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Duke Ellington's Music Strikes A Chord For Black History Month In Greenwich

Duke Ellington was a giant of American music and he will be celebrated in a concert of his music at Greenwich Library on Saturday as part of Black History Month. Photo Credit: Contributed
Bennie Wallace of Greenwich will lead a band in playing Duke Ellington's music at Greenwich Library on Saturday. The performance is part of Black History Month. Photo Credit: Contributed
Billy Drummond Photo Credit: Contributed
Bobby Broom Photo Credit: Contributed
Donald Vega Photo Credit: Contributed
George Mraz Photo Credit: Contributed
Luisito Quintero Photo Credit: Contributed

GREENWICH, Conn. -- The compositions of one of the giants of American music will be performed at an event to celebrate Black History Month on Saturday at the Greenwich Library that is sure to be standing room only.

BackCountry Jazz will perform the music of Duke Ellington in a concert followed by panel discussion on his music and contribution to American life. The doors open at 3 p.m., and the concert begins at 3:30 p.m. The weekend kicks off with a Friends Friday Film screening of "Paris Blues" on Friday at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:40 p.m.

The group is directed by 20-year Greenwich resident and tenor saxophone master Bennie Wallace. He has performed the past two years in Black History Month musical events at the library that have been a big success.

"The fire marshal was turning people away so I guess you could say it went well," Wallace said with a laugh.

Ellington, who died in 1974 at the age of 75, was an innovator, Wallace said, who had a profound influence on American music.

"He was a catalyst for a lot of innovations and what has happened in music," he said. "A lot of European harmonic influence came into jazz through him."

Ellington was also unique in how he chose his musicians.

"He hired individuals. Ellington said he wanted them to be No. 1 of themselves and not No. 2 of someone else," Wallace said. That insistence on individuality and respect for their talent could be seen in the music Ellington's band performed, he said.

"His band wouldn't play the same thing every night. They were always changing it around," Wallace said. "They got bored doing the same thing every night."

That was a difference between Ellington and another famous Big Band leader, Benny Goodman, who always hired the best technical musicians, he said. But if the musicians left the band, they would be replaced by someone else just as talented but who played exactly the same as his predecessor.

In Ellington's band, if a musician left, the music wouldn't sound the same because of Ellington's desire to hire musicians who brought their own interpretation to the music, Wallace said.

Joining Wallace will be a singular collection of talent. The group will feature pianist Donald Vega, guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist George Mraz, percussionist Luisito Quintero and drummer Billy Drummond. They have all played in top bands including Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson and Carlos Santana, among others.

Wallace is a tenor saxophonist, composer and recording artist for more than three decades. Additionally he has released over 20 jazz recordings and is the composer for the Oscar-nominated films "Little Surprises" and "Redux Riding Hood." Composer credits include "Bull Durham," Paul Newman's "Blaze," and "White Men Can't Jump," among others.

Vocalist Charenee Wade will also perform on a couple of songs, Wallace said. She performed at the last two events.

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