New York City

Duke Ellington Circle
Here I find myself in New York City. The occasion was the Lindy Hop event, if not to end them all, was certainly unmissable for me. Frankie95 – intended to be a big birthday party with Frankie Manning as THE guest of honour. Frankie sadly left us for the great ballroom in the sky just weeks before the event, subsequently rendering a massive celebration of his life. 3,500 dancers came from all over the world to Manhattan. One day I decided to walk from Manhattan north to Harlem. As I passed the northeast corner of Central Park’s vicinity, I came upon this dedication to Duke Ellington.

Duke Ellington statue
Dedicated on July 1, 1997, the Duke Ellington Memorial was commissioned by the Duke Ellington Memorial Fund as a gift to the City of New York. The Memorial is a pulpit-like form that stands 30 feet, on three tall columns. At the top of each column stand three female figures that represent the muses. With their arms raised, the nine muses hold aloft a circular platform, bearing an 8-foot high standing figure of Duke Ellington beside a piano. The figure of Duke Ellington was molded in clay at 32 inches in height. The muse figure was molded in clay at 26 inches in height. The figures were scanned and enlarged in foam to 8 feet and 5 feet respectively. The figures were cast in bronze. The piano, platform, and the columns were fabricated from bronze sheets and all the elements were welded and patinaed. The interior of the dome platform was gilded in gold. With the exception of casting the figures, which were done at Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, all work on this project was completed at Robert Graham Studio in Venice, California. Duke Ellington Memorial is installed at Duke Ellington Circle (Fifth Avenue at 110th Street) in Central Park, New York City.

Duke Ellington statue plaque
This is the plaque at the base of the statue.

Duke Ellington statue
The statue viewed from the northwest of it, showing the grand piano in better view.

Louis Armstrong resting place
As the trip drew to a close, I took time out to visit the Queens neighbourhood, and Flushing Cemetery. Just before the entry gates, there’s a florist, which I entered to see if they had any specific information on the location of the final resting place of Louis Armstrong. How’s my luck? Just behind me waiting to be attended was a more local Jazz trumpet player who kindly offered to DRIVE me through the gates and drop me off right at the hallowed location!

Lucille Armstong plate
Here is the plate for his wife of 30 years, who bought their final house in Corona while Louis was away touring. He trusted his wife to make a good choice though, and he was happy enough to never move again. Today we are lucky enough to be able to visit the house, as it has been preserved as the Louis Armstrong House Museum. More details :

Louis Armstong plate
Here is the plate for Louis Armstrong. There’s something about that birthdate, I can’t quite put my finger on. Modern wisdom agrees more that his birth-year was 1901, in fact. However, yet more head-scratching recently came to light upon further examination of social security applications, baptismal birth certificates and various manner of documents from that time almost all with contradictory birthdates gives. So do as I do, give thanks on any day you choose, even if it is EVERY day, for the gift we were given when Louis Armstrong was put on this earth, in the 1900s’ equivalent of a manger in a barn, with sporadically attentive parents, and an unbending desire to spread joy to the people, wherever, whenever, whatever.

Louis Armstong trumpet
The trumpet originally placed on top of the headstone was stolen, so this lies now as a symbolic link to the eternal light that Louis Armstrong continues to shine on the world.

Johnny Hodges
Also in Flushing Cemetery is the final resting place of Johnny Hodges. A beautiful man with a beautiful tone. Duke Ellington never had quite the same sound or reliability without him.

It’s here I’d like to use a segment of liner notes written by Stanley Dance on the back of a later LP I have called ‘Blue Pyramid’, by Johnny Hodges and Wild Bill Davis on Verve. Dance writes “His (Hodges’) latest victory was in the 1966 International Critics’ Poll conducted by Down Beat, where he triumphed again over the competition by a substantial margin.

Since it is the critics’ business to recognize talent, their choice was not at all surprising in this instance, but the public voices a similar preference wherever Johnny appears with the Duke Ellington orchestra. There he is surrounded by other great soloists, but none of them ever seem to communicate quite so quickly or surely as he does. He approaches the microphone gravely, without visible signs of emotion, as though to discharge a solemn duty. Then he begins to ‘sing’ (that, of course, is what he does on his alto saxophone) with such grace and lyricism and warmth and rhythmic assurance that the audience is captivated immediately. He sings romantic songs, dreamy songs, happy songs, soulful songs, sorrowful songs and blues songs. Because he does this so effectively is perhaps why the Ellington orchestra has been able to operate without a vocalist for a long period.”

This a wonderful appraisal. Yes, Johnny Hodges SINGS. So beautifully put.
Tony Bennett also said Hodges was “the best singer in the world”.

Johnny Hodges plate
The plate near his grave, with beautiful artwork and engraving.

Here is a tune written by Duke Ellington in which Johnny Hodges is heavily featured. It comes from 1940 and is titled ‘Warm Valley’. In his autobiography, Ellington wrote that the tune came directly from the experience of driving east down the Old Columbia River Highway from Portland (long before the freeway I-84 was built remember) and looking across admiringly at the sensuous, languorous contours of the landscape across the river in Washington :
Johnny Hodges bench
There’s even a lovely stone bench with ‘HODGES’ engraved along the side to sit and reflect by his graveside.

Savoy monument
Onto Harlem! The story of the Savoy ballroom on a monument at the original location on Lenox Avenue where it once stood. The monument was jointly unveiled in 2002 by Frankie Manning and Norma Miller.

Big Apple Jazz
This is the Big Apple Jazz Cafe and Tours store on Adam Clayton Blvd in Harlem. This historic block was famous during the Jazz Age when 7th Ave and 131st Street was known simply as “The Corner.” Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Florence Mills and Eubie Blake could be found entertaining audiences from around the world across the street from us at the Lafayette Theatre, Connie’s Inn and the Hoofers Club. Musicians and actors made special daily pilgrimages to “The Corner,” to rub the legendary “Tree of Hope,” (a vestige of which remains to this day a good luck charm on the stage of the Apollo Theatre). A contemporary sculpture by Algernon Miller now stands in its place to commemorate the era.

Apollo Theatre
And here is the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, just a block or two away at 253 West 125th Street. Here are some significant early events in the Theatre’s history :

1. On January 26, 1934, the 125th Street Apollo Theater opens with the show “Jazz a la Carte” headlined by Benny Carter and his Orchestra, Ralph Cooper and Aida Ward.
2. The Apollo becomes the premiere showplace for live, theatrical entertainment in Harlem. Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, Jackie “Moms” Mabley and Dusty Fletcher are among the comedians who appear regularly on stage.
3. Tap Dancers like the Nicholas Brothers, Berry Brothers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Buck and Bubbles are the top dance acts.
4. Amateur Night winners include Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey
5. By 1937 the Apollo is the largest employer of black theatrical workers in the country, according to Frank Schiffman, and the only theatre in NYC to hire blacks in backstage positions.
6. In 1935, Bessie Smith’s four weeks at the Apollo are her sole live performances that year, while Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and the Count Basie Orchestra are among those to make their debut.