Thursday, April 30, 2009

Take the A train

In honor of the 110th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth, the orchestra that bears his name, directed by his grandson, played “Take the A Train” on Wednesday

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“Somebody said they want us to do ‘A Train’ again,” Paul Mercer Ellington, the musical director of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, reported just before 11 a.m. on Wednesday. And why not? A full 27 minutes had passed since the orchestra’s last performance of his grandfather’s signature song, a song some Ellington fans cannot hear too often. Wednesday was, after all, the 110th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth, and the orchestra was ready to celebrate. But A. C. Lichtenstein, the orchestra’s manager, blinked. “Can we do it without a piano?” he asked Mr. Ellington.

For once, they had to. They were standing on the platform of the 125th Street subway station at St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, about to board an A train — and perform — as the train sped toward the other end of the line, in Queens, picking up regular passengers along the way. There was no way to take a piano along, though they had used a Steinway grand earlier, up on the concourse.
So much for the opening bars of a song that began with Ellington’s scribbled-out directions to his apartment, given to a young composer and arranger named Billy Strayhorn. “I turned them into something,” Strayhorn said later, and he and Ellington began a collaboration that lasted until Strayhorn died in 1967.

It is often the encore song at an Ellington Society concert.

“I’ve never seen a train like this,” said Luis Acevedo, a passenger who boarded at 42nd Street and marveled at the ceiling fans that were whirling overhead.

When I first started working in Manhattan, every once in a while I'd catch a K train that had cars with cane seats and ceiling fans, as well as windows in the doors between cars.

Other passengers looked puzzled as they stepped into the vintage cars and sat on seats that felt as if they had springs in them. Some looked even more puzzled as they realized that there was live music on board: The Ellington band was near the front, and the Alex Lodico Ensemble was near the back. It performs with the Music Under New York program run by New York City Transit, but usually on subway platforms, not in the trains themselves.

The two bands began the trip after a morning performance at the 125th Street station, where there were also hard-to-hear speeches commemorating Ellington’s birthday. Among those in the crowd were Ellington’s granddaughter Mercedes; Joel Iskowitz, the artist who designed the 2009 District of Columbia quarter, which has a portrait of Ellington on the back; and Maxine Gordon, the widow of the legendary tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Mr. Gordon’s father was Dr. Frank Gordon, Duke Ellington’s physician in Los Angeles.

That is a closed circle.

Mercedes Ellington got off the train after two stops. The Ellington Orchestra had packed up in time to get off at the Nostrand Avenue stop in Brooklyn. (The Lodico band stayed on to Howard Beach, and made the trip back to 125th Street.)

No surprise she left quickly.

Mr. Lichtenstein said the lack of a piano had not been a problem because the old cars were so noisy. “You wouldn’t have heard the piano if we had one,” he said.

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