by Sandi Durell
Last night, Thursday June 4, was the second evening that featured dancer Mercedes Ellington in conversation with Eddie Mueller on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) as we gathered more insights from Duke Ellington’s granddaughter about the 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky that showcased the great Duke and orchestra, starring Ethel Waters, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson and Lena Horne, with a cameo appearance by Louis Armstrong. The film was directed by Vincente Minnelli.
That same year, Stormy Weather (directed by Andrew L. Stone) was released. It was the story of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and considered the primary showcase for some of the top black performers of the time, including Lena Horne, Cab Callaway and Fats Waller.
Muller discussed the fact that today’s audiences need to watch these films with perspective and understanding because of the in-grained racism in the culture. Ms. Ellington added the importance of historical references in conjunction with what an audience is watching – – “how does it fit into the time it was made, how does it refer to the times we’re in now. . .the arts and education are the best way to find out the historical references.” Muller talked about how jazz was used in movies, even in the fantasy fable that is Cabin in the Sky, and references how Duke Ellington holds sway in the club with his spectacular musical number.
Mueller notes the depiction of this music as a “fall from grace and if you liked this music there was something wrong with you.” Mercedes gives insight about the Duke saying he was very aware about political situations and that he was always being urged to take sides but stayed away from that. Anything he had to say was said through his music – – his opinions were noted musically and some criticized him for that. “He wrote the Three Black Kings – King Solomon, Balthazar and Martin Luther King.”
Mercedes talks about the fact that her grandfather definitely liked the ladies and there were many in his life and he never made an effort to hide that. He stayed married to his childhood sweetheart, his wife Edna Thompson, making sure she was taken care of where she lived in Washington, D.C.
Mercedes Ellington is Artistic Director and CEO of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts www.decfa.org
Special Video by Michael Lee Stever