Tommy James Leads Duke Ellington Orchestra for Mother’s Day Performance

Of course, you have to be a great musician to play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  That’s a given; but you also have to be invited.  Duke’s son, Mercer Ellington, invited conductor Tommy James to join the orchestra in 1987 as a pianist.

Chicagoland jazz lovers will get to hear James and the 16-piece Duke Ellington Orchestra perform on Mother’s Day—Sunday, May 11, 2014 at 4 p.m– at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr.  The orchestra is performing for Jazz Unites’ 40th Anniversary Duke Ellington Tribute.

A native of Mt. Pleasant, N.Y., James is not from a musical family.  He learned to play the piano by ear at a neighbor’s house.  He became so good, that after high school, James was accepted at the Manhattan School of Music where he majored in music composition.

James has performed or recorded with such jazz notables as Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Roy Ayers and Lionel Hampton, as well as singers Patti LaBelle, Roberta Flack and Teddy Pendergrast.  He also served as musical director for vocalists Marlena Shaw, Maureen McGovern and Nell Carter.  For the Duke Ellington Orchestra, James recorded “Third Generation” and “Only God Can Make A Tree,” with Mercer Ellington.

Mercer’s youngest son, Paul Mercer Ellington, passed on the conductor’s baton to James in 2010.  Paul took over as orchestra leader following his father’s death in 1998.  Paul and James co-wrote the “Many Sides of Ellington,” which is a part of the orchestra’s vast repertoire.

For three generations the Duke Ellington Orchestra has not missed a beat.  James says it is gratifying to see a new generation of music lovers discovering Ellington.

“Ellington said there are two kinds of music — the good kind and the other kind,” shares James.

For ticket information, visit or call the box office Monday – Friday from 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. at 312-334-7777.