One night before a recording session," former Ellington sideman Rick Henderson recalls with amusement, "Duke dropped by my hotel and dropped some music off for me to write between 2 a.m. and 10 in the morning. I was half asleep, and I promised I would do it, but when I realized what I was talking about -- Duke going out and having a ball and I was getting up at 2 o'clock and write all night long and then go record -- i got up out of the bed and went and found Duke and gave him the music back. And he laughed 'cause he realized I realized what he was doing -- he was planning on having a ball. So I went back and got me some sleep."
Henderson, who was alto saxophonist with Duke Ellington in the '50s and off-and-on until the leader's death, sat in a reed section that included Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and Russell Procopo. From 1956 to 1964 he headed the house band of the Howard Theater, establishing the longest tenure in that theater's history.
This week Rick Henderson's 18-piece orchestra with vocalist Angela Wyatt will present a five-night tribute to D. C. native son Ellington. The 8 p.m. performances, free and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and Musicians Local 161-710, will take place at Lincoln Park on Tuesday, the Ellipse-President's Park Wednesday through Friday and Fort Circle Park on Saturday.
And even after all these years, there are some things about Ellington that Henderson remembers fondly. His initiation into the organization is one: "The way Duke auditioned, he just put the uniform coat on you, set you down in the band, and he'd go on and play as if you'd been there all the time."