CATCHING A TUNE
"There have been so many extraordinary and inexplicable circumstances in my life. I have always seemed to encounter the right people, the right place at the right time, and doing the right thing to give me the kind of instruction and guidance I needed."
— Duke Ellington
Do you know anyone whose skill or talent suddenly took you by surprise? Like your best friend from elementary school. He was funny and liked to have a good time, but he never got terrific grades or stood out at sports or anything. And the next thing you knew, there he was at 15, playing the piano and being a big hit at parties, and even making some money at it. And to top it off, he was a really good piano player!
Well, that was true of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, who did not show much interest or talent in music as a child. Yet years later, he became one of the greatest jazz composers and bandleaders who ever lived.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C. He was the second child of James Edward and Daisy Ellington. Edward's younger sister, Ruth, wasn't born until he was 16, so he was mostly raised as an only child (the Ellingtons' first child died as a baby). He was never at a loss for playmates, though. Young Edward had a large extended family of cousins to play with, and aunts and uncles who visited constantly. They lived in a tight-knit middle class African American community in the northwest section of Washington, D.C., known as the "Uptown District." Ellington often said how lucky he was to grow up there and to be raised by parents whose complete confidence in him helped him on his road to success.
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My mother — the greatest — and the prettiest My father — just handsome — but the wittiest My grand-daddy natural born proud Grandma so gentle — and so fine
(from "My Mother, My Father," My People, Duke Ellington, 1963)
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Ellington's parents were both 20 years old when he was born. His mother, Daisy, was very loving and watched over her new baby constantly. She was still getting over the death of her first baby and so fretted over Edward's every sneeze. Edward grew up surrounded by Daisy's sisters and aunts, who all treated him like a little prince. His mother called him blessed so often that he was convinced he was indeed blessed, and that only good things would come to him.
Edward's childhood was far more comfortable than that of his own father. James Edward Ellington was born in 1879 in rural North Carolina to a family of ex-slaves. When James was a teenager, he and his family moved north to Washington, D.C., along with many other African American families who settled there in the years after the Civil War. They were all looking for jobs and better living conditions. James, who only had an eighth-grade education, quickly learned how to get along in the city. He started out as a coachman and driver, and worked for various people, including a wealthy doctor named Middleton Cuthbart.
James was smart and responsible. By the time he and Daisy married, he was the doctor's butler and ran the whole household. According to Ruth, Edward's younger sister, James educated himself by reading his way around Dr. Cuthbart's library, "from the floor to the ceiling, all four walls." James also worked as a caterer for other families, and at several special events that took place at the White House.
In contrast to her husband's Deep South background, Daisy Kennedy Ellington came from a well-established middle class family in Washington, D.C. and completed high school. Her father was a policeman, a respected profession for a black man early in the 20th century. Daisy was beautiful and dignified. She was a thoughtful and spiritual person, and always looked for ways to inspire her son. She often told Edward that all races were equal and that the world held much promise for him — there was nothing that he could not achieve.
James Ellington made enough money so that his family could live in a big, comfortable house in the Uptown District. This neighborhood was less than two miles from the White House, in the northwest section of Washington, D.C., which was then a segregated city. Through his work, James became an expert about fine foods and wine, silverware, and crystal, and wanted to provide the best things he could for his family. As Edward later wrote, "J.E. always acted as though he had money, whether he had it or not. He spent and lived like a man who had money, and he raised his family as though he were a millionaire."
One of the Ellington family's prized possessions was their piano. In the early 1900s, the piano was the heart of the home and was the family's entertainment center. Both of Edward's parents played the piano, and relatives and friends frequently gathered around to sing and entertain each other. James played by ear and worked out popular songs of the time, and Daisy could read music. She loved to play hymns, and also taught herself some of the latest ragtime favorites. Edward clearly enjoyed music, and joined in singing around his family's piano and in church. As he got older, he liked hearing the ragtime pianists who played at soda fountains and cafés and other spots around his neighborhood.
Edward's childhood coincided with the exciting first years of a new century, and the syncopated sounds of ragtime. Ragtime music was the rage in those years, in the days before the word "jazz" was even in use as a musical style. Ragtime was the rock 'n' roll of the early 1900s, enjoyed and performed by young people, black and white, for dances and parties and as parlor music. Ragtime originated in the café district of St. Louis, Missouri. There, in the city's honky-tonks and social clubs like the Maple Leaf Café, the best pianists (the so-called Piano Professors) such as Scott Joplin and Tom Turpin refined their musical style and showed off their original compositions.
Ragtime music is syncopated, which means that the accents are on the weak beats of a musical measure, not the strong beats. Syncopation is what made the ragtime style sound new and different. The catchy melodies and rhythms of ragtime pieces like Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" were popularized by traveling pianists and musicians in vaudeville shows and revues. Long before electronic music technology — CD players or iPods — existed, pianists helped spread this new music from town to town and neighborhood to neighborhood. Pretty soon, ragtime music was everywhere. Sheet music editions of Joplin's ragtime compositions and those of other ragtime composers were big sellers, and in the early 1900s, ragtime music was arranged for marching bands and early dance bands.
Edward loved music, but there was another new American pastime he loved even more — baseball. American League Park, home of the Washington Senators and one of the earliest professional ballparks, was not far from Edward's neighborhood. Excitement about the nearby games and the Senators were part of his childhood and that of his friends, who played pickup games almost every day.
Then one day, when Edward was seven, wham! He got hit accidentally with a baseball bat while his mother happened to be watching him play. On the spot, she decided that sports were too dangerous and that piano lessons would be better for him. Always wanting to please his mother, Edward went along with this plan, but he was not really interested in his lessons and frequently skipped them.
Baseball was Edward's true interest in elementary school, and getting hit with a bat did nothing to keep him from the game. He loved baseball so much that he got a job selling peanuts and drinks at the ballpark so he could watch the professional games as often as possible.
All in all, Edward had a happy childhood. The Uptown District where he lived was a big part of it. It had been a close-knit black community for decades, with an atmosphere of racial pride that was reflected in its schools, churches, theaters, businesses, and civic organizations. "U" Street, the lively main street in the neighborhood, was lined with cafés, restaurants, and theaters owned by African Americans. Dunbar High School, the first public high school for blacks in America, was a college preparatory school. Howard University, founded in 1867, was the first black university in the country and attracted many African American teachers and scholars to the city. When Edward was growing up, Washington, D.C. had the largest black population in the United States (approximately 87,000 people) and was an exciting place for African American writers, artists, and intellectuals to live, just as Harlem would become in the 1920s.
Even so, Washington, D.C. was also full of racial contrasts. The city legalized segregation in 1896. "Jim Crow" laws put segregation into practice. Neighborhoods were strictly racially segregated. There were separate schools for African American children and white children, and public facilities all had separate entrances. Before 1896, almost 10 percent of government jobs in Washington, D.C. were held by African Americans; afterward, those jobs were not offered to blacks, and the most commonly held jobs were as domestic help or in service professions. Sadly, there was discrimination even within the African American community. Lighter-skin people did not mix socially with those who had darker skin, and the many uneducated rural people who moved to the city did not always find the opportunities they hoped for.
Edward's family and community were an oasis from the harsh realities of racism and the segregated stores and restaurants downtown. In many ways, Edward's childhood was that of a typical American boy of the time: he loved sports, spending time with his friends, fishing, and finding adventures in the woods and fields near his neighborhood. He also spent a lot of time drawing and painting, and his parents encouraged his early interest in art, as well as everything else he did.
Ellington's life story does not have the "rags-to-riches" drama of the jazz trumpet legend Louis Armstrong's, whose rise from extreme poverty to international fame is a real-life Cinderella story. But Duke Ellington's life and career were full of surprises. The biggest surprise of all was that Ellington was a late bloomer in music. Both he and his parents thought he was going to be an artist — not a musician. He gave up on piano lessons pretty quickly and, though he liked music, he didn't seem very interested in pursuing it. After finishing middle school, Edward was going to attend Armstrong Manual Training School for high school, so that he could major in commercial art.
The summer of 1913 marked a turning point for 14-year-old Edward Ellington. For one thing, that was when he got his nickname. One of his best friends started calling him "Duke" as a joke and a backhanded compliment. They were both good-looking boys who liked trendy clothes, were smart and funny, and thought of themselves as cool. Pretty soon everyone started calling Edward "Duke" — and the name stuck.
That summer was also a turning point for Duke musically. Suddenly he was captivated by the popular music he heard around his neighborhood. He went to listen to the piano players that seemed to be everywhere — at drugstores and soda fountains, restaurants, and even the neighborhood pool hall that he and his friends liked to sneak into. Duke started playing the piano again, trying to copy the songs and styles of the pianists he heard.
That same summer, Duke and his mother went to Asbury Park, a resort town on the New Jersey shore, to get away from the heat of Washington, D.C. Duke got a job washing dishes at a small hotel, and all he and his coworkers talked about was music. Someone told him about a young ragtime pianist named Harvey Brooks, who lived in Philadelphia. On his way back to Washington, Duke stopped off in Philadelphia and went to look him up.
Harvey Brooks was probably about 16 or 17 when Duke met him, and was already working as a musician. Duke was impressed by everything about him. Harvey was flashy, his clothes were sharp, and he even wrote his own music. He was generous about showing Duke piano techniques to play the ragtime style, especially how to coordinate the syncopated parts for the left and right hand. Duke wrote about their meeting: "He was swinging, and he had a tremendous left hand, and when I got home I had a real yearning to play. I hadn't been able to get off the ground before, but after hearing him I said to myself, 'Man, you're just going to have to do it!'"
That was it. When Duke returned home, he started practicing the piano for hours at a stretch. Baseball no longer seemed very important. He sought out and listened to the best ragtime pianists in Washington, D.C. The way these pianists looked — their clothes and their stage manners — caught Duke's attention as much as their music. Duke started to work hard at copying whatever they did, even their eye-catching hand gestures. Local pianists such as Doc Perry, Claude Hopkins, Louis Brown, and Gertie Wells were skilled musicians who could read music and play any style, including classical. Doc Perry, in particular, was generous with his time, and showed Duke the latest tunes and how to achieve certain effects and patterns. He was happy to have such an enthusiastic student.
Yet even as a teenager, Duke could not read music very well. He trained himself to learn tunes by ear and trust his memory. He learned to do what the professionals did, which was to memorize new songs almost instantly, so that he could practice them at home. That's what the musicians called "catching a tune."
The spread of ragtime music went along with a new craze for popular dancing that ragtime inspired. Duke and his friends couldn't help but notice that the girls they knew really liked this trend. As soon as Duke could play well enough to fake his way through some songs, his friends convinced him to play the piano at a party.
Duke immediately became the center of attention. He was a hit with the dancers and the girls and enjoyed all the newfound attention. But his repertoire was still pretty limited. He needed to come up with a lot of new songs to play to get through another party like this first one. While practicing at home, he started trying to modify the tunes he knew so that they seemed like different compositions, and learned the art of "faking it."
"From then on," Duke wrote years later, "I was invited to many parties, where I learned that when you were playing piano there was always a pretty girl standing at the bass end of the piano. I ain't been no athlete since. But if at that time I had ever thought I was learning the piano to make a living, I would never have made it!"CHAPTER 2
THE DUKE AND HIS SERENADERS
"Do I believe I was blessed? Of course I do! In the first place, my mother told me so, many, many times, and when she did it was always quietly, confidently. She was very soft-spoken, and I knew that anything she told me was true. ... So until this day I really don't have any fears, beyond what I might do to hurt or offend someone else."
— Duke Ellington
Duke Ellingtons biggest gift from his mother and father was his confidence. His mother in particular had complete faith that he would succeed in anything he chose to do. Both of his parents wanted him to get a good education so that he could nourish his talents and make a living on his own terms. The African American community he was raised in, the Uptown neighborhood, helped nurture this in its children.
Additionally, Duke got a firsthand education from his father about presenting himself well, being a self-starter, and providing a good life for his family. James Ellington was charming, witty, articulate, and always well-dressed. James started his own catering business and used his employer's social connections to get extra work for himself and his friends at the special events hosted by Washington's well-to-do families. This kind of networking was a great model for Duke, one that he would put to use in his early career as a bandleader. Duke was devoted to his mother, and even revered her. But in terms of his personality, Duke was more like his father: extremely outgoing, witty, and charming, especially to women.