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The Trailblazing Genius of Duke Ellington

The Trailblazing Genius of Duke Ellington

In light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, the owner of the Washington Redskins, Daniel Snyder, said that they are planning to change the team’s name, referring to it as “disparaging of Native Americans.”

Until a final name is chosen, they’re Washington Football Team. How’s that sound? Well, to borrow the lingo of vintage jazz fans: It doesn’t swing. As Duke Ellington said in his 1932 recording, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Next question, please.

How about the Washington Dukes?  That swings because Duke Ellington, an American musical titan and true exemplar of artistic integrity and creative energy, was born in Washington, D. C. in 1899.

In fact, American history is distilled in the biography of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.

His mother, Daisy (Kennedy) Ellington was the daughter of a former slave. And Duke’s father, James Edward Ellington, was a White House butler in the 1920s during President Harding’s administration. The nickname “Duke” was given to Ellington by pals who admired how even as a child he carried himself with a palpable sense of pride, dignity, and confidence.

He started piano lessons at age seven and later moved to New York City. In 1927, Duke began fronting the house band at the Cotton Club in Harlem. It was one of the Big Apple’s premier nightspots. Radio was fast becoming a microphone to the nation, and the nighttime broadcasts of Duke Ellington & His Cotton Club Orchestra in the late 1920s introduced instrumental melodies, unique sounds, and new compositions to avid listeners across America. Ellington soon had a national following.

Duke was a self-taught composer and arranger who played the piano, but he always said the band was his real instrument. The hallmark of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra (as they were usually billed post-Cotton Club) was that Duke wrote original songs to highlight the individual sounds of key players. For example, there was alto-sax man Johnny Hodges with his sensual, legato phrasing; along with growling plunger-mute brass players like trumpet-men “Bubber” Miley and “Cootie” Williams or trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton; and, always, steadfast baritone sax-man Harry Carney.

Whether in the Roaring Twenties or later in the Fifties and Sixties, Duke’s band was never merely a group of musicians. They were a team in every sense of the word, with loyal players often staying for many years—even decades. Duke possessed a rare talent for holding together a large ensemble. And when it was time to hit the road, nobody went at it with more panache.

Jim Crow laws abounded. Racism was ugly whenever and wherever Duke took his band. It’s important to recall James Baldwin’s admonition that racism was vicious in all American regions, not just down in the South; it was merely more overt below the Mason-Dixon line.

So, when Ellington toured the Deep South in the 1930s, he exclusively reserved two Pullman railroad cars to guarantee proper amenities and safe domains for eating and sleeping to his traveling musicians. Duke had no time or energy to waste on the racist lack of accommodations sure to afflict any Black touring orchestra. Comfort ensured, wherever the band played, crowds were enthralled.

Despite the grim days of the Great Depression, Duke Ellington’s non-stop touring in the 1930s peaked when he crossed the Atlantic to perform concerts in London. In England at first and later in Paris and throughout the world, rapt audiences always welcomed the Ellington Orchestra and its inspired leader.

A slew of records and movie appearances also enhanced Duke’s career. In 1935, a 10-minute film “Symphony in Black: a Rhapsody of Negro Life” screened in movie theaters, along with newsreels and other short subjects. The film combined four musical narratives written to highlight Black culture in America: Church life, work conflicts, romance and complex relationships as well as nightclubs and dancing after midnight. All four themes are in the sonic landscape of Duke’s “Symphony in Black.”

When saying to ourselves: “I got it bad, and that ain’t good” – we’re echoing an Ellington song. Amid these months of quarantining, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” qualifies as a new national anthem.

So don’t be thinking that Ellington’s music and legacy are merely past-tense oldies.

Another reason to honor Duke Ellington is that he never stopped trailblazing.

Consider this: Between 1943-1947, at the apex of World War Two and shortly thereafter, the Duke led his orchestra at Carnegie Hall annually. Ambitious full concerts were performed and recorded there by the Ellingtonians when the still-segregated armed forces of the United States were embroiled in World War Two’s peak years; and when Jackie Robinson was being newly introduced as a Brooklyn Dodger. 

For years, Duke Ellington broke so-called “color lines” not just overtly, but covertly as well. Not by making speeches. But by titling many of his recorded compositions with unmistakable words of pride.

 Long before the “Black is Beautiful” slogan of the 1960s, Duke Ellington composed, titled, and continuously performed tunes named “Black Butterfly,”Creole Rhapsody,” “Echoes of Harlem,” “Black Beauty,” “Creole Love Call,” and extended works like “A Tone Parallel to Harlem” and “Black, Brown, and Beige.” In his career’s latter-day phase, Ellington evolved from an American bandleader usually associated with Jazz into a World Music maestro. “The Latin American Suite” and “The Afro-Eurasion Eclipse” were album-length marathon works written and performed on worldwide tours.

Renaming the Redskins the Dukes makes even more sense if you ponder April 29, 1969, when President Nixon hosted a state dinner (complete with all-star jam session) honoring Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday.

There’s a fine example of glorious personal achievement and all-American durability in the image of Duke Ellington, at 70, looking regal and dashing while accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom nearly fifty years after his father worked as a White House butler.

Everything about the legacy of Duke Ellington reflects Americana. From his early days as a major contributor to the flavor of the Harlem Renaissance to his twilight performances in early 1974, the indefatigable creative zest personified by the Duke is an inspiration to Americans in every field.

There’s already a Duke Ellington postage stamp. How about the Washington Dukes to seal the deal?

The Washington Dukes, if so named, would forever honor the grandson of an ex-slave, a child of Washington D. C., a musical genius, an ambassador of American culture, and a hometown son.

That’s the kind of swinging tune this nation needs.