Jack and the Duke

Ellington Time cover I first started listening to Jazz in 1993. Feels like a lifetime ago. I remember what I started listening to and the artists I chose to begin with. I can tell you that one of the artists I listened to was NOT Duke Ellington. I can’t explain why I didn’t start with Duke. As I grew as a fan and began working in a record store, I continued to stay away from his music, more out of apathy than any truly strong feeling about the man. I respected him as an artist and as a visionary but I never listened to his music. Maybe it was the fact that he didn’t play an instrument, or maybe it was the fact that in my mind I lumped him in with Louis Armstrong. I don’t care for Satchmo, never have, and I think that somehow I categorized Duke as someone akin to Armstrong. The only time I ever had the opportunity to hear something by Ellington came when a customer at the first record store I worked at loaned me her copy (in a Ziploc baggie) of the collaboration between Ellington and Frank Sinatra. I appreciated the loan but never listened to the disc. In fact, years passed without showing any interest in the music of Mr. Edwards Kennedy Ellington.

I can pinpoint the exact moment I began to try and check out Ellington’s music. It was the 27th of April 2007. Why then? One very simple reason. My son was born on April 29th and I was sifting through Pip Wilson’s Unusual Almanac for facts and figures about the date he was to be induced. We scheduled his delivery 18 days past the due date on April 28th, the birthday of Saddam Hussein, among others. To be safe, I took a look into the following day and found that Duke Ellington was born on the 29th of April. Ok, cool. I noted this coincidence but didn’t think anything of it because he was being induced on the 28th. In my mind that meant he was gonna be born on the 28th; I mean, what could go wrong?

10 pounds, 7 ounces and 36 hours later Jackson Thomas Vincent was delivered into the world on April 29th at 5:09pm. People who use the term “life-changing event” are usually full of shit. Becoming a father turned out to be the life-changing event. In more ways than one, as it turned out. That ongoing experience is not for this site, however, as many of the details would be boring. I’ll focus on the musical life-changing event that this birth led to: my appreciation and love of Duke Ellington.

Let me return to the fact that I had been aware of Ellington’s reputation for many years. My record store years unquestionably featured some of his music. In fact, I remember my original record store manager Randy playing me Ellington’s arrangement of the Nutcracker Suite as well as his place among the mammoth Ella Fitzgerald Songbook boxed set. Randy was a great inspiration to a young mind in the sense that his tastes were open and very different from mine at the time, but when he would introduce something new, it was usually fantastic stuff. I learned a lot from him.

The closest thing to an Ellington disc I owned was the first LP of Miles Davis’s epic 1974 LP Get Up With It (a fantastic disc, well worth finding and buying). The first song on the LP is a whole side’s worth of music entitled “He Loved Him Madly.” Davis recorded the piece in tribute to Ellington a month after Ellington has passed away. It is a beautiful slow dirge that commands your attention. So other than that track, I had no Ellington in my collection until 2007. I never even played any Ellington during my two-year tenure at WNMC! I steered way clear of the Duke and all his musical triumphs.

Then Jack was born. And that changed.

I drove to Borders on the 30th of April, Monday. This was back when Borders in Traverse City still had a pretty wide and decent Jazz selection. I bought three Ellington CDs on Sony: Masterpieces by Ellington, Piano in the Background, and Piano in the Foreground. At the time I was hosting the Wednesday Afternoon Jazz show on WNMC and I planned on playing a few Ellington songs to celebrate Jack’s birth and to pay tribute to Duke as well. Initially, I tried to get someone to cover my show that Wednesday, since we were taking both my wife and son home from the hospital after a long stay. With nobody able to cover, I nervously drove my new family home, driving an unheard-of 10 miles an hour to feel even a little bit safe and in control. We got home; I left my wife and son with my Mom and walked over to West Hall on the Campus of WNMC in Traverse City.

Entering the studio, a place that I felt was my truest, calmest happy place for many of my years on air, I immediately went into the archives and found as many Duke Ellington CDs I could carry. See, at WNMC sure we had a rotation of different genres as well as station IDs, PSAs, and assorted other informational snippets. But apart from the rotations, the DJs were pretty free to play anything within the basic framework of the show they were hosting. When you first start at a station, your natural tendency is to bring in nothing but your own music, getting the urge to finally deliver music that you know people should be listening to but aren’t. This personal radio station idea slowly goes away as you grow more comfortable on the air and with the rotations. I love Hammond Organ and I tended to feature more of that instrument than any other as time wore on. But as you grow as a DJ and your confidence grows, you don’t feel like you need the support blanket of 90% of your own CDs to make the show you host a success.

I felt like I had gotten into a pretty solid groove of picking tunes from the rotation, archives, and my bedroom by the time I walked into the studio on May 2nd, 2007. I started the show with the most recognizable Ellington song to me then, “Mood Indigo,” a very long version from the Masterpieces by Ellington CD I had picked up two days earlier. I recorded that show and at twenty-three minutes into the show I read the first PSA and began talking about my weekend. Listening back to the show now, I find myself chuckling. Out of the four years I was on the air, this period was probably when I was on my game the best. Witty, wacky, brimming with knowledge of the music. I’m not bragging; I’m just calling it how I see it. Not only that but in listening to these shows I keep making the same jokes! Funny how your mind works. I did not play 100% Duke Ellington music that day. But I have every year since on Jack’s birthday.

At two months I began to bring Jack to the studio in his stroller as my unofficial co-host (some would say the voice of reason). I would continue to do so until he was six months old. These were some of the fondest Wednesdays of my life and I am still so very grateful for Eric at WNMC for allowing me the freedom to do this. This cat could have said, “No babies.” And that would have ended my time at the station. But he didn’t and I’m glad he didn’t.

Today, April 29th, 2011, marks my son’s fourth birthday. Duke Ellington would have been 112. I will be celebrating in many fashions but the one that is the nearest and dearest to my heart is the one I will be hosting (via the magic of pre-recording) live on the air at WNMC 90.7FM in Traverse City. This will be the fifth of these shows and I really put the time and effort into this year’s show, finding and working on the playlist ahead of time in order to play music from Duke Ellington I have never played before and, in many cases, never heard before. I’ve tried to find interview clips in the past and an audio recording of Ntozake Shange’s book Ellington Was Not A Street to play during the show, something to make the show stand out and be more than just three hours of one artist. I think I succeed every year just by being different from everything else. And to me, that is more important than anything.

I never expected that I would become a father. It was in my mind, sure. But I really never envisioned it until it happened. I could have done without the 50 pounds of sympathy weight I gained during the winter of 2006/spring of 2007. But what was the end result? My boy, my beautiful, beautiful son. My life changed when he was born. I changed, for the better, when he was born. It would seem that all of life was leading up to that moment when you hold your firstborn child in your arms and stumble for the words to say through the tears and the fears.

I hope to continue producing these shows for as long as I can muster, or as long as the radio station will allow it. I have been lucky that the other volunteers on the station allow me their shows when I ask to do this. It genuinely means a lot to me.

Tune in today, starting at 11am at www.wnmc.org, to hear my tribute to my son and to Duke Ellington. Click on the Listen link and if you like what you hear, please leave a comment on this post. I love feedback; it is how we grow. I would love to hear your thoughts on the program.

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  1. […] What do Mike Vincent’s son and Duke Ellington have in common? To celebrate Jack Vincent’s birthday, read about how his father discovered Duke Ellington and how music can shape our memories in Jack and Duke. […]

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