As the lights dim and the first notes of the Duke Ellington overture fill the theater, the applause swells. The orchestra glides into place onstage and there, wielding the baton he picked up after his father’s death, is Mercer Ellington, 62. But unless you are a trivia whiz or an avid program scanner, you’re likely to miss the third generation: That lithe, hollow-cheeked dancer shimmying out to The Mooche is the Duke’s granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington, 42. For the past year father and daughter have worked together in the Broadway hit Sophisticated Ladies, a neon-and-costume extravaganza based on Ellington’s music. Yet Mercedes insists that her last name did not guarantee her a spot in the show.
“I had heard about the project and decided to write a letter of introduction to one of the producers,” she says. “I told him I didn’t know what they intended, but I wanted to be involved in some way. I did have some doubt about whether I should take a job if it was offered—I could be stuck in something that would be too personal to keep an objective eye.” She worried what it would be like to work with her dad. But professionalism won out and she now enjoys double billing as a featured dancer and assistant choreographer.
While growing up, Mercedes did not see her grandfather much but realized he was someone special. Like other family members, she called him Ellington or Uncle Edward. “He did not want to acknowledge his age,” she explains. “If my father wanted to get him mad, he’d call him Pop.” Ellington was usually gone, touring with the band. “Every once in a while they would come to town and then it would be a big event,” she says. “I remember spending whole days backstage at the Apollo Theatre and meeting Pearl Bailey and Louis Bellson.”
Mercedes was raised in Harlem by her maternal grandmother after her parents divorced before she was a year old. She started dancing lessons at 3 for medical reasons (“I had poor circulation and the doctor said, ‘Keep this kid moving!’ “). The magical world of ballet appealed to her. “I think all little girls go through a stage of wanting to be ballerinas,” she says. Her interest switched from classical dance to theater after she was taken to see West Side Story. “The shock of seeing it was equal to people seeing A Chorus Line today,” she recalls. “It was the biggest statement of the time in the dance world.”
After graduating from St. Walburga’s Academy in Manhattan, Mercedes enrolled at Juilliard, graduating in 1960 with a degree in both classical and modern dance. In 1963, at the age of 24, she joined the June Taylor troupe on The Jackie Gleason Show and became the first black dancer on a weekly national TV program. She spent seven seasons with the group, which she admits was a good investment (“I’m still getting residuals”). Roles in the Broadway productions No! No! Nanette! and The Night That Made America Famous followed, along with jobs as assistant choreographer to Taylor, Donald Saddler, Honi Coles and Doug Rogers.
Unlike her father, who has been married three times, or her mother (twice), Mercedes has remained single. She is currently living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with Tim Flavin, a dancer in The Pirates of Penzance, and two cats, Hoofer and Doralyn. How does she remember her grandfather? “The best legacy is a feeling of love,” she says, “especially since Ellington died in 1974 [at age 75]. People still come backstage to tell me they were followers of the band.”
Mercedes’ streak of independence strengthened her relationship with the Duke: “In show business, you find a lot of family members who are financially dependent on someone like him, but I wasn’t. So he found it comfortable talking to me; he knew I wasn’t thinking what can he do for me or what can I get from him. I always felt I was his favorite—but Ellington made everyone feel that way.”