The Washington Post
Duke Ellington's Americaby Harvey G. Cohen
Few American artists in any medium have enjoyed the international and lasting cultural impact of Duke Ellington. From jazz standards such as “Mood Indigo” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” to his longer, more orchestral suites, to his leadership of the stellar big band he toured and performed with for decades after most big bands
Few American artists in any medium have enjoyed the international and lasting cultural impact of Duke Ellington. From jazz standards such as “Mood Indigo” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” to his longer, more orchestral suites, to his leadership of the stellar big band he toured and performed with for decades after most big bands folded, Ellington represented a singular, pathbreaking force in music over the course of a half-century. At the same time, as one of the most prominent black public figures in history, Ellington demonstrated leadership on questions of civil rights, equality, and America’s role in the world.
With Duke Ellington’s America, Harvey G. Cohen paints a vivid picture of Ellington’s life and times, taking him from his youth in the black middle class enclave of Washington, D.C., to the heights of worldwide acclaim. Mining extensive archives, many never before available, plus new interviews with Ellington’s friends, family, band members, and business associates, Cohen illuminates his constantly evolving approach to composition, performance, and the music business—as well as issues of race, equality and religion. Ellington’s own voice, meanwhile, animates the book throughout, giving Duke Ellington’s America an intimacy and immediacy unmatched by any previous account.
By far the most thorough and nuanced portrait yet of this towering figure, Duke Ellington’s America highlights Ellington’s importance as a figure in American history as well as in American music.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
“Cohen’s volume. . . . is substantial, richly sourced, intelligent, and, in many ways, persuasive. And unlike many other writers on Ellington, Cohen gives proper attention to all phases of Ellington’s career, and in so doing unveils information that is new or has been overlooked. . . . This is an important work and one that Ellington scholarship will benefit from and draw on for new debates.”
"Duke Ellington's America attempts to get under the skin of this apparently most imperturbable of men, and the results, if hardly conclusive, are fascinating. . . . Extremely intelligent and formidably documented book—a welcome change from much that has been published about Ellington."—Claudia Roth Pierpont, New Yorker
“The idea of a substantial book about a major musical figure that pays relatively little attention to his music might seem counterintuitive — or, to put it less politely, pointless. That Duke Ellington’s America succeeds as well as it does is a tribute both to its author and to its subject."--New York Times
"Meticulously researched and elegantly written."
"Another door-stopper of a book that's worth writing about, and, even more so, reading. . . . The research achievement of the author, and his readability, are far too impressive not to merit wholesale recommendation."
“The book makes nuanced sense of the hard choices at every turn, in years when it often fell to Ellington to pioneer new audiences and new venues, and to insist on a level of dignity rarely accorded to African-American artists.”--Geoffrey O'Brien, New York Review of Books
- University of Chicago Press
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Duke Ellington's America
By Harvey G. Cohen
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWashington/New York
Ellington's parents, James and Daisy, strictly maintained that all people were equal, and no race better than another. This marked a characteristic attitude of the black middle-class of turn-of-the-century Washington, D.C. Social and political progress, according to the mindset of this community, would not occur through political agitation and protest, but by high achievement and radiating a sense of respectability. Washington's black children were made aware of the violence and discrimination of the Jim Crow era, yet also were taught that skilled achievers would be recognized no matter their color. Ellington's younger sister Ruth explained how the Ellington family's social life reflected this sentiment:
In our house ... while I was growing up, people of all colors were there. More whites than coloreds. My father was like that. [Duke] didn't talk about color. In our house, you didn't talk about color. I remember when I was about five years old in Washington I was standing down in the front garden with my cousin and the people passing our house were various colors. And she pointed out to me that these people had different colors. I had never heard anybody talk about color. So I ran upstairs to my father with whom I had all my, quote, intellectual conversations, and I thought that I ought to impart this information to him and he was reading the newspaper and when I told him what my cousin Elizabeth said he put the paper down and said two words: "Nonsense, Ruthie!" And he put his newspaper back up. So I went downstairs and I never mentioned color again [giggles]. That's probably why I am the way I am now about color.
This attitude of recognizing the best in each category, rather than categorizing people and accomplishments by color, represented the Ellington ethos. After flirtations with sports and art, the teenaged Ellington gravitated toward the field of music, which, at the time he was born, represented one of the few areas in the country in which blacks earned money and respect at the highest level, competing and collaborating with whites at the top of a profession. Ellington's background, and the black cultural figures who preceded him, proved essential in his ability to create the most distinguished oeuvre in American music.
The Washington, D.C., into which Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born on 29 April 1899 proved a perfect springboard for his genius and ambitions. It was a center of black musical and intellectual resistance to racism, and probably the best place to be an African American at the turn of the century, though certainly not without racial problems. The city was a bastion of the black middle class, to which Ellington's family tenuously belonged. The community's black leaders did not so much fight against the racist system in America as quietly and determinedly circumvent it. The dignity and pride they sought to instill in the Washington black community, especially its young people, avoided challenging and confronting the social and political realities of the time, but instead sought to rise above them. From his upbringing, from the mentors and cultural figures who came before him, Ellington adopted a method of assertive yet nonconfrontational activism in dealing with matters of race, prejudice, and black achievement.
Even before the Civil War, Washington represented a better place than usual for blacks to live. Laws against blacks were rarely enforced, the majority of blacks were free by the 1830s, and the first black public school opened in 1807, followed by many more in ensuing decades, probably more in relation to population than anywhere else in the United States. After the Civil War, Washington gained a reputation as a center of "respectable Negro society," serving as a haven from exploitive sharecropping in the South designed to resemble slavery, most of the worst Jim Crow discrimination, and increased incidence of lynchings and racial violence. It boasted the largest black urban community in the nation-31 percent of its inhabitants. Until the Woodrow Wilson administration ushered in an era of increased segregation in 1913, the federal government treated and hired local blacks with relative equality.
Booker T. Washington noted in the late 1870s that African Americans could "live a life of ease" in the nation's capital, and the argument gained more credence by the time of Ellington's birth. A few blacks were born to limited wealth, but most were in small businesses or professions as teachers, barbers, lawyers, dentists, college-trained clergy, and, thanks to the strong federal-government presence, civil servants and social workers. For whites, such occupations represented middle-class status, but in the black community these were viewed as elite occupations. Three national African American papers ran society columns reporting on the activities of the elite black Washingtonians, and some black observers criticized them for being overly obsessed with status and material objects, a view Langston Hughes endorsed when he stayed in Washington for a period in the mid-1920s.
Washington's elite black community adopted many of the trappings and beliefs of the white American middle class of the nineteenth century: "respectability, church membership, family stability, home ownership, hard work, good education, and refinement." The same values were cherished in the Ellington household. Jacqueline Moore traced the development of the black middle class in Washington, D.C., and documented a distinct difference between the philosophies of this group in the 1880s and in the first two decades of the twentieth century. While the group in both periods placed emphasis on manners, etiquette, and dress, the middle-class blacks of the earlier period stressed assimilation into white society by cultivating an image of respectability grounded in highbrow culture. A black opera company was founded in the city in the 1870s, and the intellectual American Negro Academy developed in 1897, amid other cultural activities such as literary organizations, (often classical) music programs, plays, poetry readings, and lecture series for blacks.
By the turn of the century, however, whites had still not accepted such attempts at bridging the racial divide and generally viewed all blacks as inferior, no matter their level of refinement or the fact that some of them lived in better circumstances than many whites. Black elites increasingly stressed racial solidarity, with "an emphasis on black culture and a closer identity with the black masses," according to Willard B. Gatewood. Assimilation no longer represented their top priority. They steered their children toward "careers that would help the black community achieve independence from white society [and] ... worked more openly for racial justice" and uplift. Moore found that the black children of Ellington's generation and their middle-class parents in Washington, D.C., believed that "if they worked quietly behind the scenes to contradict negative images of African Americans, they could bring whites to accept them as equals without open conflict." Such a strategy, with its emphasis on subtle challenge instead of head-on attack and on the unity of black culture, encapsulated Ellington's views on race relations almost perfectly.
Washington's black churches played a major role in building community, as black churches had for more than a century in American history. Church leadership emphasized racial uplift and solidarity, and supported the teaching of the "social gospel," a popular religious trend among white Protestant churches that encouraged congregants to use their churches as centers for aiding and enlightening the urban poor, and reforming society. Black churches expanded the notion to include speaking out against discrimination and racial violence. Black businessmen also played a role in promoting black pride in Washington, goaded in part by their realization that, because of Jim Crow discrimination, they needed to rely on their black clientele almost exclusively. The Shaw neighborhood, where Ellington principally grew up, was the main black business district.
Most importantly, race pride was emphasized in Washington's black schools, and emerged as a major influence in the generation of black youngsters that came of age in the early twentieth century. Moore reported that administrators assembled a curriculum that purposely "counteracted negative stereotypes" of blacks. In the 1960s, when arguments between integration and segregation roiled American politics, Ellington felt that the separated schools for blacks in his youth constituted "a very good thing for the Negro." "What used to happen was that they were concerned with you being representative of a great and proud race," he recalled. "They used to pound it into you, you go to the English class, that [race pride] was more important than the English." Students wrote papers concerning morality and the value of community. They studied great African civilizations, and one school assigned African folk tales. Washington's black youth also received a strong grounding in black history, using an African American history book cowritten by the local black scholar Carter G. Woodson. At Armstrong High School, where Ellington attended in the mid-1910s, the principal "had his students render black folk songs." No other students in the country were given such detailed training and instruction in black history and identity. Moore found that this strategy of instilling race pride and opportunity paid dividends: "The children of this social elite who came to prominence in the early twentieth-century were more secure in their position, expected a certain measure of success and believed it was the responsibility of the elite to lead the race to better things."
Ellington reported in his autobiography that his teachers (and his father) taught him that African Americans needed to cultivate especially good manners and speech and that blacks in his neighborhood were careful not to mix with any below-average people-black or white. "At that time there was some kind of movement to desegregate the schools in Washington, D.C.," Ellington explained. "Who do you think were the first to object? Nobody but the proud Negroes of Washington, who felt that the kind of white kids we would be thrown in with were not good enough." His eighth-grade instructor, Miss Boston, told her classes flatly that "your responsibility is to command respect for the race." This atmosphere, combined with the occasional sight in Washington of African American judges, lawyers, and other professionals led young black men for generations to believe that, as Washington musician and educator Billy Taylor recalled, "any field that I wanted to go into, I had the possibility of success." A generation after Ellington left his hometown, this kind of education continued and was still rare for its time: his son Mercer recalled that he received instruction in black history in Washington, but not when he moved to New York City to be with his father in the early 1930s. While sometimes snobbish, the culture and environment of black Washington forwarded the impression of the personal worth and innate equality of blacks without taking a dangerously assertive stance.
Racial pride and support flourished first in the Ellington home. This was not uncommon; D.C.'s black families provided protection for their children against Jim Crow, and gave them a strong sense of security and identity. The families were usually very close, which helped them take advantage of opportunities. Parents taught their children to stand up for themselves without showing disrespect. Such descriptions fit the Ellingtons snugly. They were a close and "almost unbelievably loving" family, by all accounts. At an early age, his mother Daisy repeatedly told Ellington: "Edward, you are blessed. You don't have anything to worry about. Edward, you are blessed!" In his autobiography, written when he was past the age of seventy, Ellington intimated that he still believed her words to be true. Ruth Ellington, his sister, reported that the family acted as if the sentiment were true, noting without malice that "everything was [done] for Edward." Ellington corroborated this in a 1958 interview:
I never had it so good as when I was a kid. I didn't have to move a muscle. My mother brought me up in the palm of her hand, she really spoiled me. And it wasn't just my mother. It was my mother's 14 sisters and brothers and my father and his 18 sisters and brothers. When they got through spoiling me, I was really spoiled.
Six years later, he reminisced about frequent trips with his mother to his grandmother's house to visit his aunts. They used to all play in "a great big backyard with four pear trees surrounded by a grape orchard ... We used to eat the pears in the summertime, and in the fall they would always be preserving and canning, you know, this big thing," Ellington recalled. "They were cooking constantly ... I don't know too much about the neighbors because this was such a tight-knit family circle that neighbors never even entered into it ... I was so busy wrapped up in family."
Ellington's family history confirmed the notion that an African American could accomplish anything, as long as hard work accompanied the desire. Ellington's son Mercer recalled that Daisy's side of the family (the Kennedys) included "principals, doctors, lawyers, and so forth." According to Ruth Ellington, their maternal grandfather "was born a slave, and was a son of [an] Irish slave master, who freed him before Lincoln freed the slaves and put him in business contracting and building. He ended up a millionaire ... and there's still about a quarter of a million dollars of his estate that's left." Apparently, the grandfather's estate was bequeathed to other branches of the Kennedy family tree, and not to the Ellingtons. Ellington's first cousin Bernice Wiggins (her mother was Daisy's sister) claimed that their mothers' family had white and Native American antecedents as well as African American, and were related to Frederick Douglass and Charles Drew, the pioneer of blood transfusions.
Ellington's family certainly did not live the lifestyle of the wealthy before Duke's commercial success in the early 1930s. But they did lead a secure existence as a black middle-class family, though their income would not have qualified them for such status in the white community. In the 1960s, Ellington recalled that his family knew "no poverty," and that "my mother fed me with a silver spoon all my life." Ellington's parents lived and acted like they were among the black upper crust, but were not. Their grandson Mercer Ellington classified them as "menials." Their middle-class aspirations reflected the desire to assert dignity and pride more than the family's actual economic and social position. Part of this pride communicated itself in what Mercer and Wiggins viewed as the tradition of art and music on both sides of Ellington's family tree. Mercer recalled that, within the family, it was stressed to "do something different. Do something that identifies you as an individual."
Ruth Ellington characterized her father, James E. Ellington, often called "J. E.," as "a Chesterfieldian gentleman, very charming." J. E. passed onto his son his eloquent way with words, particularly with the ladies. He entertained people at home with his barbershop quartet, and played whist (a card game) prodigiously. His many sisters were warm and outgoing; Ruth claimed that her brother's penchant for kisses and telling people "love you madly" came from the Ellington side of the family. As his son recalled, J. E. also played a little piano: "In spite of the fact that he only played by ear, he only played operatic music [laughs] and he would sing along with it," especially the arias. He worked in various capacities in some of the finer white homes as waiter, coachman, driver, and butler. Since his family could not afford to provide him with a formal education, his main education came from a long-term assignment as a butler and a houseman with Dr. Cuthbert, a white man who allowed him to partake of a large personal library that J. E. "read omnivorously." Because of these experiences, J. E. knew fine wines, and insisted that the Ellington dinner table be laid out in a formal manner, and that the family's clothing match that ambience.
Excerpted from Duke Ellington's America by Harvey G. Cohen Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Harvey G. Cohen, a cultural historian, is associate professor of cultural and creative industries at King’s College London.
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