Duke Ellington: Fostering a life long love of music

Duke Ellington and How One Young Man Fell Under the Spell of This Marvelous Musical Giant 
Photo: Irv and Duke Ellington

WASHINGTON, August, 29, 2012 – Long before Webster’s Dictionary provided a word for it, my friend Irv Chamberlain was one, a “groupie.” When the word was coined, in the 1960s, it was used to describe young people, mostly girls, who doggedly pursued “Rock Stars,” hoping to garner a hug or kiss, an autograph, or often something even more intimate. 

Irv Chamberlain, however, had started his “campfire following” in his mid-teens during the mid-1950s. At that time, Rock music did not exist, and Rock ‘n’ Roll was just beginning. 

Growing up in Baltimore, Irv enjoyed the “middle-of-the-road” radio pop music of the day: Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Patty Page, Georgia Gibbs, Tony Bennett, and others. The first record he remembers buying was a 45 rpm of the 1954 hit song, “Learnin’ the Blues,” by Frank Sinatra.

All of Irv’s contemporaries and school chums were discovering and dancing to the new music called Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was sliding into the mainstream of America despite objections from parents, some media, and clergy.  

Irv simply found that music to be shallow and unsatisfying. His young ears opened wide to welcome the jazz harmonies of the big band of Duke Ellington, and the hook was embedded. 

Whenever the Ellington Band came anywhere near the city of Baltimore, therefore, Irv made a point of being there. Not only that; he arrived early. Further, he positioned himself near the stage door entrance where he could greet the players by name, offering to carry in their musical instruments. It must have been easy for them to recognize and remember Irv.

Whenever they showed up for a “gig” or show, standing there by the door was this thin white kid with crew-cut haircut, asking, “Mind if I carry your instrument for you, sir?”  

If there was a negative to his devotion to this music, it was a certain loneliness. He had no one to share it with. Peers were talking about Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Rickie Nelson.

If, on the other hand, Irv mentioned Duke Ellington to his contemporaries, the response was “Who?” 

He listened alone, “grooved” alone. Mostly in his home. His parents didn’t share his excitement for the Ellington ensemble, either.

Irv moved to Washington, D.C. (the birthplace of Mr. Ellington) in 1964. Now the music seemed to provide a backdrop for his life. a kind of soundtrack, with songs like “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “How Long Has This Been Going On,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and the Ellington theme song, “Take the A-Train.”

In 1961, this dedicated groupie carried his favorite Long-Play album, “Ellington Indigos,” to the band’s local show. For the first time, Irvin asked a favor of the band: would each band member be willing to autograph his album? One by one the men obliged, including leader Duke Ellington. What a treasure, years later, this album is: the signatures of the entire Duke Ellington band, minus only one.

Irv admired trumpeter “Cootie” Williams but felt too intimidated by his appearance to ask the big man for his signature.

Band members, recognizing Irv on sight by now, were more than willing to have photos taken with him. Duke Ellington himself posed with Irv on a couple of occasions. In one photo, Irv is seen with his arm casually draped around the Duke’s shoulder, and in another, a smiling “Duke” has his arm around Irv in a spirit of simpatico.

Irv Chamberlain

Irv Chamberlain

When Irv retired from the federal government, in 1995, he wanted to do something he would enjoy and which could benefit others. Music had been such an integral part of his life, he wanted to “give back,” as they say. But Irv didn’t sing or play a musical instrument.

Then, in 1999, an idea bore fruition. He began a virtual avocation of recording music, taking it to various venues, playing it with his modern equipment, and sharing information and insights about the music and its origins and explaining his personal connection to the various compositions.

Irv’s musical presentations invariably have a theme. It may be songs by a particular composer, such as Irving Berlin or Cole Porter; or songs of a particular decade, such as the “Fabulous Fifties” or “Dapper Flappers”; by male singers or female singers; by specific Instruments; of movie or Broadway themes; comparisons of artists; comedy in music; greatest love songs, and others.

Some of his audiences and venues include the Aspenwood Retirement Community, B’nai B’rith Homecrest House, Fairland Manor, Leafy House, Leisure World of Maryland, Manor Care at Kensington Park, Randolph Village, Tacoma Tower, Sunrise Senior Center, Jewish Community Center, St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church, Clara Barton Senior Center, and many, many others.

Irvin Chamberlain has been not only a wonderful friend to me for 36 years. My wife, Geri, and I long ago realized that he must be shared with all the people who eagerly await his next visit, his warm presence, and his next insightful musical presentation.

As Duke Ellington well might say, “Irv, we love you madly.”

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”


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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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