On July 27, 2023, I had the pleasure of attending a one-night-only, 90-minute show by The Duke Ellington Orchestra Quintet at the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor, Maine. And what a show! It was everything good and great about live jazz and watching seasoned musicians at home on the stage, with their instruments, and with each other. These guys—Shelley “The Showstopper” Carrol (tenor saxophone, flute, and vocals), Andre “Big Butter” Hayward (trombone), Robert Red (piano), Hassan J.J. Wiggins (bass), David F. Gibson (drums), and Paul Mercer Ellington (bandleader)—were there to have fun and take the audience along for the ride.
The show kicked off with “In a Mellow Tone” and moved through extended versions of “Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me,” “Satin Doll,” Just Lucky I Guess,” “The Queen’s Suite: The Single Petal of a Rose,” “Caravan” (announced as “Juan Tizol’s ‘Caravan’”), and finally “Catch the A Train,” which was more a rambling, rambunctious, medley of melodies and lyrics from numerous other pieces than a straight version of that tune. There was no intermission and very little talk between songs—just the announcement of the next tune to be played, and that was generally drowned out by the applause of the audience, before launching into the next tune.
The group moved effortlessly between ensemble playing and inventive solos that displayed the full range of each artist’s skills and each instrument’s full range of possibilities. I saw playing and heard sounds I didn’t even know were possible from the sax, bass, trombone, and even the drums (at one point, drummer Gibson used the side of his stick to hit the outside edge of a cymbal to produce an interesting note to punctuate an extended solo, a move I’ve never seen before). Hassan Wiggins’s bass playing was also a standout—using every part of the instrument he could reach (at one point physically stretched so far down the strings he was almost bent double) to tease out notes and sounds that I was unaware the instrument could make.
Throughout, the band was relaxed, smiling and laughing at private commentary and jokes, clapping, tapping, snapping their fingers, and even dancing to each other’s solos, (which were crammed full of musical jokes and quotes, only half of which I caught—oh how I wish there was a recording of the show that one could go back and analyze at leisure to try and identify all the references!). They urged each other on during solos and then concluded each solo with congratulatory handshakes and backslaps. These guys were definitely “in the moment,” and enjoying themselves and the music they were playing.
To an audience member, there’s something about seeing those small, quick interpersonal interactions that feels intimate and special, like being allowed to see “behind the curtain.” I felt like Paul Mercer Ellington had invited me to a private, casual hang out in his living room to watch some of his musician friends jam. I’m sure there is a word for the relaxed, fun, just-for-themselves playing on display and also a word for that feeling of intimacy and of being part of the inner circle while watching a performance (as an audience member), but I don’t know what either word is (help me out, TST readers—what are the words I’m looking for?), but this show had both. This was no staid, rehearsed-to-death, “note perfect,” recreation—this was real, raw, living, breathing jazz, and it was amazing.
The group kept the set moving with very little talk between numbers and almost no patter or banter. Nominally, Paul Mercer Ellington was the bandleader / emcee, but he seemed to come reluctantly to the stage when called by the band between numbers. In fact, he almost seemed surprised to be called to the stage (once, shrugging on his jacket as his came hurriedly on stage from the wings) and seemed to want to get off the stage as quickly as possible each time; he’d dash on, encourage the crowd to give the band a round of applause, and then dash off again. Anyone looking for anecdotes about Duke Ellington or note-for-note recreations of Ellington hits would have been disappointed by this show.
The promotional materials for the event categorize the group as a “homage to Duke Ellington, rather than a tribute”—and before this show I couldn’t have explained the difference; after the show I definitely could. I actually ended up preferring the “homage” rather than tribute as it was wonderful to hear Ellington’s music played in fresh, fun, and inventive ways, rather than strictly literally. I was over the moon to learn from the theater’s manager that they hope to have the group back again next year—if you’ll forgive me for saying so, that was music to my ears! (I’ll show myself out).
We purchased balcony seats which gave us a great view of the entire theater (historic, 877-seat, art-deco community theater), and I was disappointed (and, frankly, surprised) to see that it was only about half full. I emailed the theater manager after the show to ask if low ticket sales or the driving rain the night of the show had been the culprit of what I thought to be low turnout. However, the manager (who sent me back a very thoughtful and lovely response) told me that tickets sales for the event had been quite strong (though only about half the seats were sold).
He and I theorized that July is a tough month for local theater events in Bar Harbor because locals like myself tend to avoid the area due to excessive traffic and congestion (and lack of parking) from the high volume of summer tourists, and tourists don’t tend to buy tickets to theater shows (at least, not in Bar Harbor). So, measuring interest in the event not in terms of “packed theater” but in terms of “comparative [to other events] ticket sales,” the show was in high demand—another indicator of the flourishing “jazz oasis” up here in Maine.
Additionally, I was heartened to see that about one third of the audience appeared to be under the age of 40, with a significant number of high-school and college-aged kids. I was aware from an article in the local paper that the band had taught a class to local high schoolers through a partnership between the Houston Jazz Collective (a Texas-based nonprofit that produces events and educational programs designed to showcase the legacy of jazz in Houston, TX) and the Mount Desert Island (Maine) High School and assumed that was the reason for attendance by so many high school students.
But it turned out to be more than that: five of the students (four trumpeters and one drummer) joined the Ellington Quintet on stage for one number near the end of the show. The students played well—a couple of them were standout performers (two of the students had won the 2023 statewide championship in drumming and trumpet respectively)—with Shelley Carrol cueing the students into and out of solos while Andre Hayward offered encouragement and kudos after each student played.
We talk a lot about “saving the music” in trad jazz circles, and I think this partnership between an active working band and student musicians is a brilliant way to do that and certainly changed the demographic (in a positive direction) of the audience for the show. Not only did the student musicians attend, they brought their friends and family as well, hopefully creating some new jazz fans among the younger generations. The student musicians also received invaluable experience, from the top of the field, in navigating ensemble and solo playing. It was wonderful to see, and, as a non-musician, it was another one of those entrancing peeks behind the curtain of how the music gets made.
Overall, it was an enjoyable evening and one I hope we get to repeat again in future. If you get a chance to see the Duke Ellington Orchestra Quintet play, run, don’t walk, to get tickets. The tour schedule listed at www.dukeellington.com is for 2022, SongKick only lists one upcoming tour date for the full orchestra and that is for Tennessee in 2024, TicketSmarter lists only two upcoming dates both in 2024, and copious Googling has not revealed any other place where such information might be listed so it may simply be a matter of serendipity that you find them playing near you.