Friday, June 4, 1999
The Daily News
Marilyn Smulders

Ellington song found

Local Journalist finds piece written for Halifax woman


   When jazz legend Duke Ellington told a young Clara Carvery he was going to write a song for her, she really didn't expect to ever hear it.

   "'I'm going to write a tune and I'm going to call it Clara,'" she recalled Ellington telling her more than 35 years ago while staying at Halifax's Citadel Inn.  "And I said, 'well, OK.'"

   But with Ellington's death on May 24, 1974, Clara - now Clara Carvery Adams - thought the song had died too.

   That is until recently, when dogged research by freelance journalist Bruce Nunn - a.k.a. CBC radio's Mr. Nova Scotia Know-It-All - led to the discovery of the song in the vaults of the National Museum of American History, a division of the Smithsonian Institution.  The Smithsonian archivist sent Nunn photocopies of sheet music, handwritten in pencil and black ink, signed by Duke Ellington and entitled "Clara."  The instrumental arrangements had never been recorded, published, or copyrighted.

   Saxophonist Bucky Adams - Clara's husband - and pianist Bill Stevenson played the song for the first time Tuesday and it was broadcast on CBC Radio's Information Morning yesterday.

   Nunn, who first visited the story for CBC Radio's Information Morning on the 100th anniversary of Ellington's birth on April 29, didn't tell Clara about it until the musicians were in the studio ready to go and a cab had been dispatched to pick her up.

   Clara, 58, couldn't help but cry.  "My husband is a musician, so to me, music is music is music," she says, "but hearing that, reality set in.  My name was written on top of that piece of music and there was Duke Ellington's signature on the bottom.  I just filled up.  Just talking about it gets me emotional."

   Ellington's Nova Scotia connection is through Mildred Dixon, a woman from the former community of Africville who had a close relationship with Ellington through the 1930s in New York City.  Dixon and Clara's mother Stella were cousins, and when Ellington came to visit in the 1950s, he dropped by Clara's grandfather's Africville homestead.

   "He was always coming about," says Clara of the composer, pianist, and big-band leader.  "He was an ordinary person, no big deal.  We never thought too much about it - until after."

   Ellington's promise to write the song for Clara came much later, when he played The Lobster Trap on Brunswick Street in the early 1960s.  In tracking down the song, Nunn contacted Ellington experts, record labels, jazz aficionados - anyone who might have an inkling about its existence.

   "When I had the package (from the Smithsonian) in my hands, I knew I had a great story and important piece of black history in Nova Scotia." says Nunn, who has been tracking down bits of Nova Scotia history as Mr. Nova Scotia Know-it-All for the past three years.

   "I knew it would make a lot of people very happy."