Duke Ellington's Lost 1957 Performance at Kent State

Duke Ellington and his orchestra put on a sellout show as 7,000 people jammed into The Memorial Gym for Kent State's 1957 Homecoming concert

One of the great stories of Kent, OH is in fact a long series of tales spanning three different centuries dealing with the great icons and musicians who have visited and/or were created in this town. Most of these stories have been reduced to various tales, rumors, second hand accounts or have just simply long been forgotten. For my entire life (36 years) I have heard whispers of visits to this town from the likes of W.C. Fields, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pink Floyd, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Patti Smith and literally a hundred or so more names of equal iconic stature. Even some of the bigger stories that we take a lot of pride in around here concerning the likes of DEVO, Joe Walsh, Drew Carey and others are still (for the most part) reduced to these tales.

With this blog I will attempt to get to the bottom of these stories using primary resources such as photographs, advertisements, show posters and first hand testimonials from the locals who personally dealt with these great icons as they made their way through this town of Kent.

I have done much research on this topic but I can only imagine how many Kent folks out there are sitting on materials related to this subject who have their own photos, memorabilia and first hand stories of this kind. If you have anything you would like to contribute to these stories I would love to hear from you. My blogs will be posted sporadically so keep checking back.

I thought we'd start with an event that digs deep into our history. One that clearly has long been forgotten:

  • Saturday, Oct. 26, 1957, Duke Ellington and his orchestra in the Kent State University Memorial Gym (now the MAC Center)

This was a real blowout weekend for Kent with a Homecoming football game, parade and a sellout performance featuring Duke Ellington and his orchestra in the Memorial Gym. Just like today that room held around 7,000 people, so you can imagine the energy of this extraordinary appearance by one of the great superstars of jazz. 

What's interesting is that If you look at Duke's timeline, he had wrapped up sessions for his album Ellington Indigos just a couple of weeks before he appeared at Kent State. Click here to listen to a recording of the track "Prelude to a Kiss" (from the aformentioned album Ellington Indigos). According to Wikipedia, this specific track (from that link) was recorded 15 days prior to his appearance at Kent State. Though Duke's show at Kent State likely looked and sounded more like this live clip from the same period.

Also check this, it looks like buried in this old Kent Stater is a lost piece of music history. Click here to follow Dukes live timeline through the date Oct. 26, 1957. The Kent show isn't listed and that's likely because the only record of it ever happening has been buried in 90 years of Daily Kent Staters! But look at the path of that tour he is on. Duke and his orchestra are clearly headed right for Kent State.

Also look closely at that Chestnutt Burr yearbook photo (provided for this story) of the Ellington concert. Amazing picture, packed gym, full band onstage with what looks like legendary saxophonist Johnny Hodges soloing out front, but you don't see The Duke at that piano on the far right where he would usually be seated. I'm only speculating here, but I suspect the reason for this is because as a member of the press you usually only get the first song or two in a performance to get your photograph. And if you look at live films from this period, Ellington's Orchestra plays a full tune before Duke ever even comes out. Click here and you will see Duke show up at the very end to take his place at the piano. That yearbook photo shows quite some energy and excitement though.

Now there is one place where an authentic image of Duke Ellington at Kent State does exist from this night. If you are willing to head up to the Kent State University main Library and dig through some old microfilm, The Record-Courier ran a really cool (and totally authentic) photo in their Oct. 28, 1957 edition showing Duke Ellington signing an autograph for Kent State Homecoming Committee Chairman Jo Mercalf with a caption about Ellington and the sold out crowd of more than 7,000 people in the Kent State University Memorial Gym.

A couple of other musings here...

The preview piece in the Kent Stater reads: "Attempting to provide enough dance space for the expected sellout crowd, The University Social committee has moved the bandstand from its traditional position under the basketball scoreboard to a platform over the waters of the Memorial pool." When I was a kid I used to swim in that pool that used to exist underneath the Memorial Gym. Did the gym floor open up to reveal that pool? Maybe someone knows the answer to this. Also of note, in those days the stages were set up on the south side of the gym as opposed to today where concerts, graduations etc. are set up on the north side. The change occured around 1994 when the Memorial Gym was renovated and redubbed The MAC Center.

Also check out that Stater front page showing then Kent State President George A. Bowman and his wife. Dr. Bowman presided over Kent State University longer than any other president with his run going from July 1, 1944 to July 1, 1963.

Click here to see what downtown Kent looked like around this time (image courtesy of The Daily Kent Stater and Department of Special Collections and Archives, Kent State University Libraries). Note the large building that no longer exists on that left corner. Click here to see another image from this period. This one shows a noirish nighttime downtown Kent from 1956 (image courtesy of The Burr, Kent State Student Media and reprinted with permission from Kent State University Libraries).

Also click here to check out this aerial view of the campus from the same period (image courtesy of The Burr, Kent State Student Media reprinted with permission from Kent State University Libraries). You can see that the football stadium in the mid-1950s was located where the current Student Center pay parking lot is. Bowman Hall and Satterfield Hall were a baseball field and makeshift parking lot. Where the Business Education Building is now was a paved parking lot. The Memorial Gym at the right is still there now as The MAC Center but look to the right of that. Where the Student Center currently stands is some other ball field back in those days. It looks like Kent State Athletics had taken over about half of the entire campus! On the top left you can see front campus in all of it's academic glory. It still looks just like that today.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra came back to Kent State to perform on two other occasions. Once in 1962 and then again for a storied and well documented appearance on Feb. 1, 1974. We'll get to what happened on those nights at a later date. In the meantime we’ll leave you with some classic Ellington.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kasha Legeza May 26, 2011 at 04:47 PM
This is awesome, Jason! I'm excited to read future installments about other famous folks visiting our town!
BBangs May 26, 2011 at 04:49 PM
Excellent research as usual! Nice work Jason...
Hank May 26, 2011 at 09:19 PM
Well written and a good read. Look forward to more.
Jon Ridinger May 27, 2011 at 02:31 AM
The pool at old Memorial Gym was where the main lobby is now, adjacent to the main gym. The main gym and the pool were separated by a folding wall, similar to the wall on the opposite side of the gym today that separates the main gym from the gymnastics center. My dad told me when he was a kid, during halftime for basketball games, the folding wall would sometimes be opened and diving shows would be performed for the entertainment. The renovations in 1992 made that folding wall permanent and added permanent seating to the end zones. Previously, they were wide open with no seating at all; students would just stand there. The official capacity of the MAC Center today is 6,327, though the largest crowd ever was over 7,700 in 1970. The 1992 renovations reduced capacity by adding some chairback seats and increasing the aisle size, plus the bleacher sections are smaller and not as steep as they originally were. When I was an undergrad at KSU in 2004, I did research on the history of the MAC Center for an architecture class report. In your story, that makes sense they opened the wall and moved the band into the area over the pool to maximize capacity in the main gym. If this had happened between 1979 and 1992, each end zone had a folding wall, so capacity could have been increased even more!
Jason Prufer May 27, 2011 at 05:41 AM
nice! Thanks for the info Jon! That totally makes sense. My memory of using that pool was entering on the south side of the building where Lake and Bowman Hall are and the pool entrance being straight ahead almost immediately when you walk in. The way you described it clears all of that up! Thanks for the solid numbers too. This helps me a lot with my own research.
Jon Ridinger May 27, 2011 at 01:57 PM
You can check the Wikipedia article on the MAC Center for some more attendance records. I put a lot of it together and it is all reliably sourced: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Athletic_and_Convocation_Center. It still needs more work though! The top 5 largest crowds ever in Memorial Gym were over 7,000. The largest crowd since the renovation was in 2007 (6,567). Because the bulk of the seating is still bleachers, inevitably, you can fit more people than the listed capacity simply by squeezing in several more on a given bench. The university has some pictures of the interior of the building before 1979 (that's when the annex was built along with the gymnastics center attached to the gym). I found them all online, so hoepfully you have seen them or the originals in the archives. During the 1992 renovations, the only addition made to the building was the curved front wall in the lobby and that outer shell around it. I do know when it opened in 1950, it was one of the largest on-campus arenas in the country. Crazy to think that today!
Jason Prufer May 27, 2011 at 10:51 PM
WOAH: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/26/duke-ellingtons-lost-1957_n_867808.html
Jason Prufer May 28, 2011 at 05:11 PM
Someone posted this to the version that appears in The Huffington Post: Wow..that would have been the year after the great Newport concert of 1956 when they brought the house down with "Diminuend­o and Crescendo in Blue". The band must have been swingin crazy at Kent. Gonzalves, Hodges, Carney, Hamilton, Woodyard, et. al...maybe even Clark Terry on that tour. The only band that ever came to my college gym was UB40:) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellington_at_Newport check out the track the commenter is talking about here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brluArX3RA4
Robert West May 29, 2011 at 03:00 AM
Dear Jason: My name is Robert West, and I am a professor emeritus at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at KSU. I am also a 1950 graduate. I am a lifelong jazz fan, and I saw the Ellington concert you talk about here. Gene Krupa also played here back in the day; Harry James was supposed to play KSU, but he died of a heart attack en route to the university. I'm glad someone is taking the time to research and flesh out all these wonderful old tales!
Jason Prufer May 30, 2011 at 03:59 PM
Robert, I took one of your film classes somewhere back in the 1990s and it was FANTASTIC. I bet you have a lot of insight into these shows. I did actually find a whole slew of info on Gene Krupa performing at the Wills Gym in 1941...AMAZING yearbook photos and several Stater pieces from the time...looked like a total blowout. It will definitely be a featured piece down the road. So if you read this.....can you tell me what you remember about your experiences seeing Ellington on this night? Who were you with? Where were you living? What distinct memories do you have about the show?
Dorothy June 01, 2011 at 02:05 AM
What a article. I am so proud of your abilities Dot


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