OBITUARY:Mercer Ellington

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The Independent Online
The day after Duke Ellington's funeral on 27 May 1974, his son Mercer took over the Ellington band and left with it on a tour of Bermuda. This was not, like the still proliferating Glenn Miller Orchestras, a "graveyard" band. It was simply a continuation of Duke's band with the same men playing the same music.

Mercer Ellington had been in the band's trumpet section since 1965 and, although he had led his own band in the recording studios as early as 1958, he had none of the musical genius and instinct of his father. In fact their relationship was often not like that of father and son, and Duke often thrust Mercer into menial roles, elbowing him from the limelight. Another Ellington trumpeter, Rex Stewart, recalled being at an Ellington recording section in 1966 when Duke asked, "Where's the other trumpet player?" He meant Mercer. Duke lived for his music, not for his family.

Hampered in the shadow of his father, Mercer had struck out on his own, and had worked as a disc jockey, owner of a record company and as leader of his own bands before eventually becoming Duke's road manager. Never a soloist, he also played in the band's trumpet section and, despite the turbulence he had to ride in seeing to his father's affairs, remained of a placid and likeable nature. He went grey early, and for some time the vain Ellington senior didn't like to be seen in company with his mature son since it constantly reminded him of his advancing years. He later came to terms with the problem as Mercer took the administration of the band from his shoulders and allowed him more time to write music.

When Mercer was born in 1919, Duke was not a fully professional musician, earning much of his income as a sign-writer. By 1927 he had become a world figure and lived the rest of his life on the road, often barely able to remember where his home was at any one time. His role was not that of a father.

The Ellington band declined when Mercer took over as leader. It worked less and of course had lost the fount of all its great music. There should have been enough of Duke's wonderful creations to keep it going indefinitely, but the older man had spent the money he had earned over the years in subsidising the band - he loved to be able to write music and then hear what it sounded like when the band played it back to him the next morning.

The Ellington organisation was not properly geared to make money as, for example, the Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey bands had been. Mercer inherited a musical treadmill. Duke had died without making a will. "All Pop left me were Harry Carney, Cootie Williams and a few scraps of paper," he once said, referring to two of the star instrumentalists who had been in the band since the Twenties.

The band library of Ellington's compositions had deteriorated over the years; many sheets had been lost and the music survived only in the memory of the Ellington musicians. Many of the older players were also in poor health by this time - the tenor saxophone player Paul Gonsalves, a key member of the band since 1950, had died the week before Duke did, and as they fell by the wayside the magic character with which Duke Ellington had invested the band quickly dropped away. Cootie Williams remarked that the band now sounded like a bunch of musicians trying to sound like the Ellington band.

However, Mercer showed great fortitude and kept the orchestra on the road into the late Eighties. In 1978 he wrote a biography of his father, Duke Ellington in Person. Between 1981 and 1983 he and the band worked with unusual success on a Broadway musical of Duke's tunes, Sophisticated Ladies.

When Mercer disbanded he settled in Denmark with his family. At this time he handed over to Danish Radio a colossal archive of unissued Ellington recordings which his father had made over the years. These were broadcast in their entirety and the many hours of previously unknown music caused a sensation amongst Ellington enthusiasts throughout the world.

Had his father not been such a great and prolific composer, Mercer Ellington would have been held in high regard for his own writing. He wrote "Pigeons and Peppers" in 1937 and Cootie Williams recorded it under his own name with Duke on piano. Mercer's most famous composition, featured over the years by the Ellington band, was "Things Ain't What They Used To Be", but some of his lesser-known pieces like "Moon Mist and Jumpin' Punkins" had considerable merit.

He visited Britain as recently as last month for a television appearance and last year had produced an album featuring Cleo Laine and John Dankworth.

Steve Voce

Mercer Ellington, trumpeter, composer, arranger: born Washington DC 11 March 1919; married (two sons, two daughters); died Copenhagen 8 February 1996.