Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Thirty-Six
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed April 9, 1998

Dolores Parker Morgan proudly displays in the living room of her home in Fairlawn, Ohio, an etched crystal bearing the distinctive profile of her former boss, Duke Ellington.
It was presented to her in 1993 when the Smithsonian Museum of American History honored the five surviving female vocalists of the Ellington Orchestra. As Dolores Parker, she began singing with the Ellington band in 1947.

A native of Chicago, Dolores Parker had won a 1939 amateur contest at Chicago’s Regal Theatre.

"I started right out of high school," she recalls, "having worked with local bands in Chicago and should have gone on to Howard University. I was scheduled to go, but I received an offer to join Fletcher Henderson as a member of a trio called ‘The Rhythm Debs.’ And, much to my mother’s disappointment, I joined Fletcher Henderson. And much to all of my friends’ shock that I would go on the road with `a bunch of musicians!"

In 1942, it was the last edition of Fletcher Henderson’s band that over the previous 20 years had included such jazz giants as Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Cleveland’s Emmett Berry, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. But Dee’s family and friends were not impressed.

"They thought it was road to degregation;" she says. "I would just never be the same person again. And so, to their enormous disappointment, nothing happened. It was just another job for everybody. And it was wonderful!"

Dolores Parker toured and sang with the Henderson band until 1945 when she and her then-husband, trumpeter Vernon Smith, joined the Earl Hines Orchestra. When they had a daughter, they decided to get off the road and moved to Los Angeles.

"And I was going to just sing in LA or be a housewife or something, and Vernon came home one day and said, `I hear that Duke Ellington is looking for a singer.’ I said, `Yeah, so?’ He said, `Why don’t you go try out?’ I said, `I don’t want to try out, I’m not interested.’ He said, `Look, you really ought not turn down an opportunity to at least audition.’

"So I did go and I auditioned with Billy Stayhorn at the piano, singing his famous `Lush Life,’ which I did not know. He gave me the music and said, `Sing "Lush Life!"’ I said, `I don’t know "Lush Life!"’ He said, `You can read the music, sing it!’

"And then, he had be sing it for Ellington on the phone. This is the honest-to-God truth! He said, ‘Now that you’ve sung it, I want you to sing it for Ellington on the phone. And I said, `What??’

"So he got him on the phone. I sang it to Ellington and thought I did terribly because I did not know the song. Somehow, I was hired on the spot. He came back after talking with Ellington on the phone, after I finished the song, and said, `Well, you’re hired! How soon can you join us?’ I said to myself, `That’s not really what I wanted to do, but, yes, I’ll go.’ And that’s the way I joined the band."

Since that day in 1947, Dolores Parker has never sung "Lush Life" again. But, she became a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra that, at the time, included such jazz legends as Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton, Al Sears, Harry Carney, Freddy Guy, Oscar Pettiford, Sonny Geer and Cleveland native Francis Williams.

She recalls, "They were tremendous musicians who did not take themselves, as individuals, seriously. But, they took their music very seriously and they knew they had always better be in top form or the boss would let them know about it. I mean, everything was lighthearted and fun and it looked like it was all going so smoothly and easily. But Ellington had his ear out for anybody who wasn’t up to par."

Among her recordings with Ellington was a song called "Take Love Easy." The 1947 recording began with alto saxophonist Hodges, one of the all-time greats, playing a classic singing solo. Critic Stanley Dance wrote, "The way Johnny Hodges `sings’ the first chorus would make it hard for any vocalist to follow, but Dolores Parker does it very well. Her diction, articulation and smooth vocal quality all recall a period when soft, seductive voices were esteemed in ladies more than the harsh, abrasive kind."

Dolores Parker toured the country with the Ellington Orchestra, singing with the band at ballrooms and theatres, sometimes doing half-a-dozens shows a day, and sometimes facing very demanding audiences.

The late 1940s was not the greatest period for the Ellington Orchestra. Musicians’ salaries, traveling expenses, a recording ban, and the growing popularity of popular singers were beginning to take their tolls on the once-invincible big bands. Ellington, approaching the age of 50, began working on other projects including an ill-fated Broadway show and a new medium called television. But, Dolores Parker Morgan says he worked hard at maintaining the classic Ellington sound.

"In a way," she says, "he could be a perfectionist. Even if musicians were being replaced for maybe an illness or something, with some new guy, maybe he’d want to change some of the notes. Whoever was sitting next to him would say, `Look, don’t do it! You play it as you see it because that’s the way it is to sound.’"

After touring with Ellington, Dolores Parker made several appearances in films and toured the nation and Europe before marrying Gates Morgan, a physician who became the medical director of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron. In 1985, she provided an endowment for the Kent State University School of Music and in 1989, was the recipient of an award for her contributions to the arts. But, unlike Ellington’s other singers, she continued performing into the 1990s and fondly recalling her years with the giant of American music.

Dolores Parker Morgan is one of the few surviving members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Running up the staircase of her attractive home in Fairlawn, just outside of Akron, is a series of photographs of her with Duke Ellington and the legendary members of the Ellington Orchestra. And nearby, on a table in the living room, is that etched crystal, bearing the profile of her former boss, presented to her by the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

Copyright 1998 Joe Mosbrook

You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).