Duke Ellington conducted a septet drawn from his famous orchestra through “Pigeons and Peppers” in 1938 and the tune was released on a 78rpm single by Okeh Records. It’s been anthologized on a couple large collections of his late 30s small group recordings but hardly saw release on LP (you’ll have to find a Swedish compilation of Cootie Williams tracks to hear it at 33⅓). It’s hardly the only recording by the prolific bandleader to slip into relative obscurity, but this one is of particular interest.
“Pigeons and Peppers” is the first song written by his son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, to be recorded. He was eighteen at the time. A year later Mercer launched the first of several big bands he’d lead over the years. At one time or another many great musicians played in the Mercer Ellington orchestra: Dizzy, Mingus, Chico Hamilton, Carmen McRae, trumpeter Idrees Sulieman.
Mercer often returned to work for his father’s orchestra, writing songs in the early 40s (including orchestra favorites “Jumpin’ Pumpkin” and “Things Ain’t What the Used to Be”), managing the operation in the 50s and at various times performing on alto sax and trumpet. In 1975 he kept the late Duke’s memory alive with the first of two European tours by the orchestra.
We regard Mercer Ellington’s 1975 album Continuum as the final document of the legendary Ellington Orchestra — the record is, notably, the last recording of Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist who’s distinctive character is entirely inseparable from the Orchestra’s legacy. When Ellington had passed away in May 1974, Carney lamented: “This is the worst day of my life. Without Duke I have nothing to live for.” Four months later he was reunited with his lifelong friend and we can only imagine the beautiful music they’ve made together lazily driving around together up their in heaven.
Mercer Ellington lived until 1996. He conducted his father’s music on Broadway (in Sophisticated Ladies) and his mid-80s effort, Digital Duke, won a large jazz ensemble Grammy. Mercer also produced the debut of Queenie Pie, Ellington’s street opera left unfinished in 1974 and seen by many as the greatest of his “lost” works. As the Duke was dying, he and Mercer worked together on another unfinished project, Les Trois Rois Noir (“The Three Black Kings”) first written around 1971 when the Orchestra was in the spiritual throes of its Sacred Concerts.
The first of Ellington’s three kings represented his interest in the traditional representation of Balthazar, the youngest of the Magi who has been depicted as an African King for centuries. Ellington noted his appearance in a stained glass representation of the nativity in Barcelona’s Cathedral Del Mar when his Orchestra performed a Sacred Concert there. The second King is Solomon. Notably, months after Ellington strove to complete Les Trois Rois Noir before he left us, the heir to the Solomonic Emperor of Ethiopia, Haille Selassie was deposed by the Derg, a military council. Whether or not he was assassinated while interred is still undetermined.
The third is Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who the Duke had already celebrated in life in My People, a sweeping work which celebrated racial unity in 1963. One tune was “King Fit the Battle of Bama.” When Ellington later met the Reverend (a moving account of this momentous meeting can be seen and heard here) he had the Orchestra perform that piece.
Mercer Ellington completed Les Trois Rois Noir from his father’s notes. He along with the Ellington Orchestra performed it with the Yale Symphony Orchestra, and later made this recording with the Warsaw Symphony. Mercer wrote of that performance, that “we could feel [the audience’s] participation increasing until the audience and the musicians seemed to be of one spirit. This unity began to accelerate and grow and continued in its momentum until we reached the climactic ending that resulted in one of the most spectacular experiences that had ever taken place in that hall.”