06/10/2009 01:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Happy 110th, Duke!

It wasn't your typical weekday commute on the New York City subway.

To celebrate the 110th anniversary of the birth of composer and bandleader Duke Ellington last week, his namesake orchestra played in the subway station at 125th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem--not far from the Apollo Theater, where Ellington himself once often performed--and, even more appropriately, on a 1930's-vintage, green A train.

Led by its musical director, Ellington grandson Paul Mercer Ellington, the orchestra performed many songs, including, of course, Ellington's signature standard, Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," written in 1939.


Among the crowd of listeners was another Ellington grandchild, granddaughter Mercedes Ellington, a choreographer and dancer.

"When I was a little girl my grandmother used to take me to the Apollo, and just sit me in the audience. I used to watch a movie and then see the band and watch a movie and see the band and watch a movie, I spent all day there. And then go backstage and have fried chicken with people like Pearl Bailey and Louis Bellson," she recalled.

"It was just a fascinating life for me as a kid, cause I was very parochial, I went to Catholic school and I was raised very strictly by my grandmother, and I took dance classes, which is also a great discipline," she said.

Ellington also accompanied her grandfather when his orchestra performed in Russia in 1971 on a State Department tour.

"I was in a musical called No, No, Nanette on Broadway. At that time you could only get one week a year as a vacation. And the band was going to Russia, and I wanted to go to Russia in the worst way because that's the home of the ballet, and my original intent was to be a ballerina. So I cashed in all my chips and I asked for two years' worth of vacation, which is two weeks, and I went with the band to Russia. We had a really, really great time," she said.

Also attending the subway station concert was the dancer Maurice Hines, who is creating the choreography for and starring in a revival of Sophisticated Ladies, a review of Ellington's music that will be performed at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in spring 2010; Hines said the production would also "go all over the country and travel the world."

Upcoming Ellington events in his 110th birthday year include the annual "Essentially Ellington" high school jazz band competition at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York May 8 to 10 (Mercedes Ellington will speak at the final concert on May 10), and performances through December by the Duke Ellington Orchestra across the United States, as well as in China, Taiwan, Japan and Russia