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.

Hip-Hop News: Jasiri X on Afghanistan

Hip-Hop News: It’s what the kids are listening to.

This Week With Jasiri X is the groundbreaking Hip-Hop news series by Pittsburgh-based Nation of Islam minister Jasiri X.

Each episode of This Week With Jasiri X features him reporting the national news over the rap and hip-hop tracks. “Using lyrical skills, controversial subject matter, and phat beats, Jasiri X shows that real Hip-hop is not dead,” says his Web site.

Chuck D of Public Enemy once said that “Hip-hop was the CNN of the ghetto.” No artist embraces and embodies that concept better than Jasiri X.

jasiri-x-picHis newest video is on Afghanistan. It examines what lead up to Afghanistan’s intimate and volatile relationship with the U.S.

In the classic tradition of Romantic poetry, Jasiri X identifies Afghanistan as a woman and examines her relationship with the Men (and their armies) surrounding her. The strategic use of video from Dr. King and the resonant refrain “Bring the Troops Home” is powerful!

Jasiri X’s putting the prophetic politics back into hip-hop, returning it to its roots from Public Enemy, with its reference to John Dillinger who was named by the FBI during the Great Depression as “Public Enemy Number 1” (though many of the hungry poor public referred to Dillinger as a “Robin Hood”).

Jasiri X is a MC, activist and entrepreneur who made his way onto the national and international hip-hop scene with the controversial hit song “FREE THE JENA 6,” which played on more than 100 radio stations across the U.S. It was also named “Hip-hop Political Song of the Year” and won “Single of the Year” at the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards in 2007.

Afghanistan (HerStory) was produced by Kai Roberts and directed by Paradise the Arkitech of X-Clan. Check out more videos at Real Talk Express and Justin Richardson’s page at The Gathering for Justice.

Video: The Young Are Dreaming Dreams

In June 2009, 19 young Israelis and Palestinians, who have been working together for three years, came together in Tel Aviv to show that music can overcome conflict by creating a unique track and this 5-minute video.

The project is a collaboration between peace organization Windows for Peace and pioneering London-based music college Point Blank Learning. This video ‘Step for Peace’ is the final result of all their hard work.

For me, it’s a contemporary expression of Joel 2:28-29: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.”

“At first [working on the project] was kind of weird. We all have different stories. We all had a bit of trouble trying to understand each other. Just our traditions are different; we are living different lives. After some time, we got to know each other and be friends.” – Natalie, Palestinian from Bethlehem, 15.

“It has changed my life. Before, I thought Israeli people were bad and that they thought of us as bad. When I met the group it was a shock for me – now I’ve changed my thoughts about Israelis” – Tamara, Palestinian from Bethlehem, 15.

“It’s fantastic we are talking, because we are supposed to be enemies. I came here because I wanted to understand more the other side. It’s hard for me to talk about the hard things [Palestinians] go through. There is something in their voice that blames me and I can’t blame them for that” – Gili, Israeli from Tel Aviv, 14.

“[The song] won’t make people meet the other side, but it will change the way they think about the conflict” – Orin, Tel Aviv resident, 14.

Kerri Powers: Alligator Boots in Church

Kerri Powers’ song “Tallulah Send a Car for Me” (2009) is totally excellent!

With an opening line like “Can’t wear my alligator boots in church … Preacher says all they ever do is drag in dirt. I think I got some dirt on his clean white shirt” you hardly need anything else.

But Powers presses on with more great lyrics and a broken-bourbon bottle bluesy voice that recalls crickets in the holler on the dark of the moon — all with that steel-string guitar keeping up the rest of the conversation.

Thanks to my friend Brenda over at Brenda Prescott Muses for the tip on Kerri Powers.

Joan Baez Serenades O-Talkers in VA

Joan Baez was in D.C. last week promoting “Day After Tomorrow,” her new CD. (Check it out! It’s produced by Steve Earle and Stevie-boy wrote one of the tracks, “God is God.”)

Joan Baez with Obama crew in VA.
Joan Baez with Obama crew in VA.

But, guess what? She also took time to stop by the Obama campaign office in Alexandria, Virginia, and sing a few lines. My friend Nate Solloway was there volunteering and got a great picture with Sweet Joanie.

With her political spirit fully intact, the 67-year-old pacifist endorsed a candidate for the first time. “I haven’t heard an orator like [Obama] since King,” she said. Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” in 1963 to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.

As a point of interest, Baez committed her first act of civil disobedience when she was 16 years old. She refused to leave her high school classroom in Palo Alto, Calif., during “practice atomic bomb” evacuations. Instead, she sat at her desk and read her book. I wonder what she was reading?.