Duke Ellington, a recognized genius in jazz music, wasn't so successful in familial relationships. A stand-offish man, he remained somewhat aloof from close relatives - for that matter, from just about everyone.
"He really kept everyone at a certain distance," said his granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington.The reason: Duke Ellington's whole life revolved around music - there just wasn't room for much of anything else.
But when it came to the music, ah, that was a different story entirely. While his own granddaughter never got to know him well before he died in 1974, he was always extremely close to his longtime collaborator, Billy Strayhorn.
"The intimacy he had with people involved the music," Mercedes Ellington said.
While her father, Merced, got to know his father through the music - he was a long-time conductor of the Duke Ellington Orchestra - Mercedes grew up never really knowing her grandfather. She carved out her own path, studying music and dance, and becoming a well-regarded dancer, choreographer and Broadway performer in her own right.
But a few years ago Ellington did a musical/dance production called "Sophisticated Ladies" in New York City, which featured the music of her grandfather. Merced was intimately involved with it, and the constant exposure to the music and spirit of her grandfather did something to Ellington.
After so many years, and long after Duke's death, Ellington finally got to know him the only way possible - through his music. She realized that as the daughter of Duke's only child, she had inherited a grand musical legacy.
"At that time I got to know Duke Ellington better than I ever had before," she said. "I became aware that the Ellington name was a responsibility, almost."
The experience changed the focus of her life. In 1995, along with Ty Johnson, she put together a dance and orchestral show celebrating her grandfather's music. She called it "Sophisticated Ellington: Symphony & Swing."
Salt Lake residents will get to see that show next weekend - Ellington will join with the Utah Symphony in Abravanel Hall. The symphony will provide the instrumental music and Ellington, four dancers and two singers will do the rest.
"Come expecting a little bit of history about my grandfather - his music, the times he was living in," she said. "I narrate and tell stories and trip across the stage a couple of times."
The four dancers do most of the heavy lifting as far as the physical movement is concerned. "I saw them working so hard I wanted to do something - so I change clothes a lot," Ellington said with a laugh.
She conceded that with a stage full of musicians there won't be a whole lot of room in front for elaborate dance routines. The orchestra will be pushed back somewhat to create some space.
"We try not to get so close that the cellists have a heart attack," she said.
The program will include such Ellington staples as "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Satin Doll," "Take the `A' Train" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." Mercedes commissioned symphonic arrangements of the numbers for the program.
The concerts are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Abravanel Hall. Tickets are $17 to $34, and can be purchased at the box office, 123 W. South Temple, or by calling 533-NOTE.