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Dolores Parker

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Later known as Dolores Parker Morgan, this jazz vocalist was honored in 1993 by the Smithsonian Museum of American History as one of the five surviving female vocalists of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. She started performing professionally when she was fresh out of high school after winning a 1939 amateur contest at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. Even though a plan existed for her to attend Howard University, she hit the road with Fletcher Henderson as a member of a trio called the Rhythm Debs. Needless to say, her mother was not pleased. Despite the fact that by 1942 this bandleader had made jazz history with fellow musical giants such as Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins, the young lady was treated like she was about to gallivant off with a pack of low-life hooligans. She worked with this group for three years and it proved to be just a job rather than the road to degradation that it had been touted as. She married trumpeter Vernon Smith and joined the Earl Hines Orchestra in 1945. The couple had their first child and decided to get off the road, moving to Los Angeles. Parker began thinking about being a housewife until her husband came home one day with the news that Duke Ellington was looking for a vocalist. She attended an audition with the man who was Tonto to the Duke's Lone Ranger, pianist, arranger, and composer Billy Strayhorn. In what has to be a nightmare scenario for a vocalist, he asked her to sing his own composition "Lush Life," one of the hardest jazz ballads ever composed. Not only was she asked to sing it for Strayhorn, he called up Ellington and she was required to perform the song over the phone. Despite having never heard it, the sight-reading job she did was good enough to land her the job and she left almost immediately on a tour with this band that practically never left the road. She claims to have never sung "Lush Life" again since that 1947 audition. Her fellow musicians in that era of Ellington's band included violinist and vocalist Ray Nance; trombonist Lawrence Brown; reed players Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Al Sears; and the rhythm section of guitarist Freddy Guy, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Sonny Greer. She might have been overwhelmed by this type of exemplary talent, but it didn't show in that year's recording of "Take Love Easy," in which she doesn't let the wonderful soloing style and honey dripping tone of Hodges upstage her. Touring with this big band must have been grueling work nevertheless, sometimes requiring a half-dozen performances in a single day. It was not the highest period for the leader, as the entire concept of big bands was under assault from the combined pressures of dwindling musicians' salaries, mushrooming travel costs, a ban on recording, and a new trend of crooners who looked and sounded as if they had been embalmed prior to coming on-stage. Ellington was almost 50 years old and was pushing to create ambitious new projects such as Broadway shows and ventures into television, plans that sometimes didn't work out the way he wanted. He still maintained a perfectionist nature with the band, refusing to let the overall quality of the presentation suffer. Upon leaving Ellington's band, Parker made several film appearances, recorded with flutist and bandleader Herbie Mann, and married for the second time. Her new husband was Gates Morgan, who despite the jazzy sounding name, was a physician. The couple relocated to Akron, OH, when he became the medical director of that city's Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Much of her activities since that time have centered on her newly adopted state, including the Cleveland jazz scene. She provided an endowment to the Kent State University School of Music in 1985 and received a local award for her contributions to the arts. Although most of Ellington's staff of vocalists retired from singing fairly young, Parker has kept it up and never has an unkind word to say about the Duke. In 1999, she was a featured soloist on the album Traditions that features the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra performing a medley of ballads that had been part of her repertoire with Ellington. ~ Eugene Chadbourne