Duke Ellington’s D.C.: ‘What we Could Not Say Openly, We Expressed in Music’

Duke Ellington in front of the Apollo Theatre, New York, 1963. Photograph by Richard Avedon.

Last week I watched the 2000 PBS documentary Duke Ellington’s Washington. It’s a great way to learn the history of D.C. at the turn of the century – especially the Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, and Shaw neighborhoods around where I live. I highly recommend it for viewing! Here’s a short description of the video:

“Before the Harlem Renaissance, Duke Ellington’s Washington was the social and cultural capital of Black America. From 1900 to 1920, it was this country’s largest African American community. Anchored by Howard University and federal government jobs, this community became a magnet for African American intellectuals and sent a stream of shining talents to the nation for generations. It developed a prosperous black middle class which forged a strong society of churches, newspapers, businesses and civic institutions. Its businesses were black owned and run; its buildings, designed, built and financed by blacks; its entertainment, by and for African Americans. This was a proud and elegant community that flourished despite, or perhaps even because, of Jim Crow, the oppressive segregation that forced blacks to create their own separate destiny.”

The New Yorker (May 17, 2010) also has a great essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont titled Black, Brown, and Beige: Duke Ellington’s music and race in America. Pierpont reviews Harvey G. Cohen’s recently released book “Duke Ellington’s America.” Both the book and Pierpont’s essay are an interesting way to examine race in America through classical American music – jazz. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

“What we could not say openly, we expressed in music,” Ellington wrote in the British magazine Rhythm, in 1931, trying to explain the Negro musical tradition that had grown up in America, music “forged from the very white heat of our sorrows.” All his life, Ellington gave the impression of having been unscathed by racism, either in his early years—color, he said, was never even mentioned in his parents’ home—or during the long professional decades when it defined almost every move he made: where he could play his music, who could come to listen to it, whether he could stay in a hotel or attend another musician’s show, and where (or whether) he could find something to eat when the show was over. The orchestra made its first Southern tour just after its return from England, in 1933, travelling (thanks to Mills) in supremely insulated style: two private Pullman cars for sleeping and dining, and a separate baggage car for the elaborate wardrobe, scenery, and lights required to present a show more dazzling than any that most of the sleepy little towns where they made their stops had ever seen. Ellington made a special effort to perform for black audiences, even when it meant that the band added a midnight show in a place where it had performed earlier that night exclusively for whites. Reports from both racial groups were that the players outdid themselves; it is difficult to know where they felt they had more to prove.

Segregation was hardly peculiar to the South, of course, any more than it was limited, in New York, to the Cotton Club and its ilk. The down-and-dirty Kentucky Club had been no different: even without thugs at the door, there was an unspoken citywide dictate about where the different races belonged. The only exceptions were the “Black and Tans,” the few Harlem clubs that permitted casual racial mixing, and to which Ellington seems to have been paying tongue-in-cheek tribute with the not-quite-meshing themes of “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This was the first number played, after “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at Ellington’s landmark Carnegie Hall concert, in January, 1943, although the piece sounded very different from his twenties hit: taken at a slower tempo, with extended solos, it was twice its original length—so deliberative it seemed a kind of statement—and showed off the burnished power of Ellington’s forties band.

Read the whole essay here.

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