Old Timber Hits New Lows at Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Alum Ben Williams and StoryWood Music have donated a bass to the school made from reclaimed wood that once was part of the building

Bassist Ben Williams
Bassist Ben Williams performs at the 2016 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Ken Franckling)

Some guitars become cherished after a lifetime of play – B.B. King’s “Lucille” comes to mind. Others are simply made that way.  

The latter is the case with a bass guitar crafted from century-old pine that was once part of the architecture of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. To honor his alma mater, bassist Ben Williams partnered with StoryWood Music, a North Carolina-based luthier, to salvage wood taken from the Washington, D.C. school in the midst of a three-year, $175 million renovation, which ended in 2017. The guitar was donated on June 12. 

The building dates back to 1898, when it was known as Western High School. In 1974 it was renamed in honor of Sir Duke, and its mission changed to one focused solely on arts education.

Using 120-year-old heart pine taken from one of the school’s beams, Tyler and Teresa Townsend of StoryWood Music built the bass guitar. Last month, they donated it to the school to be played by future students.

Williams said he saw an opportunity to connect past, present, and future students with the bass.  

“It has always been my belief that instruments, especially those made from organic materials, absorb the energy of their surroundings. I can only imagine the energy this bass already possesses,” Williams said. “I have so much love for my alma mater … and I can’t think of a cooler way to give back than this beautiful instrument built from the very walls in which I honed my craft.”

The donated bass guitar was also made from 100-year-old maple reclaimed from a Nebraska university’s old gymnasium and rock walnut that spent a century underwater in Panama.

Like Williams, the Townsends believe that the reclaimed wood, which has heard 40-plus years of performances, will resonate with students, physically and metaphysically.

“More than 45 years of beautiful music has been absorbed by these beams, and every guitar and bass we’ve made with it has been something special,” said Tyler.

Alongside the century-old timber, there are many modern touches on the bass. Gator Cases provided a hardshell case for the instrument, Hipshot Products provided a set of its Ultralite tuners, and Babicz Guitars donated a full-contact bridge. Williams reached out to Aguilar, whom he endorses, and the company provided a set of 1970s-era pickups.

The guitar was given to the school during its annual senior awards ceremony. School officials said the gift will serve as a bridge between alumni—including Williams, Meshell Ndegeocello, Wallace Roney, and Chuck Royal, among many others—and future students.

“It will be cherished for the retelling of its story for years and years to come,” said Duke Ellington School of the Arts Interim Director of Arts Angela Jones. “It was an event highlight for this engraved bass to be received and played by Ben for the institution.”  

Now for the big question: How does it sound? The reclaimed wood gives it a tonal quality and resonance that’s one-of-a-kind, according to Williams.

“When I first started playing this brand-new bass, my ears were telling me that I had a vintage bass in my hands,” he said. “Like it already had years of playing in it, which is all you could hope for. The students should really enjoy playing this bass for years to come.” 

The donated bass guitar will be played by students at the school.