Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 3, 2003
DeKalb — When Northern Illinois University’s Holmes Student Center opened in the fall of 1962 – it was called University Center then – jazz legend Duke Ellington was enjoying a thriving career that would continue to flourish until his death.
Following the enormous sales of his “Ellington at Newport” album, recorded at his orchestra’s 1956 concert there, he embarked on an amazing period of studio recordings, world tours, numerous Grammy Awards, an Academy Award nomination and further forays into scoring for the legitimate theater stage.
Yet Ellington’s lasting connection to NIU – one that has endured nearly 30 years, and is known to many alumni and campus visitors – would come in the final two months of his celebrated life.
Ellington and his orchestra played the center’s ballroom March 20, 1974. Although he made two more stage appearances before succumbing to lung cancer and pneumonia two months later, the NIU show was his final “full” concert.
In 1980, students who ran the Holmes Center Board convinced members of the governing Board of Regents to name the ballroom in his honor. Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son and successor as bandleader, attended the ceremony.
Now, with an extensive $970,000 improvement project complete and the facility reopened, NIU will rededicate the Duke Ellington Ballroom.
Paul Ellington, Duke’s grandson and Mercer’s successor as bandleader, will attend and perform at Thursday’s ceremony during the annual fall NIU Jazz Ensemble concert. The jazz ensemble performs at 8 p.m. with guest artist Dennis Mackrel, a drummer who played with the Count Basie Orchestra in the mid-1980s.
Ellington will join the jazz ensemble on “Mood Indigo,” one of his grandfather’s most famous compositions, and will play the same grand piano his grandfather used here in 1974.
“What an honor it is for NIU to have Paul Ellington come for this tribute to his grandfather. I’m looking forward to hearing his words – and his talent on the piano,” NIU President John Peters said.
“The importance of that 1974 concert is known to everyone who passes through our student center, whether they pause to read the plaque or simply note the name at the ballroom doors,” Peters added. “This rededication is a symbol of our commitment to what has made NIU, this country and, especially, our culture, great. By remembering artists such as Duke Ellington, we expose future generations to their creative work.”
Professor Ronald Carter, director of the NIU Jazz Ensemble and head of jazz studies in the NIU School of Music, said his band always plays at least one Ellington composition at each performance.
“Duke Ellington is an inspiration to jazz musicians because he broke the stereotype of the jazz musician. He was well-dressed and wrote and played many types of music without abandoning the cultural concepts of swing, feel and the blues,” said Carter, a longtime clinician with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington program.
“He has been an inspiration to me because he always wanted his music to exemplify the best of the black culture. He was very creative and artistic without diluting the heart and soul of the music,” Carter added. “His genius always allows me to keep searching for more in each composition.”
Mitch Kielb, director of Holmes Student Center, arranged for Paul Ellington’s visit after deciding the Nov. 6 jazz concert offered the most appropriate time to herald the ballroom improvements.
“I could not think of anything that would be better,” Kielb said. “We needed some way to dedicate or reopen the ballroom, and I thought, ‘Why not rededicate it in the name of Duke Ellington?’ ”
This is actually the third time NIU has dedicated the ballroom to Ellington.
A ceremony was held in 1999 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ellington’s birth, when the Campus Activities Board commissioned a work by artist Eric Blome and mounted the bronze relief outside the ballroom’s west doors.
Much of the recent rehabilitation of the ballroom involved replacing aging audio-visual systems that no longer were functional.
“There are a lot of things we do in that room that people depend on that room for, and the sound system and the acoustics were just not adequate anymore,” Kielb said. “The No. 1 problem was not being able to hear people on the stage.”
The ballroom was closed from May through October. Initial work to scrape a quarter-inch of asbestos from the ceiling was completed last December.
Upgrades were performed to the sound system, the lighting system, the control booth and the stage area, which itself now sports new lighting, curtains and acoustical treatments.
Speakers in the ceiling, which also was treated acoustically, guarantee the same quality of sound throughout the large room, and six enormous video screens eliminate any sight difficulties. Touring acts now will find the ballroom’s computerized sound and lighting systems compatible with the modern equipment they bring.
The ballroom held its first post-remodeling concert Saturday, Oct. 25, when young pop sensation Michelle Branch took the stage before 1,300 fans. Many of those, of course, were not NIU students.
“It’s the front door to the university,” Kielb said. “To many, many people, that’s their first exposure to NIU, either at orientations or open houses or job fairs or dinners, concerts, banquets or weddings. Sometimes the first and only exposure to Northern is that ballroom.”
Becky Mandolini knew the ballroom better than most.
A 1980 alumna, Mandolini served as president of the Holmes Center Board, which “programmed pretty much everything on campus except for at the field house.” She and her cohorts booked cutting-edge (and then unknown) rock acts such as the Police and the Ramones, and dared to screen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the ballroom.
“It was odd the bunch of us got together for Duke Ellington,” said Mandolini, a speech communications major who went on to work for Jam Productions. “It was not the music we were listening to – the Pretenders, the Psychedelic Furs, Elvis Costello.”
But Mandolini’s college boyfriend, fellow NIU alum Tim Love, had found a gig as a sound technician for a band touring in support of the Police. When the tour reached the Hammersmith Odeon in London, Love saw a bronze plaque commemorating Bing Crosby’s final performance. He told Mandolini, who’d heard rumors about Duke’s final stop.
She began to investigate, and found Ellington’s former agent, who confirmed the story.
“He said it was true. He had walked on stage another place or two but was never able to play another concert. He was too ill,” Mandolini remembered. “He put me in touch with Mercer. Mercer was thrilled. It was not our idea to bring the orchestra. It was Mercer’s. He said, ‘You do that – you dedicate that ballroom to my dad – and I will bring the band out at cost. We’ll come out and put on a show.’ ”
Mandolini approached the Board of Regents, which agreed to name the ballroom.
“I always felt the ballroom was waiting for its name,” she said. “It seemed very appropriate. It is a ballroom, and when you think of Duke Ellington’s music, that’s where you always picture it.”
Now a stay-at-home mom, Mandolini said she finds the events of 1980 “more gratifying” as the years go by, and still feels a rush of pride whenever someone mentions attending a concert or event at the “Duke Ellington Ballroom.”
But her delight could not match Mercer Ellington’s.
“Mercer sent me Christmas cards at my parents’ home every year until he passed away. He was thrilled. He was just really excited about it,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud of it.”
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