Grammy-nominated UNT professor Richard DeRosa leads a class.
Grammy-nominated UNT professor Richard DeRosa leads a class.
courtesy UNT

Unheard Duke Ellington Songs Given New Life on Record Produced by UNT Jazz Professor

You’ve heard Duke Ellington, but never like this.

Richard DeRosa, Grammy nominee and professor of jazz arranging at the University of North Texas, co-produced an album of modernized works by Ellington, a jazz legend. It's called Rediscovered Ellington.

Fans of Ellington’s toe-tapping “Hey Baby,” which he recorded with Rosemary Clooney (actor George Clooney’s aunt) in 1946, will recognize what DeRosa calls “the DNA of the song,” but with an entirely new twist. The other songs on the album are much more obscure. Even fans of Ellington’s work might not recognize some of the material. That’s because DeRosa and fellow producers Garry Dial and Dick Oatts purposely chose songs that aren’t well known.

In 2015, DeRosa was the chief conductor and arranger for the WDR Big Band in Germany. He asked Dial and Oatts to be a part of a program and mentioned that he needed help coming up with a theme. Dial had just the thing.

Dial had access to all of Ellington’s music. In 1979, Ellington's sister Ruth and her son Stephen James hired Dial to archive Ellington’s music collection, which included his compositions as well as those of his associates.

Dial went to Ruth’s apartment to record the music — until her poodle started singing along and “was not to be silenced,” he says. He copied the files and took them home to record them, which is why he was in “the unique position of having these scores of Duke’s music” 38 years later.

“We basically rummaged through it and chose pieces that most people wouldn’t know,” DeRosa says. “Even people who know Duke Ellington might not know some of these pieces. And then we modernized them.”

They performed two live concerts in Germany in May 2016, but DeRosa didn’t want the project to end there. “I wanted to preserve this project because it’s so unique,” he explains. “We also recorded in the studio, so I remixed the project in the studio in October and took it to a record company.”

The album was released in August and has received several positive reviews from jazz enthusiasts.

This is the kind of work DeRosa does outside of his job at UNT. He's also a drummer, and he used to perform more often, but recently he has become more of an arranger and conductor. He moved to Denton to join UNT’s faculty in 2010.

His first album, Perseverance, showcases the work he does at UNT, and he hopes it serves as an example to his students of how to create a variety of sounds. “I often stress to my students not to write the same type of music all the time,” he explains. He views it as his mission to broaden his students’ musical experiences beyond jazz, which is why he wanted each piece on Perseverance to have its unique slant.

One of the pieces included on the album is a song DeRosa wrote as a thank you to Neil Slater, who retired in 2008 from his position as chair of the Division of Jazz Studies and director of UNT’s One O’ Clock Lab Band. DeRosa calls Slater one of his most important mentors. The song, called “Neil,” was nominated for a Grammy Award for best instrumental composition in 2015.

DeRosa will be arranging half of a performance for Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s “Leonard Bernstein at 100” celebration Nov. 9. Vincent Gardner, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s lead trombonist, is arranging the other half, and DeRosa will conduct the concert.

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