Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 4 - Joining the Ellington Orchestra
Story filed June 6, 1996

It was the call he had been dreaming of for years. Kenny Davis, who had grown up at East 79th and Melrose in Cleveland, first learned to read music at Addison Junior High School and first played with big jazz bands when he was a student at East High School, was at home when he got that call.

"The phone range and it was Mercer Ellington calling from Pittsburgh," says Davis. "He said, `I called the musicians’ union and told them I need somebody that can sight read and can solo. Okay, so meet me in Warren at the Carousel Theatre.’"

"He said, `Wear black pants and a white shirt. We’ll have a tuxedo coat for you and I just want you to play one night because our trumpet player’s not here. He’s not going to make it."

Davis asked, "Is there going to be a rehearsal?" "No rehearsal," said Ellington. Sight read everything. Also," added the son of the legendary Duke Ellington, "When you come in, don’t shake hands with anybody. Act like you’ve been here before. We don’t want the people to think it’s a brand new guy coming into the band."

Kenny Davis’ parents had danced to the music of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1940s. Kenny had always dreamed of some day playing with what many considered the greatest jazz band of all time. Even though Duke had been dead for six years and his son, Mercer, was leading the band, it was still "The Duke Ellington Orchestra." Kenny jumped at the chance and drove to Warren with his trumpet.

After that gig, Ellington asked him if he could play with the band the next night in Lorain. After that, recalls Davis, "He said, `Can you go to Canton?’ And, eventually, he said, `Would you like to join the band?’ I said, `Sure!!’"

Davis, who had played with Navy bands after high school and returned to Cleveland to play with a number of Cleveland jazz musicians, was playing the trumpet parts that in earlier years had been performed by such jazz legends as Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart and Clark Terry.

"Oh, man," says Davis, "we toured for awhile. We sometimes did two gigs in one day. One gig in New York state and that evening in North Carolina. It was amazing, but wonderful. We played with everybody including Ella Fitzgerald."

Unlike later editions of the Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw Orchestras, Mercer Ellington’s version of his father’s band was not a "ghost band," simply playing the old arrangements. The band combined new music with the timeless jazz Mercer’s father had written. Kenny says he felt he was playing in The Duke Ellington Orchestra.

"I’m offended sometimes," he says, "when I hear that term `ghost band’ because here it was, a dream come true, even though it was Duke Ellington’s son. We were playing the tunes I had grown up playing, `Take the "A" Train,’ things like that. I was playing the original manuscript. The page in front of me said `A Train’ and instead of listing first, second or third trumpet on it, it said `Cootie.’ It was Cootie Williams’ original manuscript. Oh, man, this was amazing. I was in heaven!"

Davis’ featured solo with the band was Duke’s composition "Warm Valley."

He left the band in 1981, about a year after he joined it. Most of the other band members went to New York to play in the pit band for the Broadway show Sophisticated Ladies, based on the music of Duke Ellington. Kenny Davis returned to Cleveland and continues to be one of the city’s leading jazz artists.

Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook

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