It was an evening that would have made Duke Ellington proud. Partly because the U.S. postmaster general showed up with a commemorative stamp in his name. And partly because performers Lena Horne, Carl Anderson, Danny Glover, Nikki Giovanni, along with his son Mercer Ellington and granddaughter Mercedes Ellington, praised him so warmly.
But it might have been even more important to the Duke that last night marked the opening of the new 820-seat auditorium at the Ellington School for the Arts. Memories of him and his commitment to young performers flowed freely.
"Duke would have been ecstatic to be here. They the students at the Ellington school are the future. He's living on through them," said June Norton, who sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the early '50s.
Ellington, she said, was a shrewd judge of talent. "He could see the future in a person just by listening to him. He related through music."
Mercedes Ellington said, "He provided young people with some kind of hero when there were few black heroes."
Ellington school principal Maurice Eldridge noted that the new theater will function primarily as a training laboratory for the students but will also be rented to outside groups. He also said he hopes to book many professional performers to help make the theater self-supporting and to give students practical experience and a chance to learn by observing.
Last night's festivities began with a buffet reception hosted by British Ambassador Sir Oliver Wright and Lady Marjory Wright at their residence.
"We were delighted to do it. Duke Ellington was one of the immortals," Ambassador Wright said.
Lena Horne thought it was Ellington's kind of night. "He would have been asked to play by now," she said as the reception began. "He wouldn't have minded sitting down at the piano. And he would have been charming the ladies."
Later, guests went to the school to get a look at the new auditorium, see the new stamp and applaud the performers.
Horne was quick to note the advantages of performing arts schools: "It would have meant everything to have had such training ," she said. "I had to learn everything from watching others. It took longer and it was harder."
As two young Ellington graduates entertained the crowd, Mercer Ellington summed up the sentiments of the night: "We are the supporting act. What's important is out there," he said, gesturing to the performers.