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To Sir Duke, with love
AASU's new Fine Arts Auditorium hosts annual Duke Ellington Concert
Duke Ellington

How beloved must one man be to draw an estimated 12,000 to his funeral? Well, as beloved as the late “Sir” Duke Ellington, apparently.

Born Edward Ellington on April 29, 1899, the pianist and band leader is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential jazz artists in history. Truth be told, there are plenty who view him as the single greatest jazz artist to have ever lived.

Although he doesn’t says so explicitly, trombonist Teddy Adams would be a likely candidate to fall in that category. The longtime Savannah musician —who helped found and continues to serve on the board of the non-profit Coastal Jazz Association— thinks the world of The Duke’s legacy.

“You see,” he says with the casual weight of someone who’s about to lay some serious knowledge on you, “Duke Ellington was the consummate musician. Most folks think of him as a famous band leader, but he is really underrated as a pianist. He was actually the main influence on Thelonious Monk, and a lot of people don’t know anything about that.”

“Additionally, he is one of our greatest composers. The important thing about his compositions, is that not only did they become jazz standards, many of them also became popular American standards as well.”

The tunes Adams is referring to include such timeless classics as “Take The A Train,” “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “In A Sentimental Mood,” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing).”

That string of hits, which began in the 1930s and ‘40s, took Ellington’s music to the top of the charts and enshrined him in the tower of song forevermore. Those and the scores more he would compose over a lengthy career earned him international fame and fortune, plus a host of the most prestigious cultural nods, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and France’s Legion Of Honor Award.

Adams for one, says he’s not sure if the fact that the artist’s birthday falls in the month of April had anything to do with the U.S. government naming that National Jazz Month, but, “It’s a good marriage, for sure.”

“I can’t think of a better time,” enthuses the co-founder of the Savannah Jazz Orchestra — the big band made up of standout local and regional players which will pay tribute to Ellington’s rich contribution to 20th Century music and culture in a free concert this weekend at the newly reopened AASU Fine Arts Auditorium.

This will be the 23rd year in a row the CJA has hosted such an event, and their current President, Lacy Manigault, says everyone involved is expecting a record turnout this time out, for a variety of reasons.

“We’re looking for a very large crowd because the economy is doing so poorly right now,” says Manigault. “Our event is free, and anytime you can offer quality entertainment at no charge when the economy is down, you’ll see a lot more people show up than in times when they might have more money to spend on other things.”

“Also,” he continues, “it’s held in a very convenient area on the Southside. The AASU Auditorium just underwent a lengthy remodeling, and it has easy access for wheelchairs. That is key for a show like this, because it tends to tend to draw a lot of elderly people. It also takes place at a very pleasant time of the afternoon.”

Adams echoes Manigault’s expectations for a large and enthusiastic crowd, and notes that he is particularly excited for the event to be held once more at the AASU Fine Arts Center, as last year’s show had to be moved to another facility while that near-1,000 seat venue was almost completely redone.

“I believe ours will be only the second or third affair to be held in the facility since the renovation,” offers Adams. “I have not been inside yet, but a couple of friends of mine have, and they were most impressed with not only the way it looks, but the way it sounds in there.”

“Randall Reese (who co-directs the Savannah Jazz Orchestra with Adams) tells me the acoustics are so much better in there now,” he continues. “That’s what the musicians care about the most. He says it’s state-of-the-art now, and he should know.”

Adams says that while many of Ellington’s most enduring tunes seem to always make the setlist of this concert from year to year, whoever is invited to appear as a guest soloist —this year it’s the esteemed, Charleston-based saxman Mark Sterbank— usually selects a couple of obscure gems from Duke’s songbook, or simply alternate arrangements of his better known compositions which they prefer. In that way, each annual show is a bit different from those that came before.

“Duke certainly wrote enough tunes to draw from,” explains Adams. “We concentrate on the ones that are most familiar to the public, but this year Mark brought in a song I have never even heard of before.”

“Hopefully,” concludes Adams, “the City will continue to generously fund this worthwhile event in the years to come, as they have done for so long in the past. We thank them for that.”

Rite of Swing: The Savannah Jazz Orchestra’s 23rd Annual Duke Ellington Concert feat. Mark Sterbank

When: Sunday, 5 pm

Where: AASU Fine Arts Auditorium

Cost: Free to ALL-AGES