Storiella Americana as She is Swyung: Duke Ellington, the Culture of Washington D.C. and the Blues as Representative Anecdote
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 imported. 

     Duke Ellington (né 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 was blessed. 

     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 bandleader 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 bandleader 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 Fingers. 

     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 Wilson. 

     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 cofounder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History from its beginning until his death in 1950. 

     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 norms 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 compatible 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 sources. 

     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 yourself.” 

     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 “dimensions.” 

     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 US 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 psychosis. 

     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.

Albert Murray’s books include The Trainwhistle Guitar and The Spyglass Tree (both Pantheon). His biography of Count Basie, Good Morning Blues, was published by Random House.