The Twin Cities has hosted many world-renowned musicians, from classical pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff to folk-pop icon Bob Dylan. But for sophistication, playfulness, and artistry, one would be hard pressed to top Duke Ellington.
On May 17, 1954, State Farm employees were treated to Ellington and his 15-member band.
The State Farm Employees Activities (SFEA) association sponsored the event at the Scottish Rite Temple - now the Bloomington Center for Performing Arts. Tickets went for $1, $1.25, and $1.50, not a bad price to catch one of the greatest musicians and composers - jazz or otherwise - in American history.
Ellington, whose nonstop touring schedule was the stuff of legend, had just finished a three-night engagement in Cincinnati, and his luxury tour bus pulled up to the venue with little time to spare.
Pictured here is Ellington chatting with local author and jazz aficionado Harold Sinclair during the intermission. Sinclair's "Music Out of Dixie," a novel about the sights and sounds of jazz age New Orleans, had been released two years earlier.
The playlist that night was heavy with Ellingtonia, including "Mood Indigo," "Satin Doll," and "Caravan." Appearing alongside Ellington were some of his longtime bandmates, including trumpet player William "Cat" Anderson, clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, and jack-of-all-trades Roy Nance.
Anderson, known for his trademark high "Cs," soloed on "Summertime."
"On this he hit high 'C' above high 'C,'" commented The Pantagraph.
As usual, Ellington was in a playful mood, bantering with the crowd during much of the show, as they were treated more than once to his standard quip, "I love you madly."
In the mid-1950s, the big band sound was losing young listeners to rock 'n' roll, led by the likes of Chuck Berry and Bill Haley. It would be two more years before Ellington would make a stunning comeback and return to national prominence with his band's turn at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.
Yet for these 2½ hours, Ellington and his band were all that mattered.
The enthusiastic State Farm audience bordered on raucous, and as the 55-year-old Ellington stepped offstage he remarked several times over, "What a wonderful crowd."
This was not Ellington's first visit to Bloomington. In the mid-1930s, he appeared at the old Coliseum. At that time, blacks were not welcome at downtown hotels or restaurants, so Coliseum manager Dean Litt remembered serving homemade ham sandwiches to Ellington and his band.
After this latest show, the band packed up and was on the road by midnight. They last were seen speeding out of town, heading back east for a show the next night in Columbus, Ohio.
Ellington would return to the area for performances in the early 1970s. He died in 1974.
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