Before moving to Vancouver, Eve Duke sang with jazz legend Duke Ellington and his big band, performing under the name Yvonne Lanauze.
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She recorded and toured with Duke Ellington, hobnobbed with Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald, and now she’s got a regular gig playing at Eve’s Cafe, a weekly jazz concert put on by Eve Duke at St. Vincent’s Langara care home.
Duke’s 96-year-old fingers glide over the keys of the grand piano in the atrium, her voice is still strong and beautiful.
“I still got it,” she said with her trademark laugh. “She sure does,” added her percussionist, fellow resident Paul Adams. Her bass player is Wendy Solloway, a jazz specialist hired just to play with Duke once a week.
“Eve was asking about a bass player and I happened to show up at that time, looking for some casual work,” said Solloway. “I think we were a little sceptical of each other at first, Eve was doubtful a woman could fill the position (playing a standing bass), and Eve’s reputation kind of preceded her, this real diva and everything, so we were wary of each other.
“But we made an immediate connection, both musically and on a personal level, and we now get on like a house on fire.”
Besides touring with Ellington from 1950-52, she sang on three recordings: Sophisticated Lady, Mood Indigo and Love You Madly under the name Yvonne Lanauze.
While she doesn’t think much of her own piano playing, claiming she’s a singer who happens to play, she is far too modest because her chops were brilliant at Eve’s Cafe on Thursday. She has a list of songs she’s familiar with and pretty much sticks to them, but when she does forget a line, she just makes up lyrics.
“She never misses a beat, both figuratively and literally, and I just cherish the time we have together, she is lovely,” Solloway said.
The facility put out a video called Don’t Give Up the Ship in honour of B.C. Seniors Week and dedicated it to staff at St. Paul’s Hospital. While Duke’s short-term memory prevented her from taking part in the singing, she reads the introduction and helped come up with some of the lyrics.
“I had to find a unique way of getting some lyrics out of her,” said Lucy Thomas, the music therapist at the home. She wound up beginning a lyric and Duke would finish it. “I’d throw a line at her and ask, ‘What comes after this line?’ and she came up with some really creative things.”
Like, following “The storm is coming to an end,” with, “There’s a rainbow shining over you.”
She thought she would teach school after graduating from Howard University but then heard Ellington, like her a native of Washington, D.C., was looking for a singer so she approached him to audition. He obviously liked what he heard.
“He said, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ and she was on-stage a few hours later with the band at the legendary Bohemian Caverns.
But a life of touring wore her out and she wound up settling in Vancouver, where she met and married award-winning director and producer Daryl Duke, and performed in jazz combos around the city.
She’s been at St. Vincent’s Langara for six years.
“She has a lot of charisma,” Solloway said. “And music just seeps out of her cells.”