Bandleader at bay

Arranger-conductor Onzy Matthews proves that only the strong survive

Matthews and Link began working together that very night on a piano Duke ordered brought to Link's room. A night or so later, they were rehearsing; some friends of Link's were hanging around. Duke and his baritone saxophonist, Harry Carney, dropped by for an inspection. The tune Link and Matthews performed for them was "The Lonely Ones."

Duke sat, listening, hands together.
"'The arranger has captured the mood of the song perfectly,' he said. 'The singer has not. I think he has not because he's preoccupied with inviting friends to his room.'"

"Then there was this awful silence!" recalls Matthews.
Link's friends slunk from the room, and to break the frost Matthews started playing "Brownskin Girl in a Calico Gown," from an old Ellington show, Jump For Joy.

"What a great song!" gushed Link. "Who wrote it?"
Matthews gestured toward Duke, who stood, bowed theatrically, and left the room. At this point, Frank Link shuffles off into obscurity; as for Ellington, he phoned Matthews when he got back to his hotel. If Matthews was this fluent with Duke's material, they should cut an LP together! Matthews--not surprisingly--thought this was a fine idea. They'd start cutting the moment Duke got back from a European tour.

Duke, however, was touring against doctor's orders. When he got back, he was nearly bedridden, which set the stage for Matthews to get involved with him in a way that wasn't exactly aboveboard. Duke was facing a 27-city tour, and decided to have Onzy sub for him at the piano. A minute or so before each show, it was announced that Duke wasn't present because of illness, but at no time was Onzy's name even uttered as his replacement. Matthews chafed at the subterfuge, but kept mum because he was promised a big write-up at the tour's end. He never got it.

There were other problems. He and Mercer fought constantly over tonal and tempo changes Mercer made that Onzy deemed untrue to the maestro's intent. He left Ellington's camp in 1979 and went to Paris, where he formed a band of his own. In 1984, he hung around on the set of the film 'Round Midnight with its star, his old bud Dexter Gordon. In 1993, prostate surgery devastated him financially.

Re-enter the Ellingtons. Duke died in '74, leaving his sister Ruth and Mercer in charge of the fold. They contacted Matthews about returning stateside to work on the incomplete Sacred Concerts. Although his physicians advised against it, Matthews was so strapped for cash he felt he had little choice but to make the trip. His account of what happened is typically byzantine, but the gist of it is that he was stiffed for the work he did for Mercer and Ruth, which surfaced on the Musicmaster album Only God Can Make a Tree.

This, while Matthews had returned to Texas to be with his dying father. This, while his mother died in L.A. Beleaguered and doubly bereaved, he phoned the Ellington stronghold yet again, only to be told that Mercer had flitted off to Copenhagen. Matthews got very angry. By the end of the day, he was in touch with longtime Ellington business agent Oscar Coen, who confided that Mercer was broke, in hock to the IRS. Coen paid off Mercer's debt to Matthews, speeding it from his personal account so that Matthews could get to L.A. in time to bury his mother. He also indicated that the things Matthews had said about Mercer--even though Mercer was far from blameless--had pretty much burned Matthews' bridges to the Ellington camp.

"Nobody knows the blood, sweat, and tears I put in this Ellington thing," Matthews gripes. "I never had a problem with the Maestro, never needed any contracts with him. But I did this work for Ruth without a contract--I got screwed. I did work for Mercer without a contract--I got screwed. I was tired of being screwed, and if that puts me out of the picture, out of the picture I am."

Not completely. The concert at First Presbyterian in May featured both an 18-piece band and a 30-member choir assembled under Matthews' baton. In a front pew lounged Big Al Dupree, who would do a sax solo on the Ellington composition "Heaven."

"Man, this cat's heavier'n Quincy [Jones]," said Dupree of Matthews.
At the church, the Ellington music achieved a magnificence with Matthews at the helm that it had always lacked under Mercer Ellington. (A Chicago wag once said the Ellington band was "a travesty" under Mercer, and Dallas Morning News music critic Pete Oppel once called Mercer a "jive turkey." Mercer died in 1996.) Sometimes a "ghost band" will continue after a famed bandleader or his heir has passed, but at present it seems that the Duke Ellington Orchestra is no more.

Onzy, on the other hand, is alive and ornery. He led a big band at a suburban jazz club, but that ended badly, and he will slag the club at length if offered the least bit of encouragement. He felt insufficiently recognized by the African American Museum during its Ellington exhibit, lecture, and concerts of '96, so he slags it, too. He continues to fill out grant applications to fund big band shows.

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