Camp Randall 100: Duke Ellington

The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.

Photo of Duke Ellington playing the piano
Duke Ellington

It’s probably safe to assume that the spectators who turned out for the first concert at Camp Randall Stadium got their money’s worth.

Tickets, after all, were just $1.

A crowd of 6,000 people came through the stadium’s gates to take in a performance by the Duke Ellington Orchestra on a warm Wednesday night in the summer of 1972 — 16 years before Pink Floyd would bring a decidedly different flavor to the first “major” concert in Camp Randall’s history.

The more intimate initial gathering on July 18, 1972 was part of the Duke Ellington Festival, a five-day tribute to the 73-year-old jazz legend that began with Gov. Patrick J. Lucey’s proclamation of “Duke Ellington Week” in Wisconsin.

Though he would succumb to lung cancer less than two years later, Ellington showed no signs of slowing down that summer. He earned his ninth Grammy award, a second-consecutive win in the Best Jazz Performance category for Togo Brava, just fourth months before his stay in Madison.

The festival was organized by professor James Latimer, who was in the early stages of what would become a 30-year career teaching music at UW and would go on to become a fixture of the Madison music scene as a performer and conductor.

By day, the event included workshops led by members of the orchestra and master classes taught by Ellington himself. In the evening, Ellington and his musicians would take the stage for nightly concerts, four on the UW campus and a fifth in Milwaukee. Three performances were held in the Wisconsin Union Theater, but the second Madison show enjoyed a much larger stage.

“The Duke” was delivered to that stage — set up on the 50 yard line — in a red convertible while his orchestra played the Ellington favorite “Take the A Train” to the delight of the crowd that had filled seats on the stadium’s west side.

What followed was a two-hour performance that largely mirrored the festival-opening show of the previous evening, though at a significant value, according to the Wisconsin State Journal’s Donald Davies, who wrote: Tickets were $1. It was the best buy since the nickel cigar.

The next evening, the orchestra returned to the stage inside Memorial Union for one of Ellington’s signature Sacred Concerts, a collection of spiritual music. That was followed by a performance at the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center before Ellington wrapped up the festivities back at the Union Theater with the premiere of the “UWIS Suite” he composed for the occasion.

Dedicated to what Ellington called the “beautiful people” of Wisconsin, his tribute suite even included an homage to “On, Wisconsin.”


Duke Ellington and his orchestra
Duke Ellington and his orchestra