When Duke Ellington came to campus
The date was April 15, 1958. As the clock moved closer to 8 p.m., almost all the seats in the auditorium of the chapel music hall were taken. But the Tau Sigma Chi fraternity guys were getting nervous.
As the clock struck 8, some of the “Turtles” broke out in a cold sweat. Where was the band?
At 8:05, the bus rolled onto campus. Duke Ellington entered the hall followed by 15 musicians and two vocalists, apologized for being late, and began the concert. One of the sponsors learned later that the bus driver had taken a wrong turn and drove 30 miles out of the way. Perhaps poor lighting and two-lane roads were to blame.
Never mind; the audience was treated to a fabulous concert of American jazz by one of the most famous exponents of that art form. How was it that the internationally famous Ellington band came to play on the Carthage campus, then in western Illinois?
This feature story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of The Carthaginian magazine.
Don Piehl ’61 came from Chicago and was familiar with the Playboy Jazz Festival. He and some other enterprising Tau Sigma Chi members initiated the idea of having a jazz concert on the College campus. Though admitting today that some of the details are a bit foggy, he recalled that Richard Dokmo and the late Clayton Diskerud, both ’59, were also involved in the planning.
Mr. Piehl remembers calling the booking agency to secure the band, but he doesn’t remember the upfront cost. The Ellington web archive states that Carthage had to guarantee $1,250. Tickets sold for $2.25, and local papers promoted the concert. The Hancock County Journal and Carthage Republican wrote that ticket sales were not certain until the day before the event.
Their review on April 17 headlined the success of the concert: “Duke’s Sweet Thunder Wows Jazz Cats.” The article opened with: “American jazz, Duke Ellington style, was served sweet, hot, cool and loud to a full house audience that lapped it up like a kitten with a dish of cream.”
Although many in the audience were college and high school students, there was a “heavy assortment” of folks from the 35 to 45 age group. The latter fans had grown up on Ellington’s music from the 1930s and ’40s.
Despite the longevity of his fame, Mr. Ellington was still touring the country in the 1950s. Before coming to Carthage, he played Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1958. Then he performed at Highland Park High School, just north of Chicago, on April 13 and appeared in Carthage, Illinois, two days later. The very next night, he played for a dance at the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo, Iowa.
Thanks to those enterprising jazz fans who belonged to Tau Sigma Chi, Carthage enjoyed its first big name entertainer in years — and the trend continued. Mr. Piehl remembers that, during the succeeding years of his college career, they brought in popular jazz artists Count Basie, Woody Herman, and George Shearing.