April 29 is the 115th anniversary of Edward Kennedy â€œDukeâ€ Ellingtonâ€™s birth date, and what better way to celebrate this musical genius than with a tribute and by honoring another â€œpiano powerhouse,â€ Willie Pickens. On Motherâ€™s Day, May 11, 2014, Jazz Unites Inc. will celebrate Ellingtonâ€™s birth date and the 40th anniversary of the first Duke Ellington tribute in Grant Park.
Pickens was among the many black musicians, business and community leaders who joined jazz vocalist and arts producer, Geraldine de Haas, in her quest to hold a tribute to Ellington following his death in 1974. The tributeâ€™s success, which attracted both black and white jazz lovers, is how Jazz Unites got its name.
â€œIt seems weâ€™ve come full circle. Jazz Unites started out with the tribute to Duke Ellington,â€ reminisces the 83-year-old Pickens. We fought hard to get that into Grant Park, but now weâ€™re doing the 40th. Jazz Unites is still thriving and thatâ€™s beautiful.â€
For five years, the tribute was held in Grant Parkâ€”making it Chicagoâ€™s first music festival. Over the years, it has featured such performers as Joe Williams, Carmen McRae, Andy Bey, Ellis Marsalis, Chicagoâ€™s Orbert Davis and Pickens.
Last year, Pickens spearheaded pulling the jazz community together againâ€”this time for a musical farewell to Geraldine and her husband, bassist Eddie de Haas, at the Jazz Showcase. It was standing room only. Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich called the event one of the â€œBest Jazz Shows of 2013.â€
Although, Pickens has many awards, Jazz Unites is honoring him for being someone the organization could count on at every stage of its journey.
“Sometimes you feel you’re not worthy to be singled out for recognition so many times.Â It’s humbling to me.Â I am so honored to be asked to be a part of this tribute,” says Pickens.
On Ellingtonâ€™s actual birth date local vocalist Greta Pope, who is performing with The Duke Ellington Orchestra while at the Harris Theater, will discuss the ongoing influence of Ellingtonâ€™s music on â€œThe Morning Shiftâ€ WBEZ 91.5 FM at 9:30 a.m. Pope is the daughter-in-law of â€œKay Davis,â€ who sang with Ellington from 1944 to 1950. Davis, whose real name was Kathryn Wimp, died in 2012. She was known for her wordless vocalizationâ€”offering Ellington another instrument to use for his creative palette. Pope regularly performs her own tribute to Ellington in memory of her late mother-in-law.
For ticket information, visit the website at www.jazzuniteschicago.org or call 312-948-9951.