Members of Duke Ellington Big Band - Andre Deshields, Inga Ballard and Karen Callaway Williams - perform at the American community school in Abu Dhabi with their jazz group on Tuesday. Image Credit: AHMED KUTTY /Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: The American Community School was filled with the sounds of American jazz and blues as members of the Duke Ellington Big Band brought to life many of the iconic composer and musician's much-loved songs on Tuesday.

Mercedes Ellington, the artist's eldest grandchild and the founder and president of The Duke Ellington Centre for the Arts, said: "I was never in a big band but people always would come up to me and ask me about Duke's sound so I decided to put the band together. I'm a [professional] dancer so I decided to bring the best of both worlds [to the performances].

"It feels good, it feels right. I wouldn't change a thing. My grandfather used to call his sacred concerts the ‘crossroads of the world' and I think that phrase could be applied to the UAE. The country is such a hub of cultures; it's wonderful that people from so many backgrounds could interact with each other," she added.

Though Edward ‘Duke' Ellington died in 1974, he is considered an important icon in the jazz world. He is honoured for his contributions even 36 years after his death.


The latest honour was the declaration of April 29 as ‘Duke Ellington Day', in 2009 by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in honour of the artiste's 110th birthday.

"Duke [Ellington] worked hard and it didn't matter where he performed, whether it was in school auditoriums or in big concert halls. I remember when I went to visit him as he lay dying in the hospital, he still insisted on playing so they brought a piano into his room. He was a performer till the end," Mercedes, who is also a choreographer, producer and theatrical composer in her own right, said wistfully.

The 15-member group also conducted workshops for students from both the American Community School and the UAE University in Al Ain on May 23 and 25 respectively, as part of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation's (ADMAF) ‘Mastering the Arts' programme.

"One thing I hope is that the students remember the joy [of working with the band] and to use joy as a tool when facing many of life's hardships.

"If you face any situation with joy then you can overcome anything. We met as strangers but left as friends," singer Andre De Shields, who took part in the workshops, said.