December, 2013 – Volume 2, Number 12
THE DUKE’S LIBRARIAN: Mr. Ellington and Me
By Bill Uricchio, University of Connecticut Libraries
For resume purposes, my library career is stated as having started at a high school where I was a non-professional “media aide”. It was my first full-time position and I reported to the high school librarian, a young woman with three times my energy level who has remained a friend ever since. As “media aide” I was in charge of the school’s many 16 mm film projectors and when not whacking them with my shoe to get the stuck reels moving (I kid you not – me and my shoe were much welcome in classrooms) I worked in the library as cataloger, desk attendant, coffee pot supervisor and factotum. It was just like being at a University branch library where I am now and hopefully where I will wind up my career. I guess that falls into the “what comes around goes around” category.
In actuality, however, my first responsible library job was serving as temporary music librarian for the great Duke Ellington. When I was sophomore in college, a local religious group arranged for the Duke to bring his Second Sacred Concert road show to our community. The ideal place to have it turned out to be the college auditorium and, because Mr. Ellington used local choirs for the concert, our college singing group was chosen to work with him and his masterful musicians.
An advance entourage arrived well before the concert to provide details of what would be happening. It was led by the music’s arranger/copyist Tom Whalley, a long time Ellington associate. Some of the soloists were also there and provided a quick concert to show us what to expect later on a larger scale. Mr. Whalley gathered us together and said, “the first thing I need is a music librarian”. He looked directly at me and said “how about you?” Never having given a moment’s thought to library work of any kind I hesitated and he quickly remarked – “It’s easy – you just have to hand out the music to your choir and then get it all back after the concert.” The simplicity of it hooked me – and so the seeds of a 40 year career began to grow.
The music turned out to be hundreds of photocopied sheets, all clearly marked with copyright symbols. As he handed the package to me Mr. Whalley explained, “these are very, very important. Duke will have them published when the concert tour is over. They must not get into the hands of anyone except your choir because they are worth a fortune to Duke and you MUST get them all back.” Gulp! I quickly devised a numbering system and handed them out to my singer associates with warnings that I would haunt them if the music was not all promptly returned.
The concert was a standing-room only event and a great success. Duke’s full orchestra was there along with wonderful soloists including the amazing Alice Babs, a Swedish soprano with what seemed to be no ceiling on her upward range. Enormously tall actor/musician/dancer Geoffrey Holder did some interpretive dancing which wowed the crowd. Probably as reward for my diligent library service, I was chosen for a “solo”. It was rather short – just the German word “Freiheit” in a long string of utterances by participants of global words meaning “freedom”. After the long applause and cheering for the concert stopped, I diligently went after my music library and luckily everyone cooperated although I suspected more than one set had visited a photocopier. “I can rest easy now,” I thought.
A few weeks later, our music director, Dr. Robert Soule, called our group together. He told us that Mr. Ellington was about to record the concert in New York City and he was inviting all of the choirs who participated in the tour to sing for the recording. Duke would then pick out the best of the tracks for the album. Dr. Soule handed me the familiar music packet saying “Here, Mr. Librarian”.
We practiced for a number of days and then boarded a bus which took us to Harlem. Mr. Ellington’s sister met us and took our entire group to an uptown deli for supper. We next went to the Great Northern Hotel where Duke had converted the ballroom into a recording studio. The orchestral and vocal soloist parts had already been recorded and only one musician besides Duke, famous jazz drummer Sam Woodyard, was there to perform “live” with us. There were numerous “takes”, with Duke going back and forth from his piano to the recording engineers behind a glass wall, and in the early morning hours he bid us farewell with one of his signature lines: “I give you each four kisses – one for each cheek”.
On the ride home I accosted my sleepy colleagues and once again retrieved the music I had handed out. I turned it over to Dr. Soule and my position as “The Duke’s Librarian” finally came to an end.
As an afterward, sometime later the two-LP album appeared and we discovered that our tracks filled the equivalent of one entire side. Not bad considering the large number of choirs from all over the country which were listed on the cover. Now, when someone asks me if I have ever met an important person I honestly say, “I sang and recorded with Duke Ellington”. For modesty’s sake, I forgo mentioning “soloing” for the Duke and serving as his “music librarian”.