“And last let us not overlook the splendid music and inspired invention of the wonderful Alice Babs. Her personality comes across as a sunburst. When all the hoy-hah has finally faded into partial obscurity, her gorgeous happy presence and incomparable vocal virtuosity will remain so clear, so unforgettably vivid. Alice Babs is indeed an Ellingtonian beyond compare.”
These were the words with which the Ellington expert and music researcher Ken Rattenbury concluded his review of the Ellington 1994 conference in the first issue of the DESS Bulletin.
In reports from other Duke Ellington Study Group conferences Babs took part in, one often finds similar feelings. She was a much appreciated contributor to and participant in the conferences.
But perhaps, for Babs the conferences went beyond having fun and making new friends. They were also an opportunity for her to keep the Ellington music and legacy alive. She put in much work to prepare her presentations as conveyed by her papers at the Swedish Jazz Archive.
This article aims to give some snapshots of her participation in Ellington conferences and share some photos from them.
Oldham, United Kingdom 1985
The first time Babs participated in an Ellington Study Group conference was at Ellington ‘85 in Oldham, United Kingdom.
Elaine Marsh was part of the organizing committee and remembers Babs very well.
“She accepted the committee’s invitation to be the guest of honour on the strict understanding that she would not be asked to sing. However, in the warm and friendly atmosphere of the conference she could not resist joining the other Ellington alumni at the evening concerts, and treated the audience to many impromptu performances. One of them was with Herb Jeffries.
She also sung an unforgettable a capella version of Happy Birthday when Jimmy Hamilton was presented with an enormous birthday cake which was shared by everyone present.
Other Ellingtonians present throughout the conference were Willie Cook, Herb Jeffries and June Norton. Adelaide Hall was flown in from London for the Saturday afternoon panel discussion and joined Alice and Willie Cook in reminiscing about her Ducal experiences. Charles Delaunay was also present, and the panel was chaired by Jerry Valburn.
Alice also gave a presentation on her work with Ellington and introduced a complete performance of the Second Sacred Concert recorded on video at Gustav Vasa Church in Stockholm in 1969.
She was also very present with her warmth and humour at the social events of the conference (here with organizing committe member Derek Webster).
On another occasion Jimmy Hamilton, Jerry Valburn and Willie Cook gathered around the piano with Alice.
After the conference she sent us some very nice thank you cards, which we appreciated very much.”
The entire conference including the concerts was recorded by the British Sound Archive, which is now part of the British Library. One can listen to the recordings from computers in British Library reading rooms if one obtains a Readers Pass. Unfortunately, Babs’s spoken contributions were edited from the recordings at her own request.
Photos courtesy of Elaine Marsh
Toronto, Canada 1987
Babs gave a “sparkling” presentation filled with anecdotes and musical examples to the conference participants on how Ellington and his musicians had influenced her and her career. She also gave an improvised musical contribution to the conference joining the Ellington ´87 All Stars in a session. This had started as a habit already in Oldham and would happen in many other conferences
Oldham, United Kingdom 1988
She had a busy schedule at the conference. On the first day Babs made a presentation focused on the Third Sacred Concert in Barcelona on November 11, 1973.
The next day, she made a film presentation on a trip to the holy places in Israel and sung selections from the Second Sacred Concert. In the evening she joined the Bob Wilber orchestra in its performance of music by Billy Strayhorn (“A Portrait of Swee’ Pea”)
The following night she was back with the Wilber band in an “Extended Ellington” concert. Herb Jeffries seems to have contributed to it as well.
On the last day she participated in a panel with Ellington alumni – Herb Jeffries, Bill Berry, Buster Cooper and Sam Woodyard – to talk about their time with Ellington and take questions from the audience.
Like the 1985 conference, the 1988 one was recorded by the British Sound Archive and can be listened to in the Reading Room of the British Library.
Photos courtesy of Bo Haufman and Elaine Marsh
Washingon D.C., United States 1989
Babs went to the conference together with her husband Nils-Ivar Sjöblom. However, this time it was only to enjoy herself like listening to Herb Jeffries and Jimmy Hamilton at one of the concerts and meeting old friends.
Photos courtesy of Peter Lee
Ottawa, Canada 1990
Her main contribution to the conference was her singing. On the first day, she did an Ellington “pop” session with Andrew Hornzy Jazz Orchestra (after it had performed “Northern Lights” from the Queen’s Suite and “Suite Thursday”) and sung “Sacred Concert” music.
Then the next day, she joined – perhaps in an improvised way – a small Ellingtonian group with Wild Bill Davis, Harold Ashby, Butch Ballard, John Lamb and Kenny Burrell for some late-night swinging.
Photo courtesy of Bo Haufman
New York, United States 1993
Once again, Babs was a conference participant listening to presentations and rubbing shoulders with old friends. However, she had a special mission at the conference. Together with the DESS President Göran Wallén, she announced and presented the Ellington 94 conference i Stockholm.
She also had time to talk to Ellington alumni like Al Hibbler
and together with Mercedes Ellington and DESS-member Peter Lee (among others).
Stockholm, Sweden 1994
Quite naturally, Alice Babs had a prominent role in the conference. In its first session, she opened it together with the Conference Chair, Göran Wallén.; excerpts from the Second Sacred Concert in Stockholm on Nov. 6, 1969 were shown in and with the assistance of the Swedish pianist, Berndt Egerbladh Babs got the conference attendees roaring at 10 o’clock in the morning with an improvised early morning blues.
At the lunch in the City Town Hall of Stockholm, she provided more singing; then her partner in the duo was Kenny Burrell. It is a pity that no recording from the event is available.
Then, in the evening of the first day, Alice Babs co-hosted an “Serenade To Sweden” concert together with the jazz radio profile Leif “Smoke Rings” Andersson at the Stockholm Concert Hall. She also got the opportunity to sing the popular Swedish song of the 30s and 40s “In A Little Red Cottage By The Sea” using Ellington’s arrangement from 1939.
The next day, she once again hosted the evening concert; this time the “A Tribute To Ellington” concert at the Swedish Radio Concert Hall.
On the third day of the conference, Babs formed a panel with the Swedish pianist Nils Lindberg to talk about their cooperation with Ellington. Earlier in the conference Lindberg had talked about the orchestral arrangements of Swedish folk songs, which Ellington had ordered from him and later recorded as “Far Away Star” with Alice Babs as vocalist.
During the conference, she also found time to take good care of visiting guest. One of them was John Lewis, who talked to the conference about his childhood in New Mexico and his first listening to Duke Ellington in 1939 and 1940.
Photos courtesy of Göran Wallén
Lisbon, Portugal 1999
The 1999 Ellington Study Group Conference took place in Washington D.C. but Alice Babs did not participate.
However, she took part in another Ellington event later in the year. It was an international symposium, “Duke Ellington – The First Hundred Years”, organized in Lisbon on July 29-30, 1999 by, among others, Mark Tucker – the Ellington scholar and music researcher.
She made a presentation entitled “Duke Ellington, My Maestro”, which Tucker considered as the “high point of the event”.
“The combination of Babs’ heartfelt words and sharply detailed recollections, together with the glorious musical examples she played from her recorded work singing Ellington’s music made for un unforgettable experience”, Tucker wrote in a report from the conference.
She also joined the musical evening at the Hot Club of Portugal and sat down at the piano at one point in the evening and sung two wordless blues. “This supreme artist and warm human being is simply too marvelous for words” Tucker said afterwards.
Stockholm, Sweden 2004
The conference took place on 12-16 May 2004 in the legendary jazz venue Nalen in Stockholm. It was a way to celebrate Alice Babs who had turned 80 on January 26.
Göran Wallén, the Conference Chair, tells about the conference.
“Alice really saved the conference for us”. Without her participation and presence, it would not have been possible.
Among the American guests were Patricia Willard, John Edward Hasse, George Avakian, Steven Lasker. Anne Kuebler and Claire Gordon who all contributed with presentations.
Alice Babs was a very interested and attentive listener to all the presentations and participated in the talks that they triggered.
She also made a very much appreciated appearance with Nils Lindberg and his “Third Sax Galore” band. More than 400 persons attended the concert at Nalen.
At the concert she also sung ”Warm Valley” accompanied by Kjell Öhman on piano and then ”Somebody Cares” with her daughter Titti Sjöblom and Ehrling Eliasson plus the Arne Domnérus Quartet.
The conference ended with a Gala Dinner where acted as a host at one of the tables and Kustbandet with its repertoire of Ellington music from the 20’2, 30’s and 40’s provided the entertainment.
At the end of the dinner, George Avakian (with Jack Towers in the photo) thanked the organizers for a very well done conference in Duke Ellington’s name on behalf of the conference participants and gave a special tribute to Alice Babs.”
Perhaps the tribute was also for what she gave to Ellington Study Group Conferences over a period of almost 20 years. The 2004 conference was to be her last one.
Photo courtesy of Bo Haufman and Göran Wallén