Inside D.C. entertainment

Duke Ellington kids melt hearts in performance with John Legend

January 31, 2012 - 03:30 PM
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A bunch of grownups assembled at the Kennedy Center Tuesday for the announcement that the center is partnering with digital media organizations for a massive youth engagement project. The adults explained in enthusiastic detail how young people will be asked to reflect on Marvin Gaye’s still-pertinent question “What’s Going On” and produce artistic material in response; the young people will then upload their artistic compositions online, where the Kennedy Center will select pieces to be incorporated in a John Legend concert this May. Legend himself was present, wearing a great suit and saying some nice words about young people and the arts.

All well and good, but nothing at the press event could compare to the performance of a handful of real young people in the audience. A choir from Duke Ellington School of the Arts joined Legend on stage for a performance of “What’s Going On” that could have cracked a heart of stone. (One reporter confessed to getting misty-eyed while the kids swayed and sang, their braces sparkling under the stage lights.)

Duke Ellington junior Dani Ebbin won the crowd during a video of the choir being surprised by Legend at a rehearsal that morning. When Legend sat at the piano to play with the students, the camera turned to the redheaded Ebbin, whose mouth had fallen open with awe and stayed open while the star started to sing, earning her rousing laughs from the crowd. The theater major tells me that Legend’s appearance was a surprise.

“There was a rumor going around,” says Ebbin, but she was skeptical that Legend would show. Then during rehearsal, “we’re singing, we’re singing, and the left side of the room gets quiet,” she says. “We see John Legend and everyone’s like, is this real?”

Ebbin, a resident of Northwest D.C., is a big Legend fan (“John Legend’s awesome”) and describes singing with him onstage as “an honor.” She’s optimistic about the Kennedy Center’s initiative.

“I’m not exactly sure what the whole project really is,” she admits. But, “I hope to do it. As an artist, we have to get our hands on the world and shake it up!”

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