orchestra, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Middle School Jazz Academy, The PS 345 Jazz Band and The Dance Times Square Jitterbuggers. 
 
An interview with Mercedes Ellington
By Alina Bloomgarden
 
AB: When did you start the tradition of celebrating your grandfather’s birthday each year with a free concert for families and children?
 
ME: We started 3 years ago on his 110 birthday at the Duke Ellington Statue on 110th Street. It’s the 1st monument in NYC for an African-American. 
 
AB: When did you realize your grandfather was a famous musician?
 
ME: I saw my name on a newspaper when I was a little girl just learning to read and write and one day my grandmother dropped me off at the Apollo Theater. I sat with the wives of the musicians and saw my grandfather at the piano leading the orchestra and my father, Mercer Ellington, playing trumpet in the band.    
 
AB: When did Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington start playing music? 
 
ME: He started learning the piano at 7 but was more interested in baseball until he heard ragtime piano and then he couldn't stop. Music became his life: He wrote over 3000 pieces of music- some are classics to this day, kept his band together for over 50 years and raised the hopes of the African-American community during a time of debilitating segregation and prejudice.
 
AB: When did you start to dance and how did you realize the arts was also your path?
 
ME:I started at 3 but it wasn’t a clear path because there were no black people in ballet at the time. When I was in Catholic high school, a ballet teacher came once a week.  We didn’t change our uniforms, just our shoes, but I was in heaven.  I auditioned for her downtown school, but couldn’t get in because I was black.
 
AB: Did that discourage you from pursuing your dream?
 
ME: People tried to dissuade me because they knew it would be frustrating but I couldn’t give up. I auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and got in with a scholarship.

 

ME (cont'd)
 I wanted to start auditioning for work right away but my father insisted I get a college education. I got into Juilliard with a dance I made up and then commuted more than an hour each way to get to class.
 
AB: What was your first professional job as a dancer?
ME: I was cast in the Australian company of “West Side Story.”  We danced the original Jerome Robbins choreography and it was really great.
 
AB:What are some other highlights of your career?
 
ME:  I was a June Taylor Dancer on the Jackie Gleason show for eight years and I was on Broadway in “No No Nanette.” I was featured in “Sophisticated Ladies” celebrating my grandfather’s music under the musical direction of my father. As part of Duke Ellington Week, on Monday, April 25, we will celebrate the 30thanniversary “Sophisticated Ladies” Original Cast Reunion at Birdland.
 
AB:What is the mission of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts?
 
ME: The Duke Ellington Center for the Arts hopes to inspire peace and harmony through the Arts in the spirit of Duke Ellington. We look forward to welcoming the youngest New Yorkers to enjoy Ellington’s music on his birthday this April 29th.

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