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Irving Bunton, choral director worked with Duke Ellington, dead at 83

Irving Bunton (left) with his chorale, the Irving Bunton Singers. | Provided photo

Irving Bunton’s musical education started when he was born. His mother named him for composer Irving Berlin.

His father was a cook and his mother cleaned houses. They didn’t get to finish high school, but they put aside money for his piano lessons. Classically trained at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois, he loved Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Handel.

When Duke Ellington heard the chorus he directed, the music legend erupted in jazzy praise, according to singer Barbara Wright-Pryor. “Duke Ellington told Irving Bunton, ‘Man, these cats can sing!’ ”

Ellington selected the Irving Bunton Singers to perform in his show “My People,” celebrating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. The group rehearsed with piano legend Billy Strayhorn for the revue, featuring singers Joya Sherrill and Jimmy McPhail, with choreography by Alvin Ailey.

“He selected them because of the articulation, because of the familiarity with the classics,” said Wright-Pryor, a mezzo-soprano with the chorale.

“My People” was staged at the Arie Crown Theater for about three weeks in 1963, coinciding with the March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. It was a transformative time when it seemed a change was going to come in race relations.

Mr. Bunton eventually became music minister for several years at King’s church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, where Coretta Scott King “loved my husband’s music,” said his wife, Ragina Bunton.

Mr. Bunton, 83, who had been in failing health after a 2006 heart attack, died Sept. 8 at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Irving Bunton, music teacher, church pianist and choral director. | Provided photo

He grew up in Englewood, where “he would practice the piano for hours,” his wife said. The Buntons were members of Coppin AME Church at 56th and Michigan. He played in the choirs at church and at Englewood High.

When he was about 13, his older sibling, William, was killed fighting in Europe in World War II.

To comfort his mother, Gillie Ann, he told her, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m going to have 10 children.” He and his wife had five.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in music education at Northwestern and a master’s at the University of Illinois.

Back then, the classical music world was largely closed to African-Americans, so many taught music and directed church choirs.

He and Ragina, his wife of 58 years, met at the South Side’s Hartzell Memorial Methodist Church. Around that time, she and her singing siblings used to perform as the Gayden Sisters. After hearing their blood harmony on Dave Garroway’s pioneering “Today” program, CBS-TV’s Arthur Godfrey rushed to book them on his show.

Once, “My sisters and I sang on a program with [gospel great] Mahalia Jackson, and we were so impressed,” Ragina Bunton said. “She wouldn’t need a mike. She had such a good, strong voice and it was so soulful.”

Mr. Bunton saw her while he was playing piano at Hartzell. “I didn’t think he was interested in me,” she said. “After rehearsal, all these girls would be flocking around the piano.”

They married when she was 18 and he was 24.

Ragina and Irving Bunton on their wedding day. | Family photo

After teaching music at Englewood High, he became director of the all-city high school chorus. “He would just make magic with that group,” his wife said. Former students have posted comments online crediting him with teaching discipline and inspiring them to be music teachers and educators.

“He was a master teacher,” said his daughter, Nzingha Nommo. “Weeks ago, I was still getting ‘homework’ from him.” He clipped newspaper articles that he thought would be helpful for her store, Afri-Ware in Maywood.

The Irving Bunton Singers’ performances during “My People” were preserved with an LP made at Chicago’s Universal Recording studio. Their “beautiful” singing was praised in liner notes by Bjarne Busk on a 2012 CD, “Duke Ellington’s My People,” issued by Storyville Records of Denmark.

After retiring from the Chicago Public Schoools in 1991, Mr. Bunton served as music minister at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta.

He also worked as a music director for Greater Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church, the Congregational Church of Park Manor, Morgan Park Presbyterian and the University Church of Chicago, said Wright-Pryor, the classical music critic at The Chicago Crusader newspaper.

At home, he liked to listen to classical music on WFMT, his daughter said. Waving his hands as if holding a baton, “He would conduct the speakers, listening to the music.”

Irving Bunton (right) and the Englewood High School a cappella choir in the early 1960s. | Provided photo

Mr. Bunton also is survived by another daughter, Joy Alyce Bunton; his sons, Irving Jr., David and Paul; and one grandchild.

A wake is scheduled from noon to 5 p.m. Friday at Cage Memorial Chapel, 7651 S. Jeffery. A musical tribute is planned at 10 a.m. Saturday at Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago, 1936 S. Michigan, with a 10:30 a.m. viewing and 11 a.m. services.

Irving Bunton, in tails, before a 1961 Chicago chorale. | Provided photo

Irving Bunton | Provided photos