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When Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on 29 April 1899, Washington D.C. was then the largest black urban community in America. It was a city rigidly divided by segregation, but the divisions in society did not end there. The members of the black community were further divided by caste and by class. Such a social environment provided strong character-forming experiences. Yet despite being a city riven by social divisions — white society was equally riddled with class barriers — Washington D.C. was considered a leader in the education of Afro-Americans. In 1864 a law was passed that required the city to provide a black public-school system and in the aftermath of the Civil War Howard University, quickly recognized as black America's seat of learning, was established in 1867. By the early 1900s, Washington Afro-American society boasted the highest standards of culture enjoyed by black people anywhere in America, prompting Langston Hughes to observe, `Never before, anywhere had I seen such persons of influence — men with some money, women with some beauty, teachers with some education — quite so sure of their own importance and their high places in the community.'
While Ellington's family did not move in the highest circles, their circumstances were economically secure and their values imbued with those of the black middle-class society around them. They were a part of a social group whose morals were steadfastly Victorian and often puritanical in outlook and who shared a genteel interest in the arts andexpected their children to aspire to the highest standards of education and deportment.
From the start, Ellington was encouraged to become an achiever, and was taught pride in his race and a duty to represent it well. His role model was his father, James Edward Ellington, who throughout his life aspired to the values of a gentleman. His mother Daisy Ellington doted on her son: `You're blessed,' she told him, and he believed her.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Once upon a time a very pretty lady and a very handsome gentleman met, fell in love and got married, and God blessed them with this wonderful baby boy. They held him in the palm of their hand and they nurtured him until he was eight years old and then they put his feet on the ground. He ran out of the front door, out across the street and somebody said, `Hey, Edward, up this way.' The boy was me, incidentally. He got to the next corner and somebody says, 'Hey, Edward, up there and turn left, you can't miss it.' And it's been going on ever since.
DUKE ELLINGTON: You know, my mother played music. She played those beautiful piano things written by Carrie Jacobs Bond, who wrote some pretty delicate music — it was so pretty that when my mother played, I used to cry — it was so pretty. My father played by ear, some of the old standard operatic things.
RUTH ELLINGTON: My mother was absolutely puritanical; she wore nose glasses and she didn't even wear lipstick because she thought that a woman should not be attracting another man.
Ellington's sister Ruth was born in August 1915.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I was terribly spoiled as a youngster.
DUKE ELLINGTON: My mother started telling me about God when I was very young. There was never any talk about red people, brown people, black people, or yellow people, or about the differences that existed between them.
DUKE ELLINGTON: She never went anywhere without me, she go to a dance and take me to the dance and dress me up and sit me up on the bandstand, next to the musicians. I'd sit there and watch them ... it's a thing that had some fascination for me, but it was a thing I never had any hope of doing.
RUTH ELLINGTON: My mother was not a social butterfly, she was very staid and stayed at home.
DUKE ELLINGTON: My father had a good job, he was a butler and he was a great provider. Then he quit that job, and in the First World War, rented a big house down on K Street — a big fashionable neighbourhood — for all these women war workers, high salaries, and he was a caterer. He did well until the war ended, that was the end of that, then he got a job blueprinting in the Navy yard.
RUTH ELLINGTON: [He] was a Chesterfieldian gentleman who wore gloves and spats, and very intellectual. Self-educated. My father came from a family of ten, and he arrived in Washington from North Carolina — Lincolnton, where he was born — at the age of seven. He had not more than a third grade education, but by the time he reached teens he was hired by a doctor in Washington, a Dr [Middleton F.] Cuthbert, who brought him up, taught him how to drive the first horseless carriage, which was an electric car. Dr Cuthbert had a magnificent library from floor to ceiling with big old leather chairs — I used to go there in later years and see this library — and my father, as a teenager, read omnivorously from this library. So had you talked to my father by the time he was forty — and then he'd read the newspapers and read everything — he was a well-educated man, but he had done it through this doctor. This doctor stayed close to us all the time. When I was born, for instance, he was the one who put my mother in hospital where I was born and he was the one took care of me until I was a big girl all through my mumps, and measles and all that. This doctor took care of me, and when he finally died, just before we came to New York, he left my father $3,000. He still remembered him, we were always close. And I'm sure he supervised Edward's surgery too, in Washington, with the hernia.
Dr M. F. Cuthbert lived at 1462 Rhode Island Avenue, Washington D. C.
DUKE ELLINGTON: My father was a great man. He knew all the right things to tell me, how to be a fine, upright, clean-living gentleman, be a credit to the family, and I know all of them, and I know exactly what to tell any young man what to do — but I didn't do them all.
RUTH ELLINGTON: I don't want to say [my father was] stern, I don't want to say [he was] dictatorial, but his language was quite precise and sharp and he was an authority figure and Edward always respected and loved him so much. My father had this insatiable love of people. Duke, I think, was a little more reserved, more like the Kennedys.
DUKE ELLINGTON: There was so much education around Washington, that you got a little bit of everything. It was not a case of conservatory music being some strange factor because you had to go to these damn concerts whether you liked it or not, recitals and so forth, they'd bring in guest stars, people in the concert field.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Ragtime was way back when I was a child, I heard the word ragtime, I didn't know what it was about. As I grew up I heard these `piano plunkers', they used to call them.
DUKE ELLINGTON: [My lessons] were enough to make Mrs Clinkscales' first recital. Mrs Clinkscales was my music teacher. Half the time she'd come around and I'd be out there playing baseball or something, my mother had to pay her off. She wanted me to be something. But I was too wild, running the street.
Ellington attended the Garnet Elementary School between 1905 and 1908, and during this period he received piano lessons from Mrs Marietta Harvey (née Clinkscales).
DUKE ELLINGTON: There was no connection between me and music, until I started fiddling with it myself. As far as anyone teaching me, there was too many rules and regulations, and I just couldn't be shackled into that. As long as I could sit down and figure it out for myself, then that was all right.
DUKE ELLINGTON: In the schools in Washington, when I was in school here, they had separate schools, coloured schools and white schools, and it was a very good thing for the negro. What used to happen was that they were concerned with you being a representative of a great and proud race. This was it, when you walked out of this place and went out on to the street you are a representative and your behaviour is what the race depends upon to command respect. Which is very important — they used to pound it into you, you go to the English class, that was more important than the English.
Ellington's English teacher at Garrison Junior High School was Miss R. A. Boston (1913-14).
RUTH ELLINGTON: Coming out of Washington where you grew up in a segregated society, where the black American middle class which he grew up in was very proud and very well informed and it was expected of you to be well informed, go to college, get a degree and to be proficient in the arts. That was the norm for that black American middle class.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I don't know how many castes of Negroes there were in the city at that time, but I do know that if you decided to mix carelessly with another you would be told that one just did not do that sort of thing.
DUKE ELLINGTON: By the time I was eleven or twelve years old I had read Sherlock Holmes, Cleek of Scotland Yard and Arsène Lupin.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I had piano lessons like all children do, like everybody did. But this had nothing to do with the thing that followed when I was fourteen.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I decided to go adventuring when I was fourteen years old. I left my home in Washington D.C. and went to Asbury Park, New Jersey. I had no real reason for going. My people were very good to me, but I just wanted to get out and try my wings. I thought it would be easy for me to land a job. I thought I was a pretty good man at that time. Of course I did not know how to do anything well. I was getting pretty hungry too, about this time. I saw a coloured boy, and asked him if he knew where I could find a job. Asbury Park, as you know, is a seaside resort and many coloured boys were used there in the hotels and cafes. The boy sent me to a hotel, telling me that they needed a bus boy. I hurried to the place only to find that the job had been filled. `But,' said the manager, `Ve neet von fer der dishes.' Now, if ever there was a task I hated with perfect hatred, it was washing dishes. Pangs of hunger overcame my distaste for dishwashing so I took the job. I held it too, until the fall term of school began. So I went back home, not as a penitent, prodigal son, but as a young man on his own with a supply of good clothes and some money saved up.
MAURICE ZOLOTOW: He went to Asbury Park to work as a dishwasher in a summer hotel and here he heard his first ragtime composition, played on a piano roll. It was Harvey Brooks's `Junkman Rag'.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I cannot tell you what that music did to me. It was different from the average piano selection. The individuality of the man showed itself in the composition as he played it. I said right then, `That's how I would like to play a piano, so without being told, everybody would know I was playing.'
MAURICE ZOLOTOW: He was set on fire by the rolling rhythm and the entrancing tremble of ragtime. He sought out Mr Brooks and pleaded to be taught a few simple progressions.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Harvey was not selfish. When I told him about my resolve he encouraged me and taught me many of the short cuts he had figured out, to successful playing. I was eager to learn and I lived at the piano. It wasn't very long before I could hear a tune and after a few moments I could reproduce it, often adding different variations.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Then I was confined to the house for weeks, because of some cold or something, and so I started picking at the piano and I picked out a thing we called `Soda Fountain Rag' — my first composition. In those days I used to stand over the piano players for hours and hours and hours just watching and listening.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I used to go to the Howard Theatre almost every day to hear good music and one of the greats to appear there was Luckeyeth Roberts. His hands were so spread out he could stretch a 12th (feat) in either one.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I think I knew about two full numbers, and one night somebody very desperately came to me and said they needed a piano player to come up to Room Five [at True Reformers Hall in Washington] and play. Well, not only was it a very, very bad piano, but I had to play it from eight to one and at the end of the night I got 75 cents, and this was my first gig and I ran home like a thief with that money. It was like stealing it because I would play these numbers over and over, but I would change the tempos and play them in different styles, I think that was my first experiment in rhapsodizing or developing a theme.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Soon I began to play for small dances and house parties. Sometimes I would be fortunate to get another boy to play with me, either on a saxophone or banjo.
DUKE ELLINGTON: My father said something about playing that old ragtime music, or something like that, but I never had no real resistance against what I was doing.
RUTH ELLINGTON: I loved Edward. Everything he did was wonderful, because that was the way I was brought up. Everybody in the whole family, aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody adored Edward. So whatever he did was marvellous, whatever he played was wonderful.
DUKE ELLINGTON: [Uncle Ed] sort of talked me out of childhood. He'd say there's other things besides baseball. You couldn't miss him, his immaculate attire.
Uncle Ed was Ellington's father's nickname.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I was trying to fuck ever since I was six years old. I wasn't doing very much of it, but I was tryin' and it felt pretty good, whatever it was. I finally got it in when I was around about twelve years old, I guess, out in a field someplace, I don't know where it was, I don't know who it was.
RUTH ELLINGTON: I know my mother said [Edward] took me home in his arms out of the hospital and when it was time for me to walk, he took me by my top braid and guided me around the room. I remember as a little girl, him squeezing me so tight and he was always very protective.
OTTO HARDWICK: I first met Duke in school, Duke was going to Armstrong at the time, Armstrong High School, I was going to Dunbar, but more or less we were neighbours, Duke lived in one block, I lived in the other, Duke lived at 1212 T Street Northwest, I lived in 1345 T Street so automatically we just saw each other every day, and became great friends.
Otto Hardwick was born in Washington D.C., 31 May 1904. Ellington attended the Samuel H. Armstrong Technical High School between 1914 and 1917.
EDNA THOMPSON: It was at Armstrong that Ellington and I fell in love. He had just learned the difference between girls and boys.
Edna Thompson was born in Washington D.C. on 4 August 1898.
DUKE ELLINGTON: We'd get girls, all the same social clique, and go down the reservoir, get in somebody's car or even walk up to the reservoir, they would line up there, everybody had his own girl, of course, and we'd be in hearing distance, you couldn't look, you'd be in hearing distance and the object was to see who did the greater job as a man. If the girl's reaction was greater, then he was a great fucker, because this chick was hollering and screaming, `Hello Daddy!' `Oh, baby, I'm coming!' and all that shit, and we found out some of the cats were cheating. Some of them were pinching the chicks to make them holler, and we found one cat whose old man had a taxi cab company was slipping the chick quarters! It's always been competitive, all the way along the line!
DUKE ELLINGTON: I got a job as a soda jerker to make some money for college ... my job was in a place called The Poodle Dog.
DUKE ELLINGTON: There was a great pianist there, Lester Dishman. Wonderful. I learned an awful lot just watching him. And sometimes I recall some of his devices in my playing. He was a man who sometimes indulged himself — going around from one place to another. People before they went to work would often stop at somebody's house and just play the piano. Then go somewhere else, you know. And as they went along — I mean, naturally the people would serve refreshments. So by the time he got to work he was full of refreshments.
DUKE ELLINGTON: When he wasn't able to sit up at the keyboard any longer I filled in, still improvising, composing or otherwise making free use of some basic melody. One day while playing my original `Soda Fountain Rag', doing it in a different tempo each time I played it, Oliver `Doc' Perry heard me and began coaching me for one of his orchestras.
REX STEWART: There was a lot of music and bands around Washington at that time. Some of the better known were Doc Perry (whose piano man was Eddie Ellington — before he was called Duke), Elmer Snowden, Sam Taylor and Gertie Wells. Professor Miller had the best doggone military band outside of the US Marine band. Then there was Cliff Jackson, Emory Lucas, the Elgin Brothers, Tommy Miles, Jim Blair and Caroline Thornton ... Nor shall I forget the Washington Bell Hops, Mose Duncan's Blue Flame Syncopators and Ike Dixon out of Baltimore.
Rex (William, Jr) Stewart was born in Philadelphia on 22 February 1907, but moved to Washington D.C. as a young child with his mother Jane Johnson Stewart.
DUKE ELLINGTON: There was Doc Perry, Lester Dishman, Louis Brown, `Sticky' Mac, Clarence Bowser, half of them were conservatory men, the other half couldn't read, but they had terrific left hands. I wanted to sound like they sounded.
DUKE ELLINGTON: This is the school I was raised in, being a parlour piano player.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Then there was a man named Grant. Henry Grant. He was the supervisor of music in Washington schools. He said he would teach me harmony. I had a kind of harmony inside me, which is part of my race, but I needed harmony that has no race at all but is universal. So you see, from both these men I received freely and generously, more than I could have ever paid them for. I repaid them as I could; by playing for Mr Perry, and by learning all I could from Mr Grant.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I really studied piano at that time. Russell Wooding was then directing a jazz concert orchestra of sixty pieces in a Washington theatre, and, against his better judgement, he gave me a job as one of his five pianos. All went well until I came to a pause. Instead of remaining silent, as the score directed, I broke into a typical Ellington improvisation. Mr Wooding very properly fired me.
DUKE ELLINGTON: There was a guy named `Swifty' Carruthers, he couldn't play much piano like half a dozen cats I knew around Washington. `Swifty' would come in, his entrance was a bitch. He would come in, when he sat down he was sharp. His collar was high, tie neat as a pin. He'd sit down and his hands were manicured, you thought God was going to say something, you know!
DUKE ELLINGTON: In high school in Washington, my pal Edgar McIntree decided since I was a pretty fancy guy, I was eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title, so he called me `Duke'.
REX STEWART: The corner of Seventh and T streets was the hangout for Washington musicians. By tagging along, I got to see all the local big-timers — Doc Perry, Elmer Snowden, Sam Taylor, Gertie Wells, Claude Hopkins and many others. Eddie Ellington had already acquired the nickname `Duke' by this time and he too hung out on the corner. In fact, he had the added distinction of being `king' of Room 10 in True Reformers Hall, which stood on the same corner. Room 10 was where the teenagers held their get-togethers. I can still see the young Ellington playing the piano and fixing that famous hypnotic smile on the nearest pretty girl.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Rex and I were very much alike in many ways. Rex was from Washington too, Rex's mother was a piano player, good piano player. She used to play at the Blue Mouse Theatre. Rex was one of these nervous cats, like me.
DUKE ELLINGTON: My first on-stage appearance was selling `Peanuts-Popcorn-Chewing-gum-Candies-Cigars-Cigarettes-and-Score-Cards' at the ball park! When I became more sophisticated, I was promoted to selling cold drinks. I was completely terrified at the Washington Ballpark, it was like going on stage, stage fright. Everybody in the park was looking at me! All I wanted to see was the baseball game.
Ellington's job was at the Griffith Stadium, Washington D.C.
DUKE ELLINGTON: We used to play baseball at an old tennis court on Sixteenth Street. President [Teddy] Roosevelt would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play. When he got ready to go he would wave and we would wave at him.
EDNA THOMPSON: I taught Ellington ... how to read music. Ellington would be out behind the YMCA playing football and basketball when he should have been studying. We were going to Armstrong High School then. Duke wanted to be a commercial artist. I wanted to be a music teacher.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I was originally going to be an artist. I was a good artist. I could paint, draw and all that. And that's what I was majoring in in high school, I won a scholarship to Pratt Institute, but by that time I was involved in j-a-z-z. I was coming up with jazz. I was making a lot of money while I was in high school, I was a professional musician when I was sixteen.
Ellington won a scholarship sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) to Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, but turned it down.
DUKE ELLINGTON: I never did make chemistry or French in high school, I never did make those subjects. I had one point to go before I graduated high school but then I quit. I went to high school in 1914. Finally, when I started getting work [in music], I was working, there was numbers I had to learn, you know? I couldn't even read, I had to get the music in the afternoon, and take it home, and memorize it, and then I'd bring it out at night, set it up on the piano, the other guys sittin' around, they were reading it, [but not me].
DUKE ELLINGTON: I got my first break when I was about seventeen years old, and Louis Thomas sent for me to play piano one night. Thomas was the leader of a society band whose only competition was Meyer Davis. I was to get a chance to play in his band on the condition I learned how to play `Siren Song' well enough to perform that night. I spent the whole day learning the tune. Then I arrived on the job and found the band was a legitimate one, they wouldn't take any `jumps'. The musicians started talking to me about correct chords and in a few minutes I knew I'd be sunk. Then somebody requested `Siren Song' and in great relief I started plunking out the number. I had often watched Luckey Roberts who had come down from New York to play the Howard Theatre. He had a flashy style and a trick of throwing his hands away from the piano. It occurred to me that I might try doing what he did. Before I knew it the kids around the band were screaming with delight and clapping for more. In two minutes the flashy hands had earned me a reputation and after that I was all set.
REX STEWART: At Odd Fellows Hall in Georgetown there was always a dance on a Saturday night. A lot of us youngsters used to hang around the hall, peeping in the windows at the dancers and musicians. This particular Saturday night there was a quartet working that sounded great to us kids because they played the popular tunes of the day ... we gaped over the fence, suddenly I yelled to my buddy, `Hey, that guy playing the piano -- I know him. That's Eddie Ellington!'
DUKE ELLINGTON: During the war, the First World War, I was just a yearling. Meyer Davis and Louis Thomas were the two society bands, Louis Thomas was coloured and Meyer Davis was white, and they sent out bands. They had one-inch ads in the telephone book. Well, during the war, all these strange people from all over the country they wanted music, they'd look in the telephone book, `Music Furnished for All Occasions', and I used to work in Louis Thomas's fifth band, I didn't know nothing about music, I was just bullshitting, and Louis would send me out on jobs, me and a drummer.
DUKE ELLINGTON: [Thomas] sent me to Ashland Country Club, fabulous place for millionaires, and he told me to collect $100 and give him $90, and I woke up and I said, `What's happening here?' That's when I woke up and got into business for myself.
EDNA THOMPSON: Shortly before we were twenty we got married [on 2 July 1918] and before we were twenty-one Mercer came [on 11 March 1919]. Ellington was working in music then and he was a messenger in the Treasury Department. He also painted backdrops for the Howard Theatre. Those were hard days. But even then he had hitched his wagon to a star. He knew he would be great.
Edna and Edward `Duke' Ellington set up home together at 1955 Third Street, NW, Washington D.C.
DUKE ELLINGTON: In 1918 I was deeply involved in music. I got married, had a son — tremendous responsibilities. Bought a house, automobile, worked around Washington as a musician, played a lot of society parties around Washington during the World War Number One.
By now Ellington was earning enough to buy a Chandler — then between $1,800 and $2,500 — and move to a house at 2728 Sherman Avenue, NW, Washington D.C.
EDNA ELLINGTON: Then the second baby came. It was too close to the first and died.
OTTO HARDWICK: At the time Duke was playing and I was aspiring to be a musician; although at the time I was just a pupil of music I wanted to get out into the band business, and Duke offered me my first opportunity, says, `C'mon, let's play with me.' I said, `I don't think I'm good enough.' He said, `Who is good enough? C'mon, just bring your horn!'
DUKE ELLINGTON: Otto Hardwick, or `Toby' as we call him, was just growing up at that time ... he was playing bass fiddle with Carroll's Columbia Orchestra and he was so small his father used to carry his bass to work for him. I, considering myself a veteran, decided I would break Toby in. He got himself a saxophone, in those days it was a C-Melody.
OTTO HARDWICK: Well, he had a drummer, Lloyd Stewart, and I think it was a banjo player, his name was White, Philly White, and they added a sax — they didn't know whether they were going to get a good one or not, I was the fourth man!
DUKE ELLINGTON: I got him a job, and later on I used to send him out on jobs and pretty soon he got to be known as one of the best saxophone players in town. [Trumpeter] Artie Whetsol used to work with us sometimes too.
OTTO HARDWICK: Every man in his band had the freedom of expression as far as the music was concerned. We would have an arrangement, but if there was something you felt you wanted to put in it, you were free to do it, privileged to make suggestions, just spontaneously burst out with it, and if he liked it, or if he didn't, he'd go along with it anyway.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Toby had a weakness for $90 suits, and he ended up buying himself a Pullman automobile. We called the car `Dupadilly'. You always had to push to start it and it didn't have a crankhandle. It inevitably stalled on a hill. One day it stopped and somewhere and we got out and left it and that was the end of Dupadilly. Before that though ... Claude Hopkins had a car and I had a Chandler and Toby and Felix and Bill used to race our two cars and the Dupadilly. After work we'd set out, going nowhere and as fast as we could. We didn't bother about street crossings or anything else. I don't know why we never cracked-up.
OTTO HARDWICK: We had fun, excitement and extra cash in those days.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Toby was always a guy who enjoyed having a ball, he had us all laughing.
REX STEWART: Whenever that old gang that used to hang around True Reformers Hall in Washington would meet anywhere in the world, the `remember whens' would always get around to Otto and the gang's adventures with Dupadilly, as Toby's old wreck of an auto was called. Although that was kid stuff, it was still colourful enough to become part of the Hardwick legend.
OTTO HARDWICK: All of a sudden we began to get a lot of `dicty' jobs. We would all pile into my Pullman automobile, the `Dupadilly', and Duke would direct me to drive to an embassy, ministry or private mansion ... This was all Meyer Davis territory and none of us were able to figure out how Ellington was muscling in on all these fine gigs. Sometimes he had two or three jobs going at the same time and would rush around to make an appearance with each group he'd sent out.
DUKE ELLINGTON: The reason why I was so successful, I imagine, was because I put a one-inch ad in the telephone book alongside Meyer Davis and Louis Thomas who were the only other bands who advertised in the telephone book, so I too was sending out several bands every night, very lucrative business.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Whenever anyone wanted anything in Washington, they looked in the phone book. Especially so where bands were concerned. If somebody wanted to hire some music and didn't know what musicians they wanted, I figured they were just as likely as not to pick the biggest name in the book.
|Ch. 1||Flaming Youth||3|
|Ch. 2||Jungle Nights in Harlem||27|
|Ch. 3||Cotton Club Stomp||62|
|Ch. 4||High Life||93|
|Ch. 5||The Duke Steps Out||130|
|Ch. 6||Steppin' into Swing Society||184|
|Ch. 7||In a Mellotone||212|
|Ch. 8||Things Ain't what they used to be||256|
|Ch. 9||Newport Up||303|
|Ch. 10||Serious Serenade||344|
|Ch. 11||Half the Fun||382|