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The Ellington Study Group Conferences (1)

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For almost 35 years, The Duke Ellington Study Group Conferences have brought together Ellington scholars and aficionados to share their thoughts and knowledge about his work, life and music, to learn more about it and to enjoy live performances of all kinds. The 24th one took place in New York last year.

Inspired by Göran Wallén, who has participated in many of the conferences and organized two of them, in 1994 and 2004, the DESS website will publish a series of articles about the conferences. Göran Wallén will be the editor of the series and share memories, photos and documents. He hopes that others will contribute as well.

This first article is about how The Duke Ellington Study Group conferences came about.

An important factor in making the conferences possible was the existence of local Ellington societies. The first one – ”The Duke Ellington Jazz Society (DEJS)” – appeared in Los Angeles, California in 1958 with Bill Ross as President and Patricia Willard as Vice-President.  Unfortunately, DEJS disappeared in the early 1960s but by that time ”The Duke Ellington Society (TDES)” was in full operation. It was founded in New York in 1959 and soon chapters were formed in other major cities in the U.S.

”Duke Ellington Music Society (DEMS)” founded by the Swedish Ellington specialist and discographer Benny Åslund in the late 1970s was important for building an international Ellington network. It soon became a vehicle for sharing all kinds of information – not least discographic – between Ellington scholars in different countries through its Bulletin.

However, it was Donald (Don) G. Miller in Chicago, who had the idea to bring together Ellington specialists in an ”Ellington Study Group” and to have the Group to meet regularly for presentations and discussions.

In May 1981, he organized an Ellington Study Group meeting in Chicago. A small group of Ellington specialists took part but no one from Sweden participated. The main presenter at the meeting was Gunther Schuller.

In a report from the meeting published in the DEMS Bulletin 1982/1, Miller sketched the task(s) for the Ellington Study Group saying that “we are a privileged generation for having personally known and experienced Ellington. This provides us with the opportunity to maximize the record for posterity’s experience of Ellington.”

The report in the DEMS Bulletin is available in the Ellington Archive of the website.

The Chicago meeting was followed by another one in New York in October, 1981, It was labelled “the first ever international meeting of the Duke Ellington Study Group” because among the participants was Benny Åslund from Sweden and Charles Delaunay from France. Jerry Valburn was the driving force behind the meeting. Some twenty people spent the weekend together discussing and enjoying Ellington’s music in sound and sight.

The participants in the two 1981 meetings were to be the nucleus of participants and presenters in the Ellington conferences for many years.

The first full-scale Duke Ellington Study Group Conference was organized in May 1983 by the Washington D.C. Chapter of The Duke Ellington Society and its President, Terrell Allen. Some 90 people took part in the meeting, among them was Benny Åslund from Sweden. The program was a mixture of presentations, live music and discussions as would be the case in future Ellington conferences.

Among the musical events were an opening Ellington concert by the Army Blues Orchestra, a mini concert of Ellington music by the guitarist Bill Harris and a re-creation of the Ellington duets by pianist Brooks Kerr and bass-player George Duvier.

On the presentation side, Martin Williams started off with a talk on “Ellington, The Composer” followed by one by  Dan Morgenstern on “Duke and the Tiger Rag. Then a panel of Ellington alumni – Billy Taylor Sr., June Norton and Jimmy McPhail –  talked about their times with Ellington; Patricia Willard gave insights into “Jump For Joy” and Willis Conover hosted a panel with broadcasters about “The Joys, Pleasures and Problems Presenting Duke’s Music on the Air”. A discussion panel focused on “The Ellington Drummers”.

Together with Joe Igo, Valburn kicked off a discussion on “Ellington Discographies” and Ellington scholars Eddie Lambert, Klaus Strateman and Sjef Hoefsmit formed a panel for an open discussion on Ellington issues.

Thanks to Jerry Valburn and Klaus Strateman, the conference participants could also enjoy a full evening of Ellington films.

The Washington D.C. conference was apparently a large success. Leading Ellington scholars were happy to finally have an opportunity to discuss face to face and enjoy everything about Ellington. On the spot, it was decided that the next conference would be in Chicago in 1984.

A report from the meeting in the DEMS Bulletin 1983-4 is available in the Ellinmgton Archive of the website.


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