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Jazz Notes: Forever Ellington Auction of the Duke’s Personal Treasures at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, May 13, 2016

In 1999, jazz scribe Bob Blumenthal wrote in The Boston Globe: “In the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington.” Ten years earlier composer/arranger Gunther Schuller wrote: “Music was … his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time.” Meet Duke Ellington, who died in 1974 at the age of 75, yet the ripples—actually waves—of his influence continue to stream out—championed by jazz statesman Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center and celebrated by youth jazz bands, especially evident in the national Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition that takes place at JALC. Duke Ellington is an icon, not just as a jazz great but as the epitome of African-American artistic accomplishments in music.

Many of Duke’s most cherished personal belongings landed in the house of his sister, Ruth Ellington Boatwright, whose son, Stephen James, was close to the legend as he was growing up, even when he was a grown young man toured with his uncle and became a member of his staff. On May 18, James will be auctioning over 250 items that he has in his possession at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. The auction is presented by New York’s Guernsey’s Auction House. Rather than keep his uncle’s treasures in storage, James is offering an array of jazz history to the highest bidder.

One of the key items is Ellington’s white baby grand piano on which he wrote some of classic standards such as “Sophisticated Lady” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” It’s expected to sell for between $50,000 to $1 Million. Other items of interest include suits, tuxedos and dinner jackets that Duke wore and two dozen original music manuscripts written in Duke’s hand (tunes include “Mood Indigo” and “Let the Good Times Roll”). In addition, many of Ellington’s paintings are up for auction.

So take the A-train uptown (humming along his famous tune “Take the A-Train” that was actually written by his collaborator Billy Strayhorn), stroll east past the Apollo and the Red Rooster, head north up Lenox Ave. and take a right onto 129th Street for the big time Duke event. And bring your spare change for a rare memento of the jazz life.


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