May 1999 By Nat Hentoff
Duke Ellington’s Mission
The world-renowned Duke Ellington and his orchestra were on their usual round of one nighters. On Route 66 in Illinois, less than 100 miles south of Chicago, "we stopped at a gas station," Duke reminisced, "and there was a little coffee shop. I walked in and said, “I'd like to have a stick of gum. I mean a package of chewing gum.” And this very nice girl came to me and said, like she was reading it, “I'm sorry, sir, but I cannot serve you.” Duke paused in the telling. "She couldn't serve me a stick of chewing gum!"
During the height of the civil rights movement, Ellington was hurt and angry at the charge by some activists that he considered himself above the battle — that he had not spoken out boldly enough against racism. "People who think that of me," Duke told me then, "have not been listening to our music. For a long time, social protest and the pride in the Negro [an acceptable word at that time] have been the most significant things in what we've done. In that music we have been telling for a long time. what it is to be a Negro in this country.”
He also told me of how, in the 1920s, he had said to Fletcher Henderson, "Why don't we drop the word, ‘jazz,’ and call what we're doing, ‘Negro music.’ Then there won't be any confusion." It was too bold an idea for Fletcher Henderson.
Ellington was not a chauvinist. He was a multi-culturalist before the word was ever current ("The Far East Suite," "The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse," et al.). But he did "seriously believe," he once told a radio interviewer, "that the Negro has more to offer emotionally than any other single group in this country. His emotions —by the very necessity of the circumstances—form an integral part of America. By that I do not mean that our race is sad and depressed, nor happy and hilarious. But we have tasted both extremes of this range, and we have learned to accomplish the transition from the depths to the heights with greater authority than the average human."
In 1943, I heard, for the first time, "Black, Brown and Beige" — Ellington's personal illumination of the range of the black experience in America. It was at Symphony Hall in Boston, and corny as this sounds, it changed my life. It made me begin to see, feel, understand the deepest and most abiding failure of this constitutional democracy.
The work started, as Duke once described it, "in the hold of the slave ship where it's black in every way you can think of. In America, they found out they were only going to work. And along came the work songs, the spirituals." There is somuch more of indelible black history in that composition, and in so many others by Ellington. There are tributes ("Black Beauty"); richly vivid details of black life ("Harlem Suite," "Harlem Airshaft"); the price of survival ("The Deep South Suite"); and scores more original and universal expressions of the black American experience.
"I always had my mind," Duke said, "on the teacher I had in the eighth grade. A lady by the name of Mrs. Boston. She was the principal, and she used to teach race pride as much as she did English. She said, When you go out, represent respect — and demand respect.
In the years before the civil rights movement, Ellington emphasized, "we did not play before segregated audiences. And, when we first went down South, we would charter two Pullman cars and park in the station. We didn't have a hotel problem. It was as if the president was on tour. We commanded respect."
As for Ellington's musical mission, Albert Murray gets to the core of his triumph: "I don't think anybody has achieved a higher synthesis of the American experience than Duke Ellington. Anybody who achieved a literary equivalent of that would be beyond Melville, Henry James, and Faulkner. He transformed the experience of American Negroes ... in the actual texture of all human existence, not only in the United States but in all places throughout the ages."
In this Ellington Centennial year, his music should be played in schools throughout the nation — starting in the elementary grades. He should be a presence in courses in American history. Not only in black history courses, but in all American studies. In Albert Murray’s term, Duke was an omni-American.
Originally published in May 1999