The Rutgers University Jazz Ensemble/Big Band is swinging to the sound of Duke Ellington at a concert April 29. Those who want to celebrate the iconic musician before then can start this weekend with events at First Friday and First Saturday, and continue with movies and more through the month.

When he was 10, Steinway pianist Stanley Cowell of Camden saw Duke Ellington at a movie theater converted for concert space. It was around 1950, and the impressionable Stanley, who had already been studying piano since he was 3 or 4, was amazed to hear that kind of music.
He wasn’t the only one.

Ellington is generally acknowledged as a musical national treasure for his band leading and composing. As one of the most influential figures in jazz, it’s a given that his birthday, April 29, should be cause for celebration. Dover is commemorating the music great with a month of events, culminating in a concert by the Rutgers University Jazz Ensemble/Big Band on April 29.

Stanley will be featured in a solo number and play at least one other number with the big band at the concert. Stanley is chair of jazz studies at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. He said that with music students, even the non-music majors and students just starting out know Ellington as part of general music history. By the time Stanley gets the advanced students, they are deeply in tune with Ellington.

“His repertoire is very important,” he said. “It’s sort of like Bach to classical musicians. If you don’t play Bach you’re missing a very important part of musical history.”

Even Stanley is still discovering new pieces written by Ellington, so as a musician, it’s nearly impossible to have not played some Ellington.

Local students from Dover High School will get a chance to play Ellington’s work in front of a paying audience when they take the stage with the Rutgers group to play a number at the April 29 show. The Dover High Jazz Band of approximately 20 students will have the opportunity to take a master class during the day of the show.

Dover High Band Director Lenny Knight said the experience is a bright spot for his up-and-coming musicians.

“Rutgers is one of the great universities of the country, and at the same time I know that they have a terrific jazz band,” he said. “So to get the exposure to a college level jazz band is very exciting.”

Sylvia Cowell, organizer of the Ellington festivities, said the group is particularly excited to involve local students, and about Dover Mayor Carleton E. Carey Sr.’s proclamation of April as Duke Ellington month.

As such, events will stretch throughout April, starting with a First Friday, April 2, arts project at the Biggs Museum of American Art. The next day guests at First Saturday events can head to the Johnson Victrola Museum for “Syncopated Rhythm” where visitors will hear the music that inspired Ellington.

Stanley said it’s still important to remember and celebrate Ellington and his unique contributions. Having traveled around the world as a performer and composer, Stanley noticed that other cultures have a more profound appreciation for some American music than Americans themselves do, which is something he’d like to change.

“I think we have to continue to salute and remember the music that made America what it was,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t see it as people in Japan and people in Europe and people in South America do. They have much more of a sense of appreciation of history of music of North America that certainly Ellington epitomizes.”

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