LARRY & THE DUKE (III)

The Ghost Light is lit

waiting

Just as Duke Ellington’s life took a dramatic turn in the mid 50’s, Larry Howard’s life had a dramatic change in 1963, the Guthrie Theater opened in May with Larry as the stage-door man. The 60’s saw the Guthrie being recognized as a prominent regional theater, but in the late 60’s it began to push it’s limits and various power struggles in upper management caused both a lose of artistic personnel and audience. It came close to closing for good. In 1969 Don Schoenbaum, only a few years removed from coming to the theater as a Ford Foundation intern was placed in charge of both management and artistic decisions. He kept the theater going and with the help of Sir Tyrone Guthrie managed to lure Michael Langham away from Stratford Ontario and take over as Artistic Director in 1971. Larry Howard’s job was saved as were all the jobs of us working at the Guthrie when Michael took over.

And Larry was only a few years away from meeting the Duke.

Duke Ellington’s last tour began in October of 73 with the first month in Europe, before coming back to the U.S. where it ran almost nonstop until almost the end of March 74. This extreme tour was taken in spite of, or maybe because of, Duke’ health was failing. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He never announced anything about it being a farewell tour but he knew it was.

Mercer Ellington, the Duke’s only child knew also. Mercer was a composer, arranger, band musician, band leader both in conjunction with his father and on his own. In the late 60’s he left his personal career and joined his father’s organization as a trumpeter and road manager, and nurse. During a concert when the Duke became tired, Mercer took over on piano and conducting.

It was evident that the Duke was handing over the baton to his son. It was also evident that there was a strong bond of love between father and son. Over the years I had the pleasure of working the Duke Ellington Orchestra with Mercer in charge. Mercer was a gentleman just like his father. And when Mercer was phasing out, he slowly turned over the reins over to his son, Paul, who continues the tradition. I had the good fortune to have worked the three generations of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The two concerts at the Guthrie had been moved from January to March 15 and 17. The load-in/setup went smoothly. The concert was great. Sometime in the second half, Duke left the stage and Mercer took over. The Duke returned at bows and the Take The A Train encore piece.

When I went down to the stage to put out the ghost light and wrap up for the night, Joey B, the Guthrie deck hand told me about a conversation between two of the ‘old-timers’ when they were casing up their horns.

One leaned over and asked where the next gig was. When he was told that they had a day off and then came back to this same stage, he laughed and said, ‘Damn, you don’t say. Tonight wasn’t a one-nighter.’

“Nope we can go and jam tonight and sleep tomorrow during the day.’

‘Well,’ the first old-timer replied, ‘I’ll just go to the hotel and sleep tonight and sleep tomorrow too. My bones are tired, man, tired.’

Some of the band did go jamming that night, at the Padded Cell, a small jazz club in Minneapolis, frequented by both local and national musicians and known to lock it’s door at closing time and allow the jam sessions to go well past sunup. Sad to say, the Cell, like all the jazz clubs in the Twin Cities and across the river in Mendota, where I grew up, are long gone.

Michael Langham had the Duke autograph Larry’s book as he promised, but Ellington was very disappointed that Larry had not brought the book to the dressing room in person. From what Michael had told him about Larry, Ellington said he really wanted to meet him. The two worked out a way.

It wasn’t just the band members that enjoyed a day off. Mine was spent with a late sleep before I began my spring yard work. In show business you grab sleep when you can. Like the old timer said, the bones get tired.

When I drove into the Guthrie lot for the second concert, I saw Dawson’s limo parked so Larry could not get out. It was past the time Larry usually left for home. When I walked around the limo to get in the stage door, I could see Larry and the Duke sitting in the back seat, windows rolled down to catch the spring weather. Two elderly gentlemen engaged in conversation. Larry had met the Duke.

Lawson was in the green room when I went in to get some coffee. ‘I never saw Larry smile like that when I opened the door so he could get in with the Duke,’ Dawson told me. He looked at his watch and said in ten minutes he would have to bring Ellington around to the lower stage door, and Larry could go home.

The next time I saw Larry he told me how easy it was to talk to Duke Ellington. ‘It was like we were friends from way back.’ He showed me his copy of Music Is My Mistress that Michael had given him for Christmas and now it had the Duke’s autograph.

The second concert like the first was excellent. The playlist was a little different than the first to keep the musicians from getting bored This time though the Duke didn’t make it through to the intermission.

Joey B. was breaking down things when I got down to the stage. Mercer was looking out the door and one of the musicians was sitting on a chair next to the door.

Joey came over and told me in his stage whisper how the old guy took off his shoe and sock as soon as he came off stage. ‘His damn foot is all swelled up,’ Joey said, nodding to the band member, ‘And it’s green. Green! Looks like hell.’

I took a good look at the man. It was Paul Gonsalves, of the Newport Jazz Festival fame.

After seeing Gonsalves off to the Emergency Hospital, Mercer helped us with the breakdown and supervised us loading everything in the bins of the bus. He told us that he was going to get his father and the Duke always wanted to thank the stage crew. ‘But whatever you do,’ he said, ‘Don’t mention anything about having to send Gonsalves to the hospital. I’ll make up some excuse why Paul isn’t at the next gig, but I can’t tell him how bad he is. Dad just couldn’t handle that news… in his condition.’

Joey B. and I were only too glad to glad to wait and shake Duke Ellington’s hand. Joey commented on how much he liked ‘that good kind of music’, and I agreed and thanked him for his meeting with Larry.

The Duke gave me a smile and said it was his pleasure to meet Larry. ‘He’s quite a man. You here at the Guthrie are lucky to have him. He really had an interesting life. Did you his father was a Buffalo Soldier?’ And then he added, ‘Next time I play here, I’m going to make it a point to take him out to dinner.’

Mercer turned his head so his dad couldn’t see the expression on his face.

Mercer never told his father how sick ‘Strolling Violins’ Paul Gonsalves was. And he never told him when Paul died on 5/15/ 74, eight days before Duke Ellington died. Gonsalves was only 53, but years of drug and alcohol took their toll on him.

When the band left the Guthrie, they played six more gigs, canceling the two at the end of the tour. He died five days after the tour ended. He had his 75th birthday just a few weeks before.

Larry Howard continued to greet people from behind his stage door counter for several more years before he retired. I sadly lost track of him after he left the Guthrie.

I do know he was walking better in his later years. That promise that the young actor/director intern at the Guthrie, David Feldshuh, was fulfilled when David got his medical doctorate

David’s medical doctorate followed his doctorate in theater. Doctor/Doctor David continues his work in theater as a prize winning playwright, nominated in 1992 for a Pulitzer for Miss Ever’s Boys, teacher, and director at Cornell, as well as working in the Cayuga Medical Center with Emergency Medicine as his speciality.

.Currently he is one of the Front Line Heroes in the battle against COVID19.

There’s no people like Show People. They smile when they are low.’

Show people, many of my family member included, were the first to lose their livelihood

when the virus hit.

And they will be some of the last to go back to their profession

And the current ‘leadership’ in the White House and Senate are doing nothing to help the millions of

AMERICANS

on the verge of losing everything.

VOTE!!!

And this is a wrap for the three part Larry & The Duke.

Larry & THE DUKE (II}

Young Larry and his family had a hard-scramble life in the Dakotas. Young Edward lived in a fine house in a good neighborhood in Washington D.C.

The Duke’s father’s artist talent got him a good job making blueprints for the U.S. Navy, and before that served as a White House butler. Both young Ellington’s parents were well known pianists in D.C. and were hired to perform at both private and government functions. His mother specialized in parlor music. His father in operatic arias. Edward started his ‘playing’ the piano at the age of three. At the age of eleven he began to receive lessons from a prominent teacher.

His musical life of light classical began to change around the age of fourteen when he began to sneak into a pool hall to listen to the piano players beating out jazz, ragtime, blues, music that here- to -for he had only heard about.

It was around this time Edward got the nickname Duke. He was a dapper dresser and had casual air about him. His friends thought Edward just didn’t fit him and one of them titled him Duke. The name not only stuck, it replaced his given name.

The Duke composed his first of over a thousand compositions, Soda Fountain Rag. He was fifteen and could neither read or write music. He felt that his skill was not playing piano but composing. He worked hard to learn the mechanics of music. He also began to organize combos and to play at dances. Like his father, Duke was an exceptional artist, so much so he was offered an art scholarship to Pratt Institute; which he turned down because he believed strongly that his music would be his life.

Earning money by day as a sign painter, playing gigs at night. Soon his combo, The Duke’s Serenaders, was playing embassy parties and private functions in D.C. and nearby Virginia, playing for both Afro-Americans and white audiences. The Duke was on his way…

But like all over-night successes in Show Biz it was a lot of hard work and a lot of two steps forward, one step back; and often one forward, two back. The early 1920’s saw him and his ensemble hopping between New York and D.C. with an occasional stop in Atlantic City. His ensemble grew both in size and in quality. His compositions grew and various musicians in his band often took a different approach to a song. Ellington’s musical horizons expanded as did his popularity and respect as both a composer and as band leader.

In 1926, Irvin Mills, a prominent music publisher and jazz artist promoter, came to an Ellington club date to scout the Duke out as a possible client. He was so impressed he signed Ellington that very night. Mills only took 45% of Ellington Inc.. Sounds like a lot today, but it was an unheard of contract between a white agent and a black musician. It was usually that the musician got only 40% or less.

Mills relieved Ellington of the business end that robbed the Duke of time better spent with his music. Getting recording gigs, radio air play, films, and live performances at prominent venues.

On of these venues was the famous Cotton Club where the Ellington Orchestra was house band on several extended occasions, and later as guest artists. It was the Prohibition Era and also the Jim Crow Era. The performers were black and came in through the back door. The audience was white and paid big money while coming in the front door. Ellington was expected to compose and play ‘jungle music’. This segregation at the club ended thanks a lot in part by Ellington.

As the Depression took hold, the recording business suffered; but radio exposed the Duke to a growing audience and tours became the band’s mainstay. Ellington’s compositions during those years, like Mood Indigo and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, were big hits no matter who sang or played them. Then in 1938, a composer/arranger, Billy Strayhorn, applied to Ellington as a lyricist.

Strayhorn brought Lush Life, a song he composed as a teenager, to show the Duke a sample of his work. He also began to outline different arrangements of a few of Ellington’s work. Duke found his ‘left hand, his right hand’, the missing link in his musical journey.

Like his idol, the Duke, Strayhorn’s musical foundation was classical. His dream was to be a classical composer; but he knew that a black would never be accepted in the classical music world of the day, so jazz became his medium…until he discovered the jazz/classical compositions of Ellington.

The two worked as one, composing in the classical vein of suites. Strayhorn made new arrangements for Ellington’s standards as well as composing songs on his own. The first Ellington recording of a Strayhorn work was Take The A Train which became the signature introduction of the Ellington’s Orchestra. For the next 25+ years the two collaborated, one working on a theme and the other jumping in, until it became impossible to credit either one for the completed work.

The Swing Era/Big Band Era began in the mid-30’s and continued for a good ten years. While the white Big Bands, like Dorseys, Harry James, Glen Miller, took the lead in popularity and money, the black Big Bands, like Ellington, Basie, Cab Calloway, had good years also. Radio, juke boxes, recordings, even cameo in movies, combined to make it a golden age for big band jazz music, black and white. While most of the bands followed a common road, the Duke and his musical compositions took a more serious musical route, not relying only on the tried and true hits of the past.

This route took it’s toll on Ellington’s orchestra after WWII. Swing was replaced by Be Bop and promoters found that small groups, trios, quartets, brought in good audiences at much less cost. Great musicians, like Armstrong and Hampton, broke away from bands and fronted these combos.

It was the birth of Cool Jazz, aka West Coast Jazz. Dave Brubeck’s quartet with Paul Desmond. Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker. Modern Jazz Quartet. And of course, Miles Davis.

The early 50’s brought a severe revolution in music. Teenagers became prime movers and R&B, Rock & Roll on cheap 45 discs introduced new idols like Presley, Little Richard, Pat Boone, to replace the likes of Sinatra and the Andrew Sisters. Hits and misses in the main stream were often dictated by disc jockeys, often televised, and the Top 40 on the radio was influenced by bribes called payola. Black recording artists were ripped off big time by their white ‘agents’.

Ellington had long fought against the three- minute cut on LP records and there was no room for Ellington’s vision of his music on a 45 disc.. His music needed much more space. His music needed an orchestra not a small combo. His genius refused to lower the bar.

In 1950 he and his orchestra stayed afloat thanks to a Europe tour, set up by the Black- Listed Orson Welles. They did 74 gigs in 77 days. During which he managed to compose music for a Welles’ stage production as well as performing a Welles’ variety show in Paris. While he never played any new personal compositions on tour he managed to finish his extended composition Harlem in his ‘spare time’.

Returning home, times were tough. Dance gigs and concert tours were few and far between. His royalties from his standards brought him the needed money to compose his serious music and to managed to keep his key musicians alive. But by 1955 there wasn’t a record company that wanted him.

And then in the evening of July 7, 1956, a string of unlikely occurrences combined to make a perfect storm that resurrected the career of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The Ellington New Port Concert is as an important jazz event as the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert in 1938.

Ellington’s concert wasn’t at a famous venue like Carnegie Hall. It was on the last of a three day jazz festival, a relative new concept in music, at Newport, R.I.. Unlike Benny Goodman, who headlined the famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, Ellington was just one of many acts. Unlike the prominent sidemen in Goodman’s orchestra, artists like Harry James on trumpet, Jess Stacy on piano, and of course, Gene Krupa on drums, the Ellington group had lost many talented members, although several came back for the Newport Festival gig, like the great alto sax player, Johnny Hodges. Goodman brought down the house with exceptional solos on the popular Sing Sing Sing. At Newport the audience erupted on a 1938 Ellington composition, Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue, stuck in the playlist at the last minute, and the astounding solo of a journeyman tenor sax player, Paul Gonsalves. The dancing in the aisles at Carnegie was a spontaneous reaction by the audience. The dancing at Newport during the solo by Gonsalves was done an unknown platinum blonde in a black dress that jumped from her seat and danced her way to the stage.

Gonsalves was hired by Ellington six years before. He had played in many major orchestra but his many addictions cost him work.  Ellington liked having him around because Gonsalves was fond of going out in the audience to perform. The Duke nicknamed him Gypsy,also Strolling Violins.

And this night, Ellington specifically told Gonsalves to take the solo, even though the great alto sax, Johnny Hodges was with them that evening. Gonsalves’ solo lasted for an unbelievable 27 choruses. He was accompanied by Woods on bass and Woodyard on drums with an occasional prompts by Ellington on piano and Ellington’s ‘Dig in, Paul. Dig in.’The audience exploded and the finale featured a high trumpet solo by Cat Anderson. And Ellington and his band were reborn.

Time Magazine loudly proclaimed that fact and honored Duke Ellington with his picture on the cover. To date, Duke is only one of five jazz musicians to be so honored.

Columbia released the entire concert as quickly as possible. It not only became Ellington’s all time selling album, it became one of the jazz world’s best seller. Old time fans like Larry Howard bought one right away. Younger fans, like your truly, got one a few years later through the Columbia Record club.

The royalties from album and his new recording contract with Columbia afforded Ellington the luxury of composing as he always wanted to. He was free to break out of the three minute cuts of LP’s and 45”s. Free to devote time to suites etc. that are played by symphony orchestras world wide. And also the money kept his core orchestra members working, something the other black big bands couldn’t do.

The following year, 1957, was Ellington’s Shakespeare year. The Duke liked Shakespeare. Billy Strayhorn loved Shakespeare. After his success at Newport, he gave a series of concerts at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. He was asked back for another concert in 57 and Michael Langham, the artistic director of the Stratford Playhouse, contracted him to write the incidental music for Langham’s production of ‘Timon of Athens’.

While performing there Ellington was persuaded by the staff at the theater to write a composition inspired by Shakespeare. The end result was his, and Strayhorn’s, 12 piece suite based on works of Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder.

The next big step that year was when he and Strayhorn broke the Afro-American barrier in Hollywood sound track. Otto Preminger hired them to compose the sound track for the movie, Anatomy of A Murder. The album won the Grammy Award for best soundtrack. Other movie soundtracks followed.

Suite after suite compositions, some with Strayhorn, others just by Ellington, followed right up to his death. The later years he was working on his Sacred Music suites, deemed by Ellington as his greatest works,. In 1973 his Third Sacred Concert premiered at Westminster Abby in England.

These later years were the busiest and most profitable years of his life. There were the recordings of his new compositions and collaboration recordings with other jazz greats. His old friendly rival, Count Basie, others like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrain, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra. His early songs, now standards, were recorded by him and others, producing royalties as never before.

But he never neglected live performances, after all it was live performances that started his career, and comprised a major portion of his life of music. He and his orchestra toured around the world during that period.

His last tour started in July of 1973 and continued thru to March 22, 1974. He knew this would be his last. His health was failing. Lung cancer. Several times events were rescheduled due to illness. One such was the two concerts at the Guthrie, that was moved from January 74 to March74. It was at this second concert when Larry Howard got the meet the Duke.

This is the second in the three part series. The last will follow in a day or so. In the meantime,

STAY SAFE

LARRY & The Duke (1)

Larry Howard was one of the first hired at Guthrie Theater. He spent over two decades as the daytime stage-door man; but he was so much more. He represented the epitome of the saying ‘everybody loved him.’

When a stranger walked down the down the stage-door steps and heard Larry’s warm and honest question, ‘Can I help you?’, the visitor was quickly put at ease. And he was never a stranger again.

Larry had the uncanny knack of remembering faces and names. It was a valuable asset to a stage-door man, but few had it like Larry.

The first time I ever went to the Guthrie was with Bob Gubbins. Bob had worked in the Guthrie set shop the first season, which was located in the basement of the theater. There was an addition to the Guthrie, a decent shop, that had just opened and Bob wanted to see it.

We had just started down the stairs when Larry welcomed Bob by name. It had been five years since Larry had seen Bob.

I was introduced to Larry that day and two years later when I walked down the steps, my first day as a Guthrie employee, the first words I heard was, ‘Hi, Don. Welcome to the Guthrie. I heard you were hired for the running crew.’ His memory amazed me; but more important, it was the start of a treasured friendship.

I don’t think there was any one of the Guthrie family during Larry’s tenure that didn’t treasure his friendship. For most of us a quick greeting or a short conversation made us happier than we were before. For others, especially younger employees, Larry was a surrogate father. Larry was a listener, not a talker and certainly not a judge. He rarely talked about himself.

And if you were hurting with a few aches and pains, one look at Larry and you stopped feeling sorry for yourself. He moved with slightly hunched shoulders and a painful walk. His knees were shot. It was hard to watch him walk on the level. It was sad to watch him go up or down the stage-door stairs. But no one ever heard him complain.

The first parking spot by the stage-door was Larry’s. There was never any sign that said it was Larry’s. It was just understood that Larry did not need a long walk to and from his car.

David Feldshuh was an actor and associate director at the Guth,Arie. He was close to getting his doctorate in theater. His next project was to get a doctorate in medicine.

He often told Larry that when he got his medical degree, he would see to it that Larry’s problem knees would be taken care of. That promise always brought a smile to Larry’s face.

Those years the polite term for Larry was Afro-American; but Larry was at an age where almost all his life he had been referred to as a Negro or a colored. One of the few times that Larry talked to me about his personal life was an eye-opener to me.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Canadian Cree singer/composer had performed two concerts the night before at the Guthrie. Buffy had been the first indigenous performer to break into main stream music. Her protest songs against war, such as The Universal Soldier, and against the treatment of the indigenous people, such as Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, propelled her into the forefront of the protest movement.

Her works soon attracted the attention of President Johnson who led the blacklisting of her music on radio. Nixon followed suit when he became president. And of course, J. Edgar Hoover was investigating her before she became know to the public.

The American Indian Movement, A.I.M, had begun and was headquartered in Minneapolis, wanted her to basically turn the concerts into a rally for their movement. She refused. She felt the audience bought tickets to hear her in concert, not in a protest rally. Her songs would stand by themselves in protest. Plus she had misgivings about the violence associated with A.I.M.. Her refusal did not discourage A.I.M. however. Members demonstrated outside the Guthrie with chants and drums. Some members bought tickets to the concerts and broke into chants during her performance, stopping the concerts several times.

She told them off during her show, criticized them for ruining the show for others; but between shows and afterwards, she cried.

The next day when I said hello to Larry, he commented that he read that his people made fools out of themselves at her concerts. Thinking that he thought it was a Black protest, I quickly ‘corrected’ him. I told him it was A.I.M., that had caused the problem, not his people.

Then he corrected me. He said A.I.M. thought to be an Ojibway movement; also had quite a few Lakota Sioux, his tribe, involved with it.

When I said that I never realized he was part Sioux, he told me his mother was half Lakota Sioux and half French-Canadian. (Since my mother descended from French-Canadians, Larry and I might have been related.) He said his father was half Afro-American and half Scotch- Irish. So Larry was a quarter Native American, more than half Caucasian, and less than a quarter Afro-American.

His father had been a Buffalo Soldier, a Black cavalryman, stationed in Montana Territory where he met Larry’s mother. Upon discharge they moved to North Dakota where Larry was raised. Over the years, Larry told me bits and pieces of his life, but I never pressed so I really did not find out much about his past.

Larry loved sports. He followed the Twins and Vikings on the radio. He was the coach of the Guthrie softball team. He told me that he and his brother had held most of the high school athletic records in North Dakota. Records in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. They also played semi-pro baseball. His brother pitched. Larry was the catcher, a position that contributed early to his bad knees in later life.

Larry loved music, jazz music. When he wasn’t listening to sports he was listening to jazz on the radio.

He knew what stations and what time he could listen to his favorites like Basie, Armstrong, and especially the Duke, Duke Ellington.

Michael Langham, the artistic director at the Guthrie, was also an Ellington fan; and when Michael had been artistic director at Stratford Ontario, he had hired Ellington to compose the incidental music for Langham’s production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. The year was 1957, the year after Ellington’s rebirth. The year that saw Ellington’s rise from a ‘jazz composer’ to be recognized as one of America’s great serious composers.

For Christmas of 1973, Michael gave Larry the newly published book, Music Is My Mistress, by Duke Ellington. It was a coffee-table book, rich with pictures of the Duke, his orchestra, and some of the people that Duke had worked with and admired over his 50 years in the Jazz world. Ellington opened by saying the book was not a memoir, it was a performance. It was the kind of book that one could get lost in, over and over. And Larry did, often, and he told Michael so.

Michael had arranged with the Guthrie Events producer to book Ellington and his orchestra for a concert at the Guthrie. He promised Larry that they would sit together in the best seats in the house. He also promised Larry that he would go backstage and meet the Duke.

The prospect of actually talking to the Duke thrilled Larry to say the least, but Larry knew it was just wishful thinking. Larry’s knees and his overall health wouldn’t allow him to sit for the a concert, no matter how much he would like to.

He thanked Michael, and explained why it couldn’t happen; but asked if maybe Michael could get the Duke to autograph his book.

The distance between the ex Buffalo Soldier’s shanty on the Dakota prairie where young Larry Howard started out and the middle class home in Washington D.C. where young Edward Kennedy,(Duke), Ellington started his life, was far greater than just miles.

About the only thing these two boys had in common in their early years was their love of baseball. Both boys excelled in baseball and both had dreams of someday playing in the Negro League. Larry played before an audience of ranch hands and small town inhabitants. Ellington told of how sometimes President Teddy Roosevelt would stop on his horse back ride and watch him and his friends play baseball.

Ellington’s love for jazz began in his preteens. Larry’s began in his late teens.

This is the first of three parts of LARRY & THE DUKE. The second part will follow in a day or so.

Until then…STAY SAFE