Gary Keys, Filmmaker Who Documented Duke Ellington, Dies at 81
Gary Keys, a filmmaker whose documentaries captured some of the most important figures in jazz from the 1960s through the 1980s — notably Duke Ellington, the subject of three of his films — died on Aug. 9 in Manhattan. He was 81.
The cause was complications of a gastrointestinal disorder, his former wife Wendy Keys Pels said.
Mr. Keys, who started out as a producer of jazz and pop concerts in the late ’50s, filmed Ellington and his orchestra on a tour in Mexico that he organized in connection with the 1968 Olympic Games. The ensuing documentary, “The Mexican Suite,” for which Ellington composed some original music, gave viewers an intimate look at the bandleader and his musicians at work.
In “Memories of Duke” (1980), Mr. Keys used much of the same concert footage but added interviews with musicians who had worked with Ellington. “Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo” (2006) offered a collage of performances and personal recollections.
Gary Joe Keys was born in Detroit on Feb. 12, 1934. After attending the University of Michigan for a semester, he served two years in the Army, where he was put to work organizing concerts for the troops in Germany.
After leaving the Army, he moved to New York and worked as a type designer and art director at a large printing house. When he began producing concerts, he often hired top graphic designers, including Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, to do the posters.
In the early ’60s, Mr. Keys helped produce and program some of the first “Jazz in the Garden” summer concerts at the Museum of Modern Art. He also produced concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center by Stan Getz, Dionne Warwick, the Supremes, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Garland and Stevie Wonder.
He made his first documentary, “Don’t Make Me Over,” about Ms. Warwick in the late ’60s. He then produced two socially conscious films: “Step by Step,” a portrait of Harlem Prep, a new school dedicated to educating high school dropouts and sending them on to college, and “Voices of the City,” about the Newark Boys Chorus.
His most recent film, “Trying to Kill Giants,” about the embattled lives of the boxers Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali and the actor and singer Paul Robeson, was shown in May at the African-American Film Festival in Dublin.
Mr. Keys, who had a second home on Cape Negro, Nova Scotia, that he shared for many years with the singer Richie Havens, is survived by his fourth wife, Grace Park; a son, Ellington; and two daughters, Linnea Keys and Malena Keys.
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