An excerpt from
Duke Ellington's America
by Harvey G. Cohen
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.
Ellington’s mother Daisy made sure the Ellington home radiated a Victorian sensibility. She was the oldest girl in a large family of Kennedys, a very musical family in which most of her siblings played some sort of instrument. Daisy was “very responsible, very puritanical … in other words, diametrically opposed to my father,” according to Ruth. She wore “pinched nose glasses, and was a real Victorian lady.” Daisy played piano, particularly hymns, ragtime, and “waltzes with a kind of beat,” but disapproved of the blues. She “taught [her son] how to play” the piano, since he “did not respond to formal piano lessons as a small boy.” He also played some harmonica as “a young kid.” Edward also learned many piano chords from Florence Hargrove, one of Daisy’s sisters. “And that’s when he got really interested in [music, at the age of fifteen] … she began to show him how [Irving Berlin’s 1911 hit] ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ [was played],” according to Hargrove’s daughter, Bernice Wiggins. Ruth Ellington recalled the prim nature of her childhood home, even years after Ellington had left Washington:
I’ll never forget the first time I heard Edward’s music. Of course we’d heard it at home [years before], playing ragtime, but here he was playing his music with his own band on the radio from New York, coming out of this old-fashioned horn-speaker. I think radio had just been invented . . . or at least just launched commercially. It was quite a shock. Here we were, my mother and I, sitting in this very respectable Victorian living room, my mother so puritanical she didn’t even wear lipstick, and the announcer from New York tells us we are listening to “Duke Ellington and his Jungle Music!”
Yet Daisy felt very proud of her son’s accomplishments, and Ruth remembered being at shows by her brother where her mother tapped her feet to the rhythm, and often was still clapping after everyone else had stopped.
Ellington initially resisted being a musician as a young man. He rejected formal piano lessons as a kid, and concentrated on athletics—“football, baseball, track, everything.” But an experience the morning after his first professional music gig at the age of fifteen changed his mind: “three of the prettiest girls you’ve ever seen looking up at [my] window, saying ‘Mrs. Ellington, is Edward ready?’ She said, ‘Yes, darling, he’s coming right down.’ And I ain’t been no athlete since. That was the end of my athletic career,” Ellington recalled, laughing heartily. Even after this signal event, a painting career also competed for Ellington’s attention, and he proved talented enough to win a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York. He ended up refusing it, but his talents in this area enlarged his bankroll during his early days as a musician in Washington. “After I started playing the piano professionally … I got a sign shop and you know, you came to get a sign painted, I said ‘Who’s playing your music?’ and if you came to get your music played, I’d say ‘Who’s painting your signs?’” Ellington said in 1969, laughing at the memory. “Oh, I was a pretty smart kid when I was young. I’m not too smart now.”
Various stories exist explaining how Edward Ellington became “the Duke.” Some claimed that Daisy’s proclivity to dress her son up in dandified clothes inspired schoolmates to refer to him as “the Duke,” a name pinned on Ellington as a young teen. Ellington said the accolade came from a
In any case, family members in later years recalled that Ellington, as a high school student, predicted his massive success and later ducal status. Wiggins remembers her cousin saying that “one of these days, everybody in the world is going to call me Duke Ellington, ze grand, ze great, and ze glorious Duke Ellington.” An Ellington cousin named Katherine said that a great aunt of his challenged his prediction, and Ellington replied that “crowds will be running to see the grand noble Duke, and bells will be ringing.” He “used to practice” for this eventuality as a boy on the front steps of his house in Washington, D.C., making his cousins bow and curtsy to him. Wiggins recalled another afternoon at the Ellington family home:
I never will forget … he came in one evening and he said, “Mother, dear,” and she turned around and looked at him and he always would come in and kiss her on both side of the cheeks and she says, “What have you been up today?” as a mother would. He said, “Mother, your son is going to be one of the great musicians in the world.” He says, “Someday …. I’m gonna be bowin’ before the kings and queens.” And Aunt Daisy used to say, “The boy’s talking foolish.” But that came true. As the day he lived and died … He foresaw his destiny in many, many years.
The race pride among Washington blacks also involved a sense of class stratification. “I could play the dances but I couldn’t mingle with all the highfalutin doctors and lawyers and all the fancy chicks from the university,” complained longtime Ellington drummer and friend Sonny Greer in 1979. “They looked at me like I was nothin’.” Ellington portrayed the policies concerning different classes within the black community as something taught in black families. “I don’t know how many castes of Negroes there were in the City at the time, but I do know that if you decided to mix carelessly with another you would be told that one just did not do that sort of thing,” wrote Ellington. “It might be wonderful for somebody, but not for me and my cousins.”
Yet, Ellington also spent significant time as a teenager in a less rarified area of black Washington, at Frank Holliday’s poolroom in the Shaw neighborhood, next door to the Howard Theater, where major black touring acts regularly played. The poolroom attracted a mix of people who Ellington claimed educated him as much as his schoolteachers did: “pool sharks,” lawyers, well-traveled “Pullman car porters,” “professional and amateur gamblers,” a slew of piano players, and Dr. Charles Drew.
Alternating impressions of aloofness and snobbery as well as warmth and inclusiveness were seen by fans and by those close to Ellington, probably influenced by the contrasting worlds he inhabited in Washington, D.C. Phoebe Jacobs, a club manager, professional associate, and personal friend of Ellington and his family recalled that “Ellington was a snob,” and cited examples of his taste in home furnishings or his proclivity to break dates with people at the last minute if something or someone more interesting came up. But for Jacobs, this pride and bearing had mostly positive manifestations:
Ellington’s many Washington mentors provided him with a varied education, and stressed a vision of black history expressed through music. One of his first musical employers, Russell Wooding, wrote an operetta called Halcyon Days in Dixie (1921), which represented an “attempt at music drama based on themes of Negro life and music.” Earlier, Ellington studied fundamentals and harmony with Henry Grant, one of the most active musicians and producers on the local black musical scene. In 1911, Grant directed the choir in a Howard University–sponsored production entitled The Evolution of the Negro in Picture, Song and Story, which celebrated black history. In 1915, the opening of a historic dramatic pageant entitled The Star of Ethiopia constituted a “major community event” in Washington, D.C. Originally produced in 1913 by the groundbreaking black scholar and spokesperson W. E. B. DuBois, and featuring J. Rosamond Johnson as musical director, the show depicted ten thousand years of black history. The structure and content of both the Grant and DuBois productions foreshadowed Ellington’s extended work of 1943, Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel of the American Negro. Perhaps most importantly for Ellington’s future ambitions, Grant “believed that standards of excellence could apply to popular music” and that “popular music could be taken seriously.”
Writers Amiri Baraka and Robert Palmer pointed out that blacks in Africa and America used music to teach behavior and impart messages to prepare young men for manhood. This tradition emanated from the long-standing practice of African griots, whose main function consisted of passing on to the young generation meticulously memorized songs and poetry that chronicled the history of African peoples, instead of the history books used by Western civilizations. Ellington honored and expanded this tendency of his musical forebears, penning many programmatic tributes to black cultural figures and historical settings throughout his career. In his autobiography, he reflected upon how the early African American Broadway and jazz composers “sent a message” through their music and made historical facts and personal emotions known through their writing: “The audience didn’t know … but the cats in the band did.”
Ellington followed a nontraditional path of musical education, refusing to enter the conservatory, despite urgings from peers and family members. “People were trying to get me to go study music from [age] 16 to 26,” he noted in 1964. “I had no formal education … as far as music was concerned, except for piano lessons when I was a kid. But all the time I was asking questions. So, I mean, I was getting the education I wanted, I wasn’t getting me a lot of education I wasn’t going to have any use for.” Ellington knew that conservatories taught none of the African American music tradition he grew up with and wished to carry forward. So, he informally studied with various black mentors, such as Doc Perry and Henry Grant, in their homes as well as in Holliday’s poolroom, asking them to show him certain skills, and then practicing at home until he had perfected them:
Then I’d go to someone else and ask some questions. I’d go to the harmony teacher [Grant], and took, I don’t know how many lessons, half a dozen maybe … I got to the point where … I discovered that F-sharp is not a G-flat. That was the end of my lessons there because I found out what I wanted to know [laughs]. And this adjusted my perspective as to how I should pursue the next phase of my learning. It was a matter of learning what I wanted to learn, rather than learning what was in the order of the book that is normally taught in the normal music curriculum.
Ellington’s wife, Edna, whom he began to court while they were in high school, also taught him sight reading and music theory.
While Ellington learned fundamentals of music theory and composition, he also steeped himself in the techniques of nonschooled jazz and blues musicians, whose rawness and passion he admired and sought to duplicate. This dichotomy, a trademark of the Ellington sound, represented a hallmark of the Washington musical environment: “Everybody seemed to get something out of the other’s playing—the ear cats [those who learned music by ear instead of formal training] loved what the schooled cats did, and the schooled guys, with fascination, would try what the ear cats were doing.” In 1972, Ellington further described this atmosphere: “the guys who were schooled musicians were captive of the guys who were not schooled, and vice versa. And it was this great exchange, and there I was right in the middle, and my embryo, sort of, was nurtured in this.” As Helen Oakley Dance, close to Ellington and the band from the 1930s to the 1970s, recalled, “Duke, as much as he prized all the accomplishment, he equally prized the bottom of the ladder, the gutter, as he loved to refer to it.” Such musicians were “close to the real roots and they were the ones that could produce it, whereas … the well-educated people who were smooth sophisticated musicians, they did not relate to that, it wasn’t there.” Ellington wished to be proficient in both areas. Many times during recording sessions, Dance heard Ellington exhorting his band to “get it in the gutter!” especially when recording bluesy compositions.
White musical culture also played an important role during Ellington’s early years. In Washington’s black community, concert music thrived alongside African American popular song. Ellington’s first piano teacher, Marietta Clinkscales, taught him concert pieces and classical technique. In church, Ellington learned white as well as black hymns and songs. Daisy Ellington continued that tradition at home, frequently playing nostalgic Victorian parlor songs and religious hymns such as “Meditation” (1896) and “The Rosary” (1900) on the family piano. Ellington was very close to his mother, and, as Mark Tucker pointed out, the songs she played were recalled and referenced by him throughout his life, especially in his more wistful and elegiac compositional moods. “The Single Petal of a Rose” (1959) and the bridge to “In a Sentimental Mood” (1935), two of Ellington’s most nostalgic compositions, both featured the same key (D-flat), and similar melodies and structure to both “Meditation” and “The Rosary.” As a result of this cross-racial musical background, Ellington tended to judge music and people not by style, category, or by race, but by how skilled and affecting they were. Throughout his life, he reiterated his view that there existed only two kinds of music, “the good kind and the other kind.” Ellington’s background in this regard also helped explain the close friendships he had with both blacks and whites, something of a rarity for the time.
When Ellington first began forming bands in the late 1910s, his repertoire included songs associated with both black and white culture, and he played for both black and white audiences, almost always segregated. Ellington’s father’s work as a caterer for society functions, including some at the White House during the Harding administration in the early 1920s, provided connections for Ellington’s bands to score coveted “society jobs.” These were lucrative performances for a usually all-white audience at official functions at embassies, political gatherings, and private mansions. Bands at these dates usually featured ragtime-style pianists (as Ellington was at the time) who performed dance music of Tin Pan Alley popular songs, along with the newly popular black jazz sounds. On the other side of the social spectrum, Ellington’s early bands also played for alcohol-soaked college-aged black and white audiences in Georgetown. Like other so-called East Coast commercial bands, they played the range of popular music from cotillion dance tunes, country tunes, music hall hits, popular novelties, tangos, and waltzes to ragtime and blues. Ellington pointed out in his autobiography that this multigenre training proved profitable when his band the Washingtonians had their first long engagement in New York City during the mid-1920s. After the band’s regular sets, Ellington and Greer worked the late-night crowd “answering requests, we sang anything and everything—pop songs, jazz songs, dirty songs, torch songs, Jewish songs” and receiving twenty-dollar bills for their trouble.
The mixing of black music and white, especially evident in Washington, D.C., and New York City, became more commonplace in America in the decades after the turn of the century, wielding a huge influence on twentieth-century popular song. Before the rise of the mass media and popular music sales charts in the 1920s and 1930s, blues and country artists and recordings could sometimes not be accurately classified by race. Nor could many other American genres. Ragtime existed as a danceable amalgam of European and African musical traditions. New Orleans black brass bands combined European brass with African rhythmic patterns. European composers Antonin Dvorak and Maurice Ravel, among others, utilized African and African American rhythms and folk melodies in their work. A great deal of musical and cultural cross-pollination surfaced in the songs churned out by Tin Pan Alley. The nature of American music took hold during this period, bringing together various cultural elements and communities in the United States. Eventually, by the mid-twentieth century, the influences were traded back and forth so frequently that the appellation of “American music” would be more correct than denoting it by color. Ellington received the training to communicate in this new form as a young man, and spoke about it long before scholars acknowledged it. “There’s really no distinction anymore between white music and colored music,” Ellington told a journalist in 1948. “It’s sort of a hybrid thing. They have each borrowed so much from the other.”
In the area of religion, this melding of black and white influences proved particularly common and significant. The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the establishment of the first independent black churches in the country, many of them featuring black interpretations of the emotionally rich Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley hymns from England, as well as original and African-influenced compositions in their services. These institutions, such as the African Methodist churches, served as environments where blacks defined their own identities in public, defying preconceived white notions of their history and destiny. Many whites were comforted by black acceptance of Christianity in the nineteenth century, but not all of them realized that blacks used Biblical stories in their own subtle and subversive ways. Music and religion have long acted as uniting forces for some blacks and whites in American history. In his Sacred Concerts in the 1960s and 1970s, Ellington continued this tradition, even when it became politically unpopular among some groups of black and white Americans. But he also was a resolute supporter and creator of what he called “Negro music,” a style of music that consciously documented and communicated a more exclusively African American experience.
Ellington learned how to run a band musically and professionally during the late 1910s, a skill probably as important as his musical lessons. After a booking agent took an egregious 90 percent commission for an Ellington performance, Ellington became his own manager and booker. Starting in 1918, he chose the songs, booked the gigs, collected the fees, and paid his musicians personally. His genial personality and skill at networking and advertising made him an effective businessman. He placed ads in Washington-area newspapers and telephone directories for his band, promising “Colored Syncopators” playing “irresistible jass” for “select patrons.” Ellington became so successful at these activities that he regularly booked several bands in one night, under the name of the Duke’s Serenaders:
I was a pretty rich kid before I was 20. I had a society band; in fact, I had five or six of them going at one time … It got so we would go for days from one party to another. They really gave parties then, especially the Virginia aristocrats and horse show people just across the line from Washington. They were the sort of people they name counties for in Virginia, Madison and names like that.
Playing at high-society functions also meant that Ellington and his band had to have formal clothes for their shows. Dress and image, important for Ellington personally since boyhood, became an imperative for the band, a trademark of his groups until at least the 1950s. He also became involved in African American–organized Washington music unions to improve business and musical skills and standards.
By 1920, however, Washington started to lose its reputation as a haven for American blacks. President Wilson’s 1913 purge of blacks from federal government work eliminated many prestigious jobs for them. The violence against blacks following World War I included a race riot that raged for five days, provoked by false reports of black men attacking white women. The attacks by whites inspired blacks to take up arms against them. “Blacks were proud of their solidarity” by the end of the riot, David Levering Lewis reported. “And whites were sobered by it.” But the lowest moment of the era in D.C. race relations occurred at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, when blacks were segregated from the main audience by a rope and a dirt road, and a black speaker at the event honoring the president who freed the slaves could not even sit on the dais. Ellington and band members Sonny Greer and Otto Hardwicke left Washington for New York shortly after this last event.
Before 1922, Ellington earned a very good living, making by his own account $10,000 per year (about $116,000 in today’s dollars), though this figure may not be reliable. Still, by 1919, he had bought a house for his new family (wife Edna and son Mercer), as well as a new car worth $2,000. He could easily have remained in Washington and thrived. Hardwicke recalled that Ellington felt “reluctant” to leave his well-established career, and that he and Greer had to convince him to go. But, as Ellington stated in his autobiography, “it is always more important to know what’s happening than it is to make a living.” Being at the vortex of the music and artists that Ellington and his bandmates loved seemed to be the major pull of Manhattan. New York City formed the center of the radio, recording, and publishing industries. It boasted the best theaters and show-business personalities galore. “It was New York that filled our imagination,” Ellington recalled, listing as proof the dozens of artists that he, Greer, and Hardwicke admired when they were in their early twenties. “We were awed by the never-ending roll of great talents there … Harlem, to our minds, did indeed have the world’s most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there.”