IT IS A COINCIDENCE both appropriate and profoundly symbolic that the quintessential
American composer was born, grew to young manhood, came to his vocation, and began his
apprenticeship in the capital city of the nation. Such achievement as his is hardly predictable, to
be sure. But in this instance it is easy enough to account for, because it is so consistent with
uniquely local environmental factors that conditioned the outlook, direction, and scope of his
ambition and development.
As little as has been made of it, there is in point of historical fact, much to suggest that
circumstances in Washington during the first two decades of the century made it just the place to
dispose a bright-eyed and ambitious young brownskin musician to become the composer who
has indeed achieved the most comprehensive and sophisticated as well as the most widely
infectious synthesis of the nation's richly diverse musical resources, both indigenous and
Duke Ellington (ne Edward Kennedy Ellington, aka Ellington and Duke) whose
work represents far and away the most definitive musical stylization of life in the United States,
was born in the house of his maternal grandparents on 20th Street on the 29th of April 1899, and
shortly thereafter was taken by his parents, James Edward and Daisy Kennedy Ellington, to their
own residence in Wards Place off New Hampshire Avenue, about midway between Dupont
Circle on Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Circle on Pennsylvania Avenue.
This was less than ten blocks from the White House of William McKinley, who was
assassinated when Ellington was two years old. From then, until Ellington was ten it was the
White House of Theodore Roosevelt who was followed by four status quo ante years of William
Howard Taft. From the time Ellington was 14 until he was 22, it was not only the White House
but also very much the sharply segregated Washington of Woodrow Wilson.
The Washington of McKinley is said to have provided much more government
employment for black citizens than any previous administration. But even so, post-Reconstruction disfranchisement continued apace, for McKinley's commitment was not to the
implementation of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, but to conciliation of the erstwhile
Confederate states. Moreover his capital city was also the seat of an American expansionism that
was all too consistent with the underlying assumptions of the folklore of white supremacy and
fakelore of black pathology.
Then there was the Washington of Theodore Roosevelt whose admiration for the down-home Horatio Algerism of Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee and author of the
best selling autobiography Up From Slavery , was widely publicized, as was his defense
of his appointment of William D. Crum as collector of the Port of Charleston. In point of fact
Roosevelt's attitude toward black American aspirations was not only inconsistent and
undependable, it was at times indistinguishable from that of those who were frankly opposed to
anything except a subservient status for Negroes. The obvious immediate effect of his
wrongheaded and highhanded overreaction in meting out dishonorable discharges to black
soldiers allegedly involved in the so-called Brownsville Raid of 1906 was to embolden whites
who advocated terrorism as a means of keeping black people from full citizenship, something
against which Roosevelt spoke neither loudly nor softly and against which he seems to have
carried no stick of any size.
During the administration of Taft, Washington was the city of a president who in his
inaugural address announced that he would not appoint Negroes to any position where they were
not wanted by white people. On one of his better days Roosevelt had once written that he would
not close the door of hope to any American citizen. But to aspiring black Americans and white
reactionaries alike Taft's statement seemed like official capitulation to the forces of white
supremacy, not all of them in the South.
During Ellington's adolescence and young manhood his hometown was the Washington
of the downright evil forces of Woodrow Wilson, whose campaign promises to black voters were
forgotten as soon as he was inaugurated. Once in office, it was as if he had never expressed his
"warmest wish to see justice done to the colored people in every matter, and not mere grudging
justice, but justice executed with liberality and cordial good feeling ... I want to assure them that
should I become president of the United States they may count on me for absolute fair dealing,
for everything by which I could assist in advancing the interest of their race in the United States."
But whereas his predecessors had been, on balance, perhaps more indifferent to black
aspirations than intolerant of gradual improvement, Wilson's two administrations turned out to
be downright hostile. in less than three months he signed an executive order segregating dining
and toilet facilities in federal service buildings whose black employees were already being
rapidly reduced in number and significance. And this was only the beginning. During the next
eight years every effort was made to turn the nation's capital into a typical peckerwood town
with a climate of white supremacy. "I have recently spent several days in Washington," Booker
Washington wrote to Oswald Garrison Villard in a letter (10 August 1913) which he knew was
going to be passed on to Wilson, "and I have never seen the colored people so discouraged and
bitter as they were at that time."
As inevitable as a direct effect of all this was on his daily life, Ellington did not grow up
thinking of himself as downtrodden. On the contrary, as far back as he could remember he was
treated as though he were a special child, and he never seems to have doubted his mother when
she told him as she did time and again that he didn't have anything to worry about because he
His father, who was a butler, then a caterer, and then a blueprint technician at the navy
yard, was not only a good provider, but a man who saw to it that his family lived in good houses,
in good neighborhoods (no slum dweller, he), and Ellington said that he "kept our house loaded
with the best food obtainable and because he was a caterer we had the primest steaks and the
finest terrapin." Ellington added, "He spent money and lived like a man who had money and he
raised his family as though he were a millionaire. The best had to be carefully examined to make
sure it was good enough for my mother."
No, James Ellington's outlook was neither negative nor provincial. Nor was young
Edward's. Indeed, such were his horizons of aspiration even as a child that when at the age of
about eight a slightly older playmate nicknamed him Duke, he accepted it as if it were his natural
due, and so did his family and everybody else in Washington who knew him, and in time so did
the world at large including the Royal family of England and the ever so proletarian bureaucrats
and workers of the Soviet Union.
(Apropos of the personal vanity that this readiness to define himself in aristocratic terms
may suggest to some pseudo-egalitarians, let it be said that Ellington was always more charming
than vain and not at all arrogant. The fact of the matter is that you would be hard put to find
anybody who was ever more discerning and appreciative of other people's assets and as eager to
develop and showcase them. His ability to utilize and feature specific nuances was one of the
trademarks of his genius as a composer. And no other band leader ever put up with so many
exasperating personal faults in his sidemen just to have them on hand to supply shadings that
perhaps most of his audiences would never have missed. What other band leader always had so
many homegrown superstars on hand at the same time?)
But to continue the chronology. What Ellington himself always emphasized when
recounting the advantages of his coming of age in Washington was that he was born and raised
among people to whom quality mattered and who required your personal best no less as a general
principle than as a natural reaction to the folklore of white supremacy. In neither case would
they accept excuses for failure. You either had what it took or you didn't, as somebody from less
promising circumstances than yours would prove only too soon.
Not that Ellington would ever deny or ameliorate any of the atrocities perpetuated by the
Wilson crowd between 1913 and 1921. He took them for granted much the same as the fairy tale
princes and dukes of derring-do take the existence of the dragon (grand or not) for granted. Also
like the fairy tale hero that he was by way of becoming, he seems to have been far too
preoccupied with getting help to forge his magic sword (or magic means) to spend much time
complaining about the injustice of the existence of the dragon. Dispatching the dragon, after
all, as devastating as dragons are, has always been only incidental to gaining the ultimate boon to
which the dragon denies you access.
According to Ellington himself, the hometown he grew up in was an exciting and
challenging place of apprenticeship, in which there were many people of his kind to admire, learn
from and measure up to. As early on as the eighth grade there was Miss Boston. "She taught us
that proper speech and good manners were our first obligations because as representative of the
Negro race we were to command respect for our people. This being an all-colored school, Negro
History was crammed into the curriculum so that we would know our people all the way back."
The mainstem hangout for the young man about town was Frank Holliday's poolroom
next to the Howard Theatre on T-Street between Sixth and Seventh. "Guys from all walks of life
seemed to converge there: school kids over and under sixteen; college students and graduates,
some starting out in law and medicine and science; and lots of Pullman porters and dining car
waiters. These last had much to say about the places they'd been. The names of the cities would
be very impressive. You would hear them say,'l just left Chicago, or last night I was in
Cleveland." You could do a lot of listening in the poolroom, where the talk "always sounded as if
the prime authorities on every subject had been assembled there. Baseball, football, basketball,
boxing, wrestling, racing, medicine, law, politics, everything was discussed with authority."
Then when he really began to focus his ambitions on the piano and music, there was a
whole galaxy of virtuosi and theorists not only at Holliday's but all over town, and they were
always willing to repeat and explain things. Among them were Lester Dishman with his great
left hand; Clarence Bowser, a top ear man; Phil Wird from the Howard Theatre; Louis Thomas,
Sticky Mack, Blind Johnny, Gertie Wells, Carolynne Thornton and the Man With a Thousand
But most especially there was Louis Brown, who played chromatic thirds faster than most
of the greats could play chromatic singles, and his left hand could reach an eleventh in any key.
There was also Doc Perry to whose house the young apprentice used to go as often as possible
and "sit in a glow of enchantment until he'd pause and explain some passage. He never charged
me a dime and he served food and drink during the whole thing."
There was also Henry Grant a conservatory trained teacher who directed the Dunbar High School
Orchestra. He volunteered to give the promising young Ellington (a student at Armstrong High
School, not Dunbar) private lessons in harmony, and was much impressed with his talent for
melody and unusual harmonic nuances and also with his indefatigable devotion to the
mastery of fundamentals. Hence the incomparable precision that was characteristic of all
Ellington bands over the years!
As no true storyteller whether of fiction or the most precisely-documented fact should ever forget
-- such as the indispensable function of the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation (or antithesis
and synthesis, or competition or contention) in perhaps all achievement - there is neither irony
nor mystery in the fact that Washington during the vicious years of Wilson and his die-hard
confederates was also the base of operations for Kelly Miller, Dean of the College of Arts and
Science at Howard (1907-1919) and author of numerous essays on race relations, advocate of
courses on the American Negro and on Africa, militant spokesman and pamphleteer, most
notably of As to the Leopard's Spots, an Open Letter to Thomas Dixon (1905) and the
widely distributed The Disgrace of Democracy, an Open Letter to President Woodrow
It was likewise the Washington of Carter G. Woodson, with his B.A. and M.A. from
Chicago and his Ph.D. from Harvard and his background of work and study in the Philippines,
Asia, North Africa, and Europe, who taught French, Spanish, English and history at the M Street
School and at Dunbar and was later Principal of Armstrong High School, who was co-founder of
the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History from its beginning until his death in
And along with Miller and Woodson there was also Alain Locke from Philadelphia by way of
Harvard and the Oxford of Rhodes Scholars, who as a professor of arts and philosophy was
especially concerned with making Howard a cultural center for the development of black
intellectuals and artists.
The national fallout of all of this (add to it the work of W.E.B. DuBois) was such
that by 1925 Locke could edit an anthology of poems, stories, plays and essays by black
contributors and call it The New Negro and introduce it by saying, "In the last decade
something beyond the watch and guard of statistics has happened in the life of the American
Negro, and the three norns that have traditionally presided over the Negro problem have a
changeling in their laps. The sociologist, the philanthropist, the Race-leader are not unaware of
the New Negro, but they are at a loss to account for him --."
It was during this ten-year period, which included World War I, that Ellington came of
age and left Washington for New York.
But a word about usage. The emphasis which Miller, Woodson and Locke place on race
consciousness and even race pride should not be confused with the shrill, chauvinistic, pseudo-separatism of the so-called Garvey Movement. As Arthur Schomburg (who knew very well how
easy it was for such matters to degenerate into "puerile controversy and petty braggadocio") was
to write in "The Negro Digs Up His Past" for Locke's anthology, race studies "legitimately com-
patible with scientific method and aim were being undertaken not only to correct certain
omissions and not merely that we may not wrongfully be deprived on the spiritual nourishment
of our cultural past, but also that the full story of human collaboration and interdependence
may be told and realized." And Locke himself wrote, "If after absorbing the new content of
American life and experience, and after assimilating new patterns of art, the original (Afro-American) artistic endowment can be sufficiently augmented to express itself with equal power
in more complex pattern and substance, then the Negro may well become what some have
predicted, the artist of American life. If not Ellington and Armstrong in music, who else?
Ellington's all-American outlook was a direct result not of Howard University but of the
Howard Theatre and Frank Holliday's Poolroom cosmopolitans; but the fallout from Professors
Miller and Locke and from Woodson was there all the same. After all his impact was not only
citywide but also, like that of DuBois, nationwide.
In all events when the group of ambitious young musicians with whom Ellington went to
New York in 1923 proudly advertised themselves as the Washingtonians they were not
presenting themselves as a provincial novelty but rather as a band of sophisticated young men
who were ready to get on with it, because they had grown up in the capital city checking out the
best in the nation at the Howard Theatre, which, it should be remembered, was on the same
T.O.B.A. circuit as the Lincoln and the Lafayette in Harlem. (There was no Savoy yet, no Cotton
Club, no Apollo.) New York was a bigger league, to be sure, but the Washingtonians seem to
have had no doubts that they were ready to make the most of the breaks. And they were right. In
less than four years Ellington composed and recorded East Saint Louis Toodle-oo,
Birmingham Breakdown, Washington Wobble, Harlem River Quiver, New Orleans Low-Down,
Chicago Stomp Down (note the regional diversity) and also Black and Tan Fantasie
, and Creole Love Call.
Nor was he to encounter any musical authority in cosmopolitan New York that was more
crucial to his development as a composer than that of Will Marion Cook, another Washingtonian.
Cook, who was born in 1869, had been sent out to Oberlin to study violin at the age of 13 and on
to Berlin (with the encouragement and aid of the venerable Frederick Douglass) to be a pupil of
Joseph Joachim, the greatest music master of the day, and had also studied composition in New
York under Dvorak who had been brought over from Bohemia in 1893 to head up an American
Conservatory and to encourage Americans to create a national music based on indigenous
Cook who had given up the violin to concentrate on composition and conducting, had
become passionately committed to exploring and developing the possibilities of the Afro-American vernacular and had written the score for Paul Lawrence Dunbar's Clorindy , or
the Origin of the Cakewalk in 1898 , such musical comedies as Bandanna Land, In
Abyssinia , and In Dahomey for the famous vaudeville team of Williams and
Walker. He had also organized, directed and toured with various jazz bands, most notably the
Southern Syncopated Orchestra of some forty-one pieces which he took to Europe in 1919.
When he returned to New York, he became a pioneer arranger and conductor of radio music,
leading a hundred piece Clef Club Orchestra in some of the earliest live broadcasts.
Not only was Ellington, who had named his son Mercer after Cook's son Will Mercer,
very much impressed and personally influenced by all of this, but he was especially taken by the
fact that Cook with all of his formal training and all his strictness about technical precision, also
insisted, as James Weldon Johnson wrote, that the Negro in music and on the stage ought to be a
Negro, a genuine Negro; he declared that the Negro should eschew "white" patterns, and not
employ his efforts in doing what the white artist could always do as well, generally better."
According to Ellington, Cook's advice was "first you find the logical way, and when you find it,
avoid it, and let your inner self break through and guide you. Don't try to be anybody else but
Not the least of what Cook's advice may have done for young Ellington was to free him
to compose in terms of what he liked about such stride or eastern ragtime masters as James P.
Johnson, Willie "the Lion" Smith and Lucky Roberts, such New Orleans pacesetters as Louis
Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton and such special in-house talents
as Charlie Irvis and Bubber Miley among others, including Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney,
Jimmy Blanton, Ben Webster and Ray Nance who became stars even as they became Ellington
What Ellington went on beyond Will Marion Cook and everybody else to achieve was a
steady flow of incomparable twentieth century American music that is mostly the result of the
extension, elaboration and refinement of the traditional twelve bar blues chorus and the standard
thirty-two bar pop song form. And in doing so he has also fulfilled the ancestral esthetic
imperative to process folk melodies, and the music of popular entertainment as well as that of
church ceremonies into a truly indigenous fine art of not only nationwide but universal
significance, by using devices of stylization that are as vernacular as the idiomatic particulars of
the subject matter itself. It is not a matter of working folk and pop materials into established
or classic European forms but of extending, elaborating and refining (which is to say ragging,
jazzing and riffing and even jamming) the idiomatic into fine art. Skyscrapers, not Gothic
cathedrals, And as historians need not be reminded, barbarians eventually produce their own
principles of stylization and standards of criticism.
Moreover what Ellington's fully conjugated blues statement adds up to is a definitive
American Storiella as she is syung, which is to say, a musical equivalent to what Kenneth
Burke calls the representative anecdote, the effect of which is to summarize a basic attitude
toward experience; or a given outlook on life.
For many U.S. citizens, the representative anecdote would be any tale, tall or otherwise,
or indeed any narrative tidbit or joke or even folk or popular saying or cliche that has to do with a
self-made and free-spirited individual, or any variation on the Horatio Alger rags to riches,
steerage to boardroom, log cabin to White House motif. Among the so-called founding fathers,
Benjamin Franklin's career qualifies him as a veritable prototype of the picaresque Alger hero
and two other classic examples are A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An
American Slave written by Himself; and Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery.
Everybody knows that even now there are people all over the world dreaming of the
United States in the ever-so materialistic image and patterns of Horatio Alger. Others, however,
see definitive American characteristics in terms that are no less pragmatic but are more
comprehensively existential. In their view, the anecdotes most fundamentally representative are
those which symbolize (1) affirmation in the face of adversity, and (2) improvisation in situations
of disruption and discontinuity.
To this end, nobody other than Ellington as yet has made more deliberate or effective use
of basic devices of blues idiom statement, beginning with the very beat of the on-going up-beat
locomotive onomatopoeia (the chugging and driving pistons, the sometimes signifying,
sometimes shouting steam whistles, the always somewhat ambivalent arrival and departure bells)
that may be as downright programmatic as in the old guitar and harmonica folk blues but which
also function as the dead metaphoric basis of the denotative language of common everyday
discourse. The obviously programmatic but always playfully syncopated pistons, bells, and
whistles of "Daybreak Express," "Happy Go Lucky Local," "The Old Circus Train Turn Around
Blues" become as dead metaphors in "Harlem Airshaft" and "Mainstrem." Incidentally,
Ellington's use of locomotive onomatopoeia is resonant not only of metaphorical underground
railroad but also the metaphysical gospel train.
As for the idiomatic devices that are basic to the structure of most Ellington
compositions, there are the blues (mostly of 12 bars) and/or the popular song choruses (mostly of
32 bars) a series or sequence of which add up to a vernacular sonata form known as the
instrumental , which is also made up of such special features as the vamp or
improvised introduction or lead in, the riff or repetition phrase, and the break or
temporary interruption of the established cadence and which usually requires a fill .
An excellent instance of the break as both structural device and statement is "C-Jam
Blues," which is also a perfect example of how Ellington used the jam session, which consists of
an informal sequence of improvised choruses as the over-all frame for a precisely controlled but
still flexible instrumental composition. In an elementary sense it is as playful as a children's ring
game or dance, and yet it is also a basic way of ordering a discourse, not unlike, say, that jam
session of a social contract known as the Constitution with its neat piano vamp of a preamble
followed by a sequence of articles and amendments. The point here, of course, is not one of
direct derivation but of cultural consistency and perhaps a case could be made for occupational
Nor is the break just another mechanical structural device. It is of its very nature, as
dancers never forget, what the basic message comes down to: grace under pressure, creativity in
an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to
improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of
actuality which is to say entropy. The break is the musical equivalent to the storybook hero's
moment of truth. It is jeopardy as challenge and opportunity, and what it requires is the elegant
insouciance that Hemingway admired in bullfighters. Representative anecdote indeed. Talking
about the American frontier Storiella as she is riffed!
As for any question of extended forms, so dear to the reactionary hearts of so many old
line academics, the number of choruses in a jazz composition is determined by the occasion, as is
the number of floors in a given skyscraper. Once there was the three minute phonograph record,
then came the radio sound bite for voiceover, and suitelike sequence of bites that make a movie
soundtrack and now there is the hour-plus L.R Ellington took them all in stride.
The quintessential composer should be so called because he is the one who provides that
fifth essence, beyond earth, air, water and fire, that substance of the heavenly bodies that is latent
in all things, that spirit, nay that soul which is the magic means that somehow makes life in a
given time and place meaningful and thus purposeful.
Indeed, the fifth essence may well be nothing less than the ultimate boon that the
storybook quest is usually, if not always, about. If so, then the golden fleece of the composer's
quest is the musical equivalent to the representative or definitive anecdote. The assumption
here is that art is indispensable to human existence.
Duke Ellington is the quintessential American composer because it is his body of work
more than any other that adds up to the most specific, comprehensive, universally appealing
musical complement to what Constance Rourke, author of American Humor: a Study of the
National Character, had in mind when she referred to "emblems for a pioneer people who
require resilience as a prime trait." Nor can it be said too often that at its best an Ellington
performance sounds as if it knows the truth about all the other music in the world and is looking
for something better. Not even the Constitution represents a more intrinsically American
statement and achievement than that.
This essay appeared in The Blue Devils of Nada, published by Vintage in 1996.