Jazz fans may or may not remember the enchanting soprano riffs of Kathryn McDonald Wimp (Mu42, GMu43) after 50 years of silence, but the singer will always cherish her six-year stint as Kay Davis, a vocalist for the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
"As early as the age of 10, I knew I wanted to sing professionally," says Wimp. After graduating from Evanston Township High School, she trained classically under Northwestern's Walter Allen Stults. Wimp, who now lives in Florida, also sang a duet in the Waa-Mu Show of 1942 with Jack Haskell (Mu42) despite the social taboos on cross-racial stage romance.
It was a time when only six African American students were enrolled in the School of Music. Because black students were not allowed to stay in residence halls, she lived at home. "We used to drool over Willard Hall, which was right across from the music building," Wimp says. "I had a good time at Northwestern, but there were those limitations."
In addition to loving operatic arias, Wimp was captivated by jazz great Ellington. Practically every week she bought his records at the North Shore Talking Machine Co. "I was crazy about the man and his band," Wimp says. "He was the epitome of style and class."
After Northwestern Wimp auditioned for Ellington in 1944 on a friend's dare. He also attended one of her recitals and afterward asked her to join his band. "I went home and packed my little trunk," she says. "And that was the beginning of my career."
Her first recording came about accidentally after Ellington heard her humming a countermelody to I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues. "That's it. We'll keep that in," he said to her.
One of her most exciting moments occurred on Dec. 18, 1944, at Carnegie Hall (she remembers the date). Just before curtain time Ellington introduced Wimp to Creole Love Call and told her she would be singing it in the performance. "I was shaking like a leaf and was surprised that it sounded decent!" she says. The number remained in the band's repertoire and was treasured by Wimp as one of her showcase pieces.
A master at eliciting the best from his musicians, Ellington used Wimp's operatic training to the orchestra's advantage. Her best performances with him were wordless melodies like Translucency and On a Turquoise Cloud, in which she used her voice almost as an instrument.
In the days immediately after President Roosevelt's death in April 1945 radio stations played only subdued classical music. The one exception was the Ellington orchestra's half-hour of somber mood music. One piece was the spiritual A City Called Heaven, sung by Wimp.
After the 1950 road tour she left Ellington's band to get married. "I was worn out," Wimp says. "My husband was a wonderful man, and I was not sorry for my choice."
Although she stopped performing professionally, Wimp would provide a few people musical samples from her past, always singing My Funny Valentine to her husband at their annual New Year's Eve parties. In her senior years she still enjoys throwing parties and traveling to such distant locations as Alaska. "I always have something to look forward to," she says. "I keep healthy and keep living."
Jennifer Su (J03)
Richard Ehrenzeller (WCAS75), who suggested and researched this article, is the principal contributor to TDES (the Duke Ellington Society) Newsletter.