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The Ellington Study Group Conferences

Last year, the 24th Duke Ellington Study Group conference took place and this time in New York City. And in May this year, DESUK organized a one day mini-conference using a format similar to the Study Group ones.

The Study Group Conferences have had a tremendously important role in building an international network of Ellington scholars and aficionados and a solid knowledge base of Ellington’s work, life and music.

The network of Ellington clubs and societies has been crucial for the conferences. Without them, they would never have taken place. The first one – “The Duke Ellington Jazz Society (DEJS)” – was founded in Los Angeles, California with Bill Ross as President and Patricia Villard as Vice-President. It not only wanted to bring together Ellington fans locally but also build an international network of Ellington clubs.

Unfortunately, DEJS disappeared in the early 1960s but by that time The New York Chapter had been formed. It started in 1959 and with its large membership, it soon had a leading role among Ellington fans. It change its name to The Duke Ellington Society (TDES) at the request of Duke Ellington himself in the 1960s and later it became TDES only.

In 1993, the Duke Ellington Society of Sweden was formed.

Another key factor behind the conferences was the existence of a network of Ellington experts, who worked together to increase the knowledge about Ellington’s work and life.

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A new season starts

Today is September 1 and as promised the DESS website is back after its summer break. As before, we will continue to do our best to provide members of DESS and others interested in Ellington with music, photos, videos, articles etc related to Il Maestro. Possibly we will do this less frequently than before but at the same time the website has now at its disposal a lot of quite unique material of interest to Ellington connoisseurs. This includes radio programs about Ellington, photos never published and the video and radio taped proceedings of the 24 Ellington Study Group Conferences.

The conference tapes in the Sjef Hoefsmit Collection, which have been made available to the website, are currently being digitized and excerpts of the result will be published on the website during the year.

It seems appropriate to start the season by doing this. Here is the Swedish pianist Berndt Egerbladh and Alice Babs improvising at the opening session of the 1994 Study Group Conference in Stockholm.

Tapes from Study Group conferences

The 24 Duke Ellington Study Group conferences have been documented in photos, sound and video recordings, articles in the DEMS Bulletin, the DESS Bulletin, Blue Light and similar publication etc. Except for the articles, this material is not easily accessible for Ellington aficionados and is often buried in archives or personal collection.

The late Sjef Hoefsmit – the eminent Ellington scholar and editor of the DEMS Bulletin – took part in all Study Group conferences from 1982 to 2008 and in 1986 he started to document the proceedings of the conferences with his video camera. He was also given copies of sound recordings of some conferences. After his passing away in 2012, all the tapes has been hidden away in a box in Hoefsmit’s study and later in the basement of his daughter Babette’s basement.

The box with some 140 tapes was recently donated to the DESS website.

The website will do its outmost to convert them to digital format and make them available through it.

A project group composed of Louis Tavecchio, Joe Medjuk, David Palmquist and the editor of the website has been formed. It will oversee and guide the work. The group is an open one so anyone, who would like to be part of it and contribute to its work is welcome.

A list of the tapes is available here.

Alice Babs at the Ellington Conferences

”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. (mer…)

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