The New York Times: 17 July 1988
by Elvis Mitchell


"My knowledge of Duke Ellington was pretty much like everyone else's," said Terry Carter, the producer-director-narrator of "A Duke Named Ellington," a two-part documentary on the music and influence of the composer-band leader Duke Ellington that begins tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 13. "I knew that he'd written some wonderful music, and I loved that. But one of the reasons I wanted to do the project was that I grew up watching Duke Ellington. He was a role model."


The two-hour American Masters presentation (the conclusion will be shown on Monday, July 25) includes a great deal of performance footage featuring Ellington, among whose numerous compositions are such classics as Take the 'A' Train and Mood Indigo. Performances of both these pieces, plus a dozen more, are shown in the program; also included are interviews with Ellington himself, who until his death in 1974 had headed a jazz orchestra for nearly 50 years, as well as with many other friends and colleagues, including the choreographer Alvin Ailey, the jazz vocalist Adelaide Hall and the trumpeter Clark Terry, who had played in the Ellington orchestra during the 1950's.

A Duke Named Ellington was co-produced by Mr. Carter, 59, and his partner, Leonard "Skip" Mallone, 52, a writer-producer and jazz enthusiast who produces radio programs on jazz and writes on the subject for Downbeat magazine.

The American Masters series, which focuses on the cultural contributions of prominent American artists, has devoted episodes to such figures as Charlie Chaplin and Arthur Miller. "Those people have certainly deserved to be the subjects of documentaries," Mr. Carter said recently over lunch at a restaurant near his home in this California coastal community. "But if Duke Ellington is not an American master, then there are none. The people we interviewed - like the jazz critic Leonard Feather, who knew Duke intimately, and the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who really didn't - discussed Ellington and his work with such reverence that I began to get an idea of the size of this undertaking."

Mr. Mallone, who has known Mr. Carter since 1962, first suggested the idea of collaborating on an Ellington documentary in 1985. "Skip had done a radio documentary on Duke," Mr. Carter said, "and he gave me the concept just as I'd got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce TV programming. That turned out to be our seed money, and the show itself took about a year and a half to make."

"We went through about 70 hours of film footage - over 90 percent of which has never been seen in America before - which Skip located through his contacts in Copenhagen, where he's lived since 1961.

Mercer Ellington, Duke's son, is married to a Danish woman, has his home in Denmark and is very closely associated with Danish Radio. Skip's done a lot of work on Danish TV, and he was aware that the Ellington estate had bequeathed a lot of the Ellington archives to the Danish radio and TV networks. Some of the film also came from the BBC, which used an Ellington concert to commemorate the opening of BBC-2 in 1965.

"Going through this material was like discovering plutonium when you're searching for a more common metal."

"And it was like working in a mine a lot of the time," Mr. Carter added, "because it was so tough getting the archival material from the European television outfits that had filmed or acquired it. They were not used to dealing with American independent producers looking to buy lots of film right away, and a bureaucratic tangle grew as a result of it. It took a lot of tenacity and cajoling and reasoning and badgering, but we finally shook the footage loose."

"Even as we were finding all this great material, another crew was trying to get funding approval from PBS for an Ellington documentary. So, I knew we were on the right track." Mr. Carter also discussed his personal interest in Duke Ellington. "For me, a black kid growing up in New York," he explained, "to be able to go to the movies or to a theater and see Ellington, who was always suave and elegant, as compared to somebody like Mantan Moreland [a black actor often cast in demeaning, stereotypical roles in the 1940's] , well, that meant a lot to me. I took my lumps, going to movies in the 1940's and seeing the way black people were portrayed, as most black youngsters did.

"I know this has been said before," he continued, "but part of your measure of yourself comes from the way you see yourself depicted in movies or now on TV. And white people take this for granted in the way that black people have never been able to. I got a lot of strength from seeing people like Ellington and Paul Robeson."

Mr. Carter has produced several programs that have been broadcast on public television, including K*I*D*S, an award-winning series centering on the adventures of five teen-agers. But he is probably best known as a television actor: For seven years in the 1970's, as Sgt. Joe Broadhurst, he packed a police revolver and served as an urban contrast to Dennis Weaver's McCloud, the Stetson-wearing deputy marshal on special assignment in New York City from Taos, N. M. "One of the reasons I began producing and directing," Mr. Carter said, "was because I wanted to have some responsibility over the work I get. There are always going to be times when the right kind of acting work doesn't come, and I won't just sit and wait by the phone. So, this project was quite important to me for a number of reasons."

Working in the field of documentaries, however, was not without frustrations, as Mr. Carter discovered. "Trying to tell the story of Duke Ellington's music and the unique things that he brought to American music, to our culture for that matter, in two hours was such a vast undertaking that we had to leave a lot of things out," he said. "We didn't have time to really go into his personal life, his relationships with his children or any of that."

Nonetheless, Mr. Carter said that he doesn't feel that A Duke Named Ellington suffers because it veers away from controversial personal details, some of which have surfaced in James Lincoln Collier's recent biography, Duke Ellington. Dr. Collier wrote, as an example of exposing Ellington's less well-known side, that "he could manipulate people around him ruthlessly for his own ends." However, Mr. Carter said that he chose to keep his documentary free of such conclusions.

"I think that's best left for someone else to do," he said. "We were really limited in terms of time."

"There are people I know who have a problem with Duke Ellington not coming out on picket lines or doing what they felt he should do to manifest his blackness," he said. "But he had his own vision and his own way. The bottom line is I respect him enough to want people to know more about him and his music."