tribute concert set Oct. 28 at Holmes: Area musicians honor jazz legend Ellington

In April 2010, a group of 17 area musicians got together with vocalist Doug Newman on the stage of Detroit Lakes' Historic Holmes Theatre to pay tribute to legendary "Big Band" leader Woody Herman and his music.

Bill Mohn
Tribute organizer Bill Mohn plays percussion with the group.

In April 2010, a group of 17 area musicians got together with vocalist Doug Newman on the stage of Detroit Lakes' Historic Holmes Theatre to pay tribute to legendary "Big Band" leader Woody Herman and his music.

Held in conjunction with the theater's spring gala, the event proved to be a resounding success.

"It went very well," said Bill Mohn, the Detroit Lakes percussionist who put together the music for the event.

In fact, not long after the curtain had fallen on that performance, Mohn and Holmes Theatre executive director Amy Stoller Stearns began making plans for a sequel.

"She (Stearns) said, 'What's the next one going to be?' and I responded, 'Duke Ellington,'" Mohn said.


It took nearly a year and a half to make it happen, but "A Tribute to Duke Ellington" will be presented at the Holmes Theatre this Friday, Oct. 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Why Ellington? Though Mohn admitted that he didn't have quite the same personal affinity for Ellington's music that he did with Herman, Ellington was "so important to jazz" that he seemed like a fitting subject for a second tribute concert.

"He's somebody who was kind of in a category by himself -- he transcended genres," Mohn said.

Though Ellington was known primarily as a "big band" leader and pianist, "his major passion was writing music," Mohn added. "He tried to write music that reflected the American experience.

"He wasn't just trying to write hit songs -- he was trying to make art."

Later in his career, Ellington "started writing really ambitious works," Mohn said. "He wrote movie soundtracks, sacred music... he was an absolutely brilliant composer."

But as talented a musician as he was, Ellington's personal life was equally fascinating.

"He loved the pleasures of life," Mohn said. "He was a Christian, but also very hedonistic... he was a really interesting guy."


Ellington also inspired great loyalty among his band members, many of whom were with him from the beginning of his career until the end.

"Some were with him 30 to 40 years, and some would play with him for 10-15 years, then go away and come back to the band later on," Mohn said. "That's so interesting to me."

While the members of the band rarely changed, the content of their performances did -- frequently.

"The music was constantly changing," Mohn said. "He never really liked to be done with something -- he was always tinkering with the songs.

"He would also write specifically for the guys in his band, not just the instrument (that they played)... there were a lot of subtleties in the music that we can't recreate. That's just part of the mystery of Duke."

Friday's concert will include a few glimpses into the life of the man behind the music, with video clips from some of his band's performances as well as narrative provided by co-emcees John and Connie Wood.

"I wanted to give the audience some more information (about Ellington) -- to teach a little bit, let them hear some things about the songs' background," said Mohn, who besides being a musician, also teaches music at the Detroit Lakes Area Learning Center.

Though the focus will be on the music, the Woods' emcee duties will also include some lighthearted banter.


"It'll be really fun," Mohn said.

While many of the faces on stage will be familiar to audience members who attended "A Tribute to Woody Herman" last spring, there will be a few new ones as well.

"It's basically the same band as for the Woody Herman show, but with a few exceptions," Mohn said. "We have five local guys, and the rest are from Fargo-Moorhead."

He also believes that this concert will be better quality overall than the Herman tribute, because "I think we're more focused."

Mohn is excited about one of the pieces they're doing, "Caravan." While the song may be familiar to Ellington fans, the version that they're doing for Friday's concert will include both the traditional arrangement and "a wild, modern version that's very difficult."

"That's going to be interesting," Mohn said.

Other familiar songs that will be part of Saturday's concert include such iconic hits as "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing," "Satin Doll," "Take the A-Train" and "Sophisticated Lady."

The 16-piece ensemble will also be joined on stage for a few songs by jazz vocalist Naomi Wawers of Fargo.


Some of the songs to be performed will also include a slightly different instrumentation, for a smaller group.

"It will show what the band was like in the early days (before it became a 'big band')," Mohn said.

The ultimate goal, he added, is to have a broad audience appeal, "so the general public will enjoy it."

Tickets for Friday's show are $22 for adults, $11 for students, and may be purchased at the Holmes Box Office, 806 Summit Ave., online at , or by phone at 218-844-SHOW (7469).

A reporter at Detroit Lakes Newspapers since relocating to the community in October 2000, Vicki was promoted to Community News Lead for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Perham Focus on Jan. 1, 2022. She has covered pretty much every "beat" that a reporter can be assigned, from county board and city council to entertainment, crime and even sports. Born and raised in Madelia, Minnesota, she is a graduate of Hamline University, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in English literature (writing concentration). You can reach her at
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