Arts and Entertainment | Music

Historic Boulevard Boasts of a Jazzy Past

To the average Morningside Heights resident, 106th Street may seem pretty ordinary.

Maybe you’ve had a consultation with Joshua the Psychic on 106th Street and Columbus Avenue, or perhaps you’ve wandered past Innovation Bike Shop on 106th Street after eating delicious Ethiopian food at Awash.

If you search “106th Street NYC” on Google, you’ll find a link to “The Bedbug Registry: Bed Bug Report 61 West 106th Street” and “Gypsy-Cab Driver Slain on E. 106th Street.”
Just an average New York City block, right? Think again.

One-hundred-and-sixth Street was once home to the renowned jazz musician Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. Ellington lived in a townhouse on 333 Riverside Dr. and 106th Street for a number of years, and owned two other houses on the block where his sister Ruth Ellington Boatwright and his son, Mercer, lived.

In honor of Ellington’s memory, 106th Street was officially renamed Duke Ellington Boulevard in 1977, three years after his death.

Duke Ellington continues to be a significant presence on 106th Street and in Morningside Heights. The Cotton Club, a centerpiece in Duke’s career where he performed classics like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing)” and “Sophisticated Lady,” was relocated in 1978 to 656 W. 125th St., just down the hill from Columbia. There is also a commemorative statue of Ellington by sculptor Robert Graham on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, across the park.

The jazz great’s legacy also thrives in live performance, radio, and film. The Duke Ellington Orchestra, directed by his grandson, Paul Mercer Ellington, continues to perform throughout New York. The Duke Ellington American Heritage Fund, founded by his sister, is dedicated to disseminating his music and promoting a course on American music available in schools and on DVD. For Ellington enthusiasts in New York, The Duke Ellington Society sponsors monthly meetings at Saint Peter’s Church at 619 Lexington Avenue and 54th Street.

So next time you find yourself strolling down 106th Street, stop for a moment and consider the legendary shoes that walked down this block, and maybe you’ll hear some music.

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