On a slim-issue Saturday in the winter of early 1969, the News-Sentinel's society page was on page 3. The headline, at top, was Men's Cotillion Dance Honors New Members. It might catch your attention today; there were six photographs of 20-odd wealthy-looking young white people posing at Cherokee Country Club. At the top left is a group picture that depicts an attractive blonde with her date, a bright-looking kid with large, black, horn-rim glasses. He's identified in the caption as one Victor Ashe.
The mayor remembers it today. "It was a rip-roaring evening," he says. "One of the best parties they'd had. There was a lot of dancing. The party lasted well into the morning."
At the bottom of the society page is one dark-complected person, an elderly musician in white tie leaning forward and smiling as a young white woman with an large and elaborate hairdo tries to play piano in her white elbow-length gloves. Another young man is standing to the side, laughing. "Ruthie Hubbell plays for the well-attuned ear of Duke Ellington, while Bill Ambrose looks on," reads the caption, which goes on as if to explain the presence of this Negro on the society page: "Ellington and his band provided the music for the dance."
The name Ellington was all over the News-Sentinel headlines that week. None of these referred to Duke Ellington. They were about Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington. Beyond that society-page caption, there's no description of Ellington's performance. The News-Sentinel was careful to honor its longstanding tradition of avoiding subjects of interest.
Any review would have been quotable. Though Ellington's main composing collaborator, arranger Billy Strahorn, had died several months earlier, most of the band was still together, and some of his soloists were famous in their own rights, with solo careers and LPs of their own. Chief among them was Johnny Hodges, one of the most influential saxophonists of all time. Harry Carney, who also had a major solo career, played baritone sax, and had also been with Ellington since Cotton Club days. Paul Gonsalves, on tenor sax, had played with Basie and Gillespie before he stole the show at the Newport Jazz Festival in '56. Trumpeter Cat Anderson had been with Ellington for years and was there that night. Those wouldn't be together for much longer.
It might seem surprising that Ellington would bring his famous orchestra to play for a small all-white golf and social club in West Knoxville in 1969. They were international stars, legends of jazz, and had dozens of popular recordings in every record store in America. Ellington could have retired, but he always said, "Retire to what?" Ellington toured to keep his band together, and he was used to the monochromatic pallor of many of his audiences. He'd gained fame playing at the all-white Cotton Club in New York. He'd made a good living playing for whites-only crowds for 50 years.
Fortunately for everybody else, Ellington scheduled back-to-back general-audience shows at the Senators Club on Alcoa Highway. Longtime Knoxville Journal reporter Pat Fields caught up with Ellington at the Andrew Johnson Hotel, where he was staying.
We generally remember the Journal as the more conservative of Knoxville's two conservative newspapers. In the Journal, antiwar demonstrators were routinely headlined as "Weirdos." Somehow, though, the Journal had more room than the News-Sentinel did for an old jazzman. They didn't cover the Cotillion, but on an inside page the day after, they featured a short interview with Ellington.
Observing that the composer and bandleader was "relaxed, but still jaunty; tired, but vitally alert," Fields called Ellington a "complex genius."
A bellhop shyly suggested that Fields ask Ellington if he remembered playing on Market Square around 1929. The old brick Market House had an upstairs auditorium, which could hold a couple hundred. Ellington replied that he did indeed remember it. "But surely it wasn't that long ago," he said. "About 1934, I think." (It wasn't Ellington's only Knoxville show before that; he played at least once at the nightclub Gordon's Townhouse on Cumberland Avenue, in the '50s.)
Apparently struggling for questions to ask a legend, Fields asked Ellington what he thought of Beethoven. "Standard, good music," Ellington replied, almost charitably. He was famously indifferent to classical music, frustrating some who wanted to consider him an orchestral composer in that tradition. "That means it's agreeable to the ear. No music is good if it isn't agreeable to the ear." (It was another version of his famous quote, "If it sounds good, it is good.")
He spoke a little of the experimental directions his music was taking. "Selfishness," he said. "But selfishness is a virtue. Necessary for survival, and you have to survive to protect those you love better than yourself. Does that make sense?"
And he talked about a new long piece, a complicated suite called "Freedom," in which he delineates his own four freedoms, which were a little different from FDR's: Freedom from hate, Freedom from self-pity, Freedom from fear, and "Freedom from pride that makes me feel myself better than my brother."
Illustrating the profile was a photo of Ellington, casually dressed and seated with Carlton Scruggs, sometime restaurant-equipment dealer and president of the Senators Club.
The Senators Club on Alcoa Highway advertised "Open To Everyone." Tickets were $10 for the dinner show, $6 for the 11 p.m. show: pricey for 1969, when WIVK's country-music jamborees featuring Dolly Parton and a dozen other demi-stars, were generally two or three bucks a ticket.
The legend I've heard for years is that the turnout was dismal, that nobody came to hear Duke Ellington at the Senator's Club, that it was a sad embarrassment to Knoxville. The Journal report tells a different story, however, claiming that Ellington drew crowds for the two shows "such as that entertainment emporium has seldom seen." The Journal reported that all seats were full at both shows, and that the dinner crowd in the club's Congressional Room had to be deliberately cleared at 10:30 to make way for the 11:00 show.
The Journal limned the performance, reported that Ellington played all his standards, including "Sophisticated Lady" and "Satin Doll." Fields and fellow Journal reporter Fred Barger were there.
Singing with the band was a young singer named Trish Turner, who had just married bassist Jeff Castleman. She sang a weather report of jazz standards: "Stormy Monday," "Sunny" and "Misty." Some thought she sounded just like Ella Fitzgerald.
Though Hodges, Carney, Gonsalves, and Anderson were highlights, Ellington on the piano was the star. During intermission, the often standoffish Hodges sat and spoke with the fans who crowded around him. He was apparently interested to be in this region. His mother was Cherokee, he said, and he'd promised to donate one of his saxophones to a school in Cherokee, N.C.
Two months later, Ellington, who had recently provided the entertainment at a Knoxville cotillion, celebrated his 70th birthday at the Nixon White House, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. Later that year, when Ellington visited Paris, Le Figaro devoted an entire issue to him.
About a year later, Johnny Hodges died suddenly. Soon afterward, Anderson quit the band. Ellington kept the remainder of the band together, but they say it was never as good. Within five years after the Knoxville shows, Gonsalvez, Carney, and Ellington himself were dead. If you missed it, as I did, you just missed it.
The Senators Club closed in the '70s. The address, which arguably has a place in Knoxville's jazz history, now belongs to a health club called CourtSouth.