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Duke Ellington's Washington DC
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John Hasse

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HEDRICK SMITH: John Hasse, Curator of American music and author of an Ellington biography. John, in your book, you refer to Washington as the center of American Negro civilization at the time Ellington was growing up. What does that mean? What was Washington at that time?

JOHN HASSE: Washington, at the turn of the century, was the undisputed capital of black America. It had the largest black population of any city in the country and it was a leading center for African American culture. Howard University was located here, founded in 1867, the leading institution of higher education for African Americans.

You had newspapers, cultural organizations -- after 1911 you had the Howard Theater, a very prestigious theater in black America. So, the city was known far and wide as the capital of black America.

SMITH: You also talk about this city as a highly segregated city in which the worst racism was coming to the fore. Talk about that, the racist division of the city.

HASSE: During Ellington's youth, there were efforts to segregate more and more of city life, even in the 19 teens -- to segregate the streetcars. And during World War I, President Wilson, segregated certain aspects of federal government employment. So this was a time when things were getting worse for African Americans.

And, yet, Ellington's parents shielded him from most problems. As his sister, Ruth, said, 'We didn't talk about unpleasant things in our family.' And, so, Ellington must have learned of these, but he grew up with a reservoir of protection and a cocoon of love and support and safety that were to give him a tremendous start in life.

SMITH: What was the African American community itself like? When you think of Jim Crow pressing in on this community, what was the community that lived inside the strictures of Jim Crow?

HASSE: The African/American community in Washington was like a pyramid. There was a small -- at the top of the pyramid there was a small upper class, 60 or 70 families, that were mostly decedents of the free antebellum blacks. And they were doctors and lawyers and things like that. Then you had a large middle class, to which Ellington's family belonged. These were the school teachers and the principals and professionals like that. Then you have a very large lower class. These were the working people and the poor, often newly arrived migrants from the South.

HASSE: The African American community developed its own institutions, churches, lodges, fraternal organization, businesses in response to the fact that there were many white controlled institutions, the schools, the government, the hospitals, things like that. So, it was a mix of institutions that were controlled within the black community and those that were not.

SMITH: Many of the older seniors in the black community that we've talked to, people in their 70's and 80's, talked about that era, despite Jim Crow, with a certain nostalgia for the feeling of community, a sense that were black owned and black held and the businesses were black run. How would you describe that community? Are we getting a glow here or was there something special about the black community in Washington in that era?

HASSE: There was something special about the black community in Washington during that era. This was a community that took a lot of pride in itself. After all, Washington was not primarily a blue collar town. There weren't a lot of factories and industries here. People got by, many of them, through their wits. They had to use their brains to make a living and to get ahead.

And Washington developed a climate of discipline, of decorum, of putting your best foot forward in public and in private and of getting ahead. There was an ambitiousness that the middle class inculcated into its young people. And, so, Ellington was a part of that kind of scene.

Arty Wetsall who played trumpet in his band was from Washington and he was known for decorum and discipline and when a wayward band member would get out of line, he would simply flick his cigarette in their direction or lower his eyelid and that would put that person right back into line.

SMITH: Tell me a little bit about Ellington's family and how they fit in. Who were they, what class were they from, what kind of folks were his mom and dad?

HASSE: Ellington's mother was Daisy Kennedy Ellington. She had been born in Washington, D. C. and she was a high school graduate which at that time was a considerable achievement for someone who had all of the burdens that the dominant white society placed on them.

Her father had been a policeman, a very coveted job in 19th Century Washington for an African American. Ellington's father was James Edward Ellington. And he served as a driver and then later as a butler for a prominent white physician named Cuthbert and they became fairly close.

Later Ellington's father would occasionally serve as a butler for catered events at the White House and he also worked as a blueprint maker for the Navy during World War I.

SMITH: Let's talk for a moment about his mother, who she was, what kind of personality she had, what kind of influence she had on that whole business about being pampered, how that fed his spirit.

HASSE: Daisy Ellington loved her son fiercely. Evidently a prior baby died in childbirth or infancy and that could explain why she was so protective and so fiercely -- fiercely loving of him. At one point Ellington developed pneumonia and he said for days on end his mother would not leave his bedside.

Daisy and the other female relatives coddled and protected Ellington and didn't let his feet touch ground until he was six years old, he said later. And they spoiled him rotten, he said. Daisy was so protective, so loving, so caring for her son that he grew up with a tremendous reservoir of love and self-esteem that carried him through a lot of difficult times in later years.

SMITH: What did this strong, maternal love do for Ellington. When we see the mature Ellington, what kind of qualities do we see flowering under the sunshine of his mother's love?

HASSE: From his mother and his father, but especially his mother, Ellington learned to be strong, self-confident, secure in himself, proud of his family, his community his race. And this helped him so much in later life.

He would always seek out his mother's approval when he played at the Cotton Club. When he played at various theatres in subsequent years, sometimes he would invite his mother to come join the performance -- that is, to sit in the audience and with great pride note her reaction and her approval. She was extremely important to him. And when she died in 1935 it put him into a tremendous depression that took him some months to come out of.

SMITH: What about his father, J.E.? What kind of guy? In your book, I was struck by the wines, the table setting, the silver. What it meant in terms of the life style he grew up in. Give me a picture of what Ellington's dad was and what he brought into Ellington's life.

HASSE: Ellington -- as Ellington loved his mother, he admired his father for his father's manners, his charm, his wit, his way with people, the way he would say to a woman, gee, you make that hat look pretty. The way he knew exactly what knife, fork, spoon to use.

His father would often bring home extra food from the Cuthbert family, fine steaks and terrapin and serve them to his family. Ellington wrote that his father treated his family as if he were a millionaire. And set a very high standard. And, of course, his mother expected a very high standard. Ellington said that the good had to be examined to make sure it was good enough for his mother.

SMITH: So, Ellington picks up this elegant quality. He was a bon vivant, he was elegant, has exquisite taste, again, translate the father to the son.

HASSE: From his father, Ellington learned good manners, good deportment. He learned how to get ahead by charming people. And later on Ellington would take his own florid flattery to -- to some lengths, to a real art form. He would say, I'm sure based on what he learned from his father, to a woman that admired for her beauty, gee, I'm so jealous of your smile. Why is that, the woman would say. Because, Ellington would say, it's closer to you than I'll ever be. And he got away with it too.

Ellington learned how to charm people in all kinds of situations. Not just women, but booking agents, club managers, people who booked entertainment at hotels and audience members and eventually kings and queens and presidents and heads of state. He became in a way a trickster, because, you know, at this time Washington was becoming a more and more difficult place for African Americans.

So, Ellington must have figured out at some point, well, he'd overcome them with charm, with poise, with manners, with grace, with charisma. And that was his secret weapon throughout his teenage and young adult years here in Washington and then through the rest of his life.

SMITH: So, when we're seeing Ellington on stage -- people talked about his elegance, tuxedos, working with heads of state, we're really seeing this little kid watching two people with rather elegant styles in one place and very high moral standards. Can you draw that picture of him as a kid watching these two adults?

HASSE: So, here you have this kid growing up in this warm, supportive, loving environment, the Ellington family where they didn't talk of racial incidents or bad things happening out there. And there were certainly many things that were -- were terrible that were happening, the racial discrimination, the segregation, the lynchings that took place, especially in the South during this time, they didn't talk of any of that in the Ellington family household.

They gave a cushion, a protection to these -- to Ellington and later on his sister, Ruth. And Ellington was watching all the time, watching and learning from his father and his mother. Here was this -- this elegant, charming, debonair father, who had a real way with people and with women. And here was this proper, prim, beautiful mother, who had very high standards.

Both were playing music at the piano. Both gave Ellington a lot of encouragement and support and a sense that he could be just as good as anybody else. He could achieve just as much as anyone else, period. That was so important to him.

SMITH: This culture in Washington that was the center of African American civilization -- if you step back and look at Ellington, what way can you say Washington and this special Washington African American society the Duke Ellington that we've come to love?

HASSE: Ellington was a product of many things. He was a product of, obviously, his genes, his family upbringing, his schooling, his church going and the community that he grew up in. I think all together.

SMITH: To what extent can you say that the special African American community that existed here in Washington shaped Duke Ellington and maybe some others who grew up here. To what degree did it shape Duke Ellington and, if it did, how?

HASSE: Well, it certainly did. I don't think it was the first thing that shaped him. I think his family shaped him first. The community may not have been the first thing that shaped Ellington, his family did that above all. But it was important in shaping who he was to become.

This was a community that emphasized discipline, hard work, ambition, racial pride, you know. His eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Boston, taught him that when you are in public in a theater sitting next to a white woman, you must behave your very best, because you are representing your race. You must command respect, she taught him. And he would say later, I've always had that.

This community was a source of great example to Ellington, its musicians, its doctors, its community leaders. And -- and, yet, the community had a great deal of caste and class distinction and discrimination within itself and that's something that Ellington learned about -- had learned to dislike.

He grew up very restive with those in any other kind of categories. And when he was hanging out at Frank Holiday's pool room, next to the Howard Theater, where all levels of society -- African American society, any way, mixed, he felt that was right and proper, that all levels could and should mix. There would be doctors, there would be students from Howard University. There would be pool room hustlers, there would be railroad porters just off the most recent train from Chicago.

They would all mix, get along and learned an important lesson there, that, you know, categories are for the birds. As his sister said, he used to say, no boxes. So, he drew a lot of lessons, both by example and counter example, if you will, from the African/American community he grew up in.

SMITH: Talk about the musical influences on Ellington when he was growing up. What kind of piano players were there around in Washington, perhaps there were different kinds in the pool hall or in the conservatory or in his school. Who was around and what's the musical environment now, not just the social environment that Ellington is growing up in and discovering his talent?

HASSE: Ellington grew up in a rich musical environment. This was the rag time era, when rag time had captivated every young girl and boy with a piano and -- and many without.

SMITH: What's the musical environment in which Ellington grows up?

HASSE: Ellington grew up in a very rich musical environment. There was the music that his parents played at home on the piano. His father would play operatic arias by ear at the keyboard. His mother would play by note parlor songs and rag time pieces. There was the church. He would go every Sunday to two churches, his mother's church, the 19th Street Baptist church, and his father's church, the John Wesley AME Zion church. And there would be different music in both of those churches.

There were pageants. There were musical productions at school and community organizations and Ellington really gravitated towards the piano players and the dance bands. This was the height of the rag time era, when rag time was captivating every little kid and every teenager with a piano and even those without.

And he gravitated towards pianists of two types, the schooled pianists like Doc Perry and Louis Brown and Louis Thomas, and the unschooled ones who couldn't read, but still played a mean 88, people like Lester Dishman, Sticky Mac, the man with a thousand fingers. And he listened to them all and he learned from them all. He picked up lessons from every source. 'Oh, I was a great listener,' he said. And he really was.

SMITH: Okay, let me ask you, John, about high school. Ellington went to Armstrong high school. What do you think he got from the schooling system, because he wasn't a particularly remarkable student?

HASSE: I've seen Ellington's report card from high school and his grades were pretty darn lackluster. He wasn't very interested in schooling. The only classes he excelled in were drawing. He was good in those. The one semester he took music, he got a D.

But what he was learning outside of school was really important to him. He was, at this time, leading a band. He was going to work at various kinds of dances and working at places like the British Embassy and for balls and dances out in fox hunt country in Virginia. He was also playing in the African American community at places like the Poodle Dog Cafe up on Georgia Avenue and in open air parks. So, he was getting lots of good experience outside high school.

And three months shy of graduation in February of 1917, he dropped out of high school to pursue music. This was now unalterably his career path, music.

SMITH: So, tell me about that first gig he played at True Reformers Hall, where did he play his first gig?

HASSE: Ellington said he played his first gig at True Reformers Hall at 12th and U Streets, which was a prominent community meeting hall and on one of the upper stories there was a dance area. He had a little group with him and when he finished, he got paid 75 cents, ran home and showed it to his mother. And she was so proud of him. This was an example of how he always sought out his mother's approval.

SMITH: He was a pretty astute businessman. Tell me about when he was working for somebody else and the guy sends him out and charges $100 and keeps $90, how Ellington decided that this was, for him, not just the music, but a pretty good business here, pretty women, the allure of the musical life to Ellington.

HASSE: There were several allures of the musical life for Ellington. One of them was he found out pretty quickly that when he was playing the piano, there was always a pretty girl down by the base notes of the piano. And after that he said, 'I ain't been no athlete since.'

The money was also appealing. And Ellington learned a good business lesson. Louis Thomas sent him out to play at a gig out in Virginia and kept 90 percent of the fee as commission. Ellington quickly realized the possibilities, so he came back to Washington and set himself up in business as a booking agent and, so, he got to keep the commission when booking not only himself but other bands.

He put an ad in the city directory -- he put an ad in the yellow pages and got a lot of so-called high toned jobs after that.

And, of course, there were rewards that were much deeper than the pretty girl or the money for playing music and the musical life. There were deep, psychic, emotional, even spiritual rewards. Ellington once said, 'Music is my mistress and she plays second fiddle to no one.' Music is the oldest thing he talked -- music is the oldest thing, he wrote. And without music life would be inexistent [SIC]. It was at his at his very core.

SMITH: The early flowering of his career, how did it go, where did it go?

HASSE: Ellington started off by substituting for a pianist named Doc Perry who had taught Ellington really to read music -- and Wednesday afternoon tea dances. And then pretty soon, he was sitting in with the bands of Russell Witting and Louis Thomas.

He had some bumps on those roads, though, because one time he showed up at a British Embassy gig in a herring bone suit and he was bawled out because he was supposed to be wearing evening dress. He was fired from one gig for improvising on the piano when he was supposed to be playing the notes as written.

But he learned along the way and was playing in all sorts of establishments in the African American community, in the white community of Washington and outside, particularly in Virginia.

He would play places like open air parks, Fairmont Park, and dance halls and outdoor gardens and Embassy gigs and tea dances and fox hunts and balls, all sorts of gigs came Ellington's way and he would relish them all.

SMITH: Was Ellington riding the crest of something here?

HASSE: Ellington grew up with the new rag time music, with the greatest all time sales of the piano as an instrument and professional music making and in a period when it became socially acceptable for nice people to be seen dancing in public.

And during the teens there was a whole series of dance fads and more and more dance halls were established. These would grow in number and size in the 1920's. But during these formative years for Ellington, dancing was becoming more and more popular and more and more acceptable.

People like the dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle helped legitimize a lot of these dances of the period, like the Fox Trot, the Two Step, the Bunny Hop, the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear. And in Washington, there was a real brisk business for people who could really play dance music well as Ellington was learning to do.

When World War I started, there was an influx of visitors and military occasions and there was even more work for musicians.

Jazz was coming in, in about 1916, 1917, 1918. They hadn't standardized on the spelling for the music, but it was coming in and the bands were -- would be playing rag time and hot leg time -- would soon be known as jazz bands.

SMITH: And the blues?

HASSE: The blues had been there all through these years. It was largely unknown outside the black community. And within the black community many middle class people wanted nothing to do with the blues. Rag time and blues were still considered beyond the pale for many people. And jazz had some pretty controversial implications for a lot of people, too. But slowly it gained adherence and respectability.

SMITH: And what is jazz and rag time and blues -- kind of surge here -- what did that mean to Ellington in terms of his personal development and his career?

HASSE: The popularity of rag time, then jazz and -- and dance music in general was something that Ellington rode. He certainly realized how enticing these musics [SIC] were to young people and people who wanted to dance, people who wanted listen as well. And he saw this as a way to carve out a niche for himself and to boost his incipient career.

You know, it would be like somebody coming up in the 1950's, when rock and roll started, realizing, hey, this stuff is not only really cool and it's cool to be part of that scene and the girls like it and, you know, I've got stature among the boys, too. But this is a way to make money, it's a way to get some notoriety, some status within my group. And, hey, there's a big future in this, too. All this was happening for Ellington back in the teens.

SMITH: Talk about Henry Grant, as Ellington's piano teacher. Who was Henry Grant, why was he important, what did he teach Ellington? Ellington isn't a person you would think of as a guy who really cottoned to piano lessons.

HASSE: No.

SMITH: Particularly as a little kid, but even later on. He was eclectic, he obviously learned a lot. Was Henry Grant important and, if so, how?

HASSE: During the late teens, Ellington's reputation as a pianist had grown to such a degree that he said he had to take some kind of lessons in order to make sure his reputation was warranted, to catch up with his reputation really.

So, he sought out a man who lived in his neighborhood named Henry Grant, who was a very polished musician. He not only taught music at the high school, but also led coral groups and a church choir and helped to organize the National Association of Negro Musicians and edited their magazine.

He was unusual for someone so well trained in European classical music in that he didn't condescend to popular music. And he agreed to give lessons to Ellington in harmony and, as well, he probably helped Ellington learn to read music better. So this was important teacher.

Ellington would say later that at every point in his life when he needed some direction, he was very lucky, he'd happened upon someone who had given him direction, pointed him in the right direction and help him immeasurably. Henry Grant was one of those people.

SMITH: And does Ellington start composing music while he's still in Washington or does that come later on in the Cotton Club years in New York?

HASSE: In the summer of 1913, just before he entered high school and got the nickname, Duke, for his elegant bearing and manners, he had a job as a soda jerk at a place on Georgia Avenue called the Poodle Dog Cafe.

Now, there was a pianist there who was much better than Ellington when he was sober, but that wasn't much of the time. So, when the piano player got too drunk to play, the owner would kick that pianist out and have Ellington go over to play.

Well, Ellington said, he really didn't have a repertory, he didn't have any tunes he could play, so he had to make one up. And using the rhythm that he used when he was jerking out the sodas, he put together a piece which he called THE SODA FOUNTAIN RAG, also known as, THE POODLE DOG RAG.

And this was his earliest piece. It wasn't really so much a finished composition as the basis for improvisation. This was in 1913, when Ellington was 14 years old.

Ellington was quite clever. He took this POODLE DOG RAG and he would slow it down and play it as -- almost like a ballad, he would put it in waltz time and play it was a waltz. And he fooled people into thinking he had an actual repertory when it was the same basic structure that he would just mush this way and that way.

Later on, he would write a song called -- soon he would write a song which he called WHAT YOU GOING TO DO WHEN THE BED BREAKS DOWN, which has kind of racy lyrics, which his teenaged audiences, with their raging hormones, must surely have loved.

SMITH: The Howard Theater is something that is connected in many people's minds with Ellington. I suppose in many ways it's because of the great reopening of the Howard Theater in 1931. Talk about the Howard as a Mecca for entertainers and what it meant to this Washington community in 1931 when Ellington went back to be the headliner.

HASSE: The Howard Theater was opened in 1911 and it was the largest theater for African Americans in Washington and one of the most prominent such theaters in the entire country. Ellington would certainly have gone there as a teenager to hear the touring musicians and show.

And, in fact, in about 1919 - 1920, he landed a spot playing there for pre-performance shows that ran around the dinner time, around 6 o'clock. There were four or five -- six different bands that would play and his was one of those. And they would play to see which band could get the greatest applause from the audience.

So, he was a frequenter of the Howard. And it was at the Howard that he became acquainted with Sonny Greer, a very flashy and outgoing drummer from New York City who moved to Washington and got the drum job at the Howard Theater. He an Ellington became friends and they started playing together. And Sonny Greer would become Ellington's regular drummer, a relationship that would last for 30 years. So, that was something else that came out of the Howard for Ellington.

He also met, in 1920, a Puerto Rican born musician who was then playing at the Howard, a valve trombonist named Juan Tezol, whom ten years later Ellington would hire to join his band when it would be playing at the Cotton Club.

SMITH: Maybe we ought to take this music scene in general in Washington. We hear about Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. What's going on around U Street and the Howard Theater, through the teens and 20's, the 30's, what's the scene like in this community in which -- the music entertainment scene in which Ellington grew up?

HASSE: The Howard Theater would host not only local groups, but touring shows, touring companies, touring musicians, so people would always look to see what was on the bill at the Howard this week. And it was a topic of conversation in the community.

Washington also brought in a terrific pianist from outside the city, people such as James P. Johnson, who was known as the father of Harlem stride style piano. Another terrific pianist in that style, Lucky Roberts. The pianist and the song writer, Euby Blake, the blues singer, Mamie Smith, these musicians came through Washington. So, Ellington had a chance to hear and occasionally meet some of these top flight entertainers, many of whom were based in New York City.

James P. Johnson had written this extraordinary piece of rag time, early jazz, called CAROLINA SHOUT in 1918. And Ellington had a friend, a drummer named Percy Luscious Johnson who invited Ellington over to his house one day. He said, you got to hear this. Luscious Johnson put on to his player piano a roll of James P. Johnson's CAROLINA SHOUT and Ellington was amazed. He listened to this. Every day he went back to hear this.

He slowed the roll way down, put his fingers on the keyboard and depressed them as the keys were being depressed by the mechanism and in this manner learned how to play the CAROLINA SHOUT. Then in 1921, the master himself, James P. Johnson, came to town to lay at the Convention Center. And all Ellington's friends urged him to go over and cut the master and -- playing this piece that he had written.

Ellington nervously agreed and got up on stage and played it and the magnanimous Johnson gave him a lot of praise and put his hand on his shoulder and befriended him and took -- they went out that night and went to the Southwest entertainment district and went to all the haunts and stayed up til 10 o'clock that morning and Ellington learned a lot from Johnson that night, lessons that would stick with him for a long time.

SMITH: Some people have referred to U Street and the area around the Howard Theater as America's jazz Mecca for greats like Calloway and Armstrong and Hines and Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald. Was U Street a jazz Mecca for African American musicians in particular, but maybe others as well?

HASSE: Not that I'm aware, no. I wouldn't say that. I don't know enough about the period of the Howard Theatre after Ellington left Washington in 23 to comment on that. But it sounds like a real overstatement to me.

I mean, Howard Theater was home for -- I mean, it was a venue for these visiting groups. But to call it a Mecca, I don't know. I mean, there was never a Washington sound in jazz. You could pick a Kansas City sound, Chicago style, New Orleans style. There were some styles that came out of Harlem. But I'm not aware of any kind of jazz style that came out of Washington, per se. It wasn't that important of a jazz center.

SMITH: If Ellington personified or epitomized anything about the Washington community we've been talking about and maybe even Washington music, what is it that he personifies about Washington and that Washington community?

HASSE: Ellington personifies dignity, decorum, ambition, getting along with all kinds of people, having a pleasing stage presence and a winning musical and personal way. I think all those things developed in part from his upbringing in the Washington, D. C. community.

SMITH: How does Ellington deal in his music with the kind of oppressive Jim Crow segregation that you talked about?

HASSE: Washington at this time had a very oppressive Jim Crow system of segregation and things were getting worse for a number of years. In 1919, it was nationally such a terrible time for white race riot -- they called them race riots, but these were, in most cases, whites attacking unarmed black people for supposed or trumped up charges.

SMITH: How did Ellington deal with the oppressive Jim Crow segregation in his music? Does Ellington's music have a quality of protest to it, does he have a way of riding through it? What comes out of his music from the environment in which he grew up? I'm particularly interested in whether there's anything racial.

HASSE: I think Ellington had a couple of responses to the really horrible Jim Crow and racism that he grew up in. One was a strategy of overcoming it with his personal charm, his personal style, his high standards of musical performance and entertainment. He would just overcome them with all of these things, and win in that sense.

Another way was by affirming his African American culture. He would do this throughout his life. He was not running away from rag time blues or jazz as some middle class people in the African American were. He would affirm it, even as a youth.

He would write pieces that would affirm his life and upbringing in the African American community, pieces like BLACK, BROWN AND BEIGE, which was a tone parallel, he called, to the history of the Negro in the America. He would write pieces like BLACK BEAUTY, all sorts of pieces that would really affirm the kind of thing that his family and his community and his 8th grade English teacher, Miss Boston, were talking about, racial pride. Confirming the beautiful, rich, deep culture he grew up in.

SMITH: What about the musical upbringing. You mentioned that he went to two churches on Sunday. But as you look forward in his musical career, do you see reflections of the religious music that he must have been exposed to when he went to church?

HASSE: Ellington had always been a religious man. He said he read the Bible many times. But mostly he kept his spirituality to himself. It would occasionally pop up in one of this works, in a section of a piece from 1935, SYMPHONY IN BLACK, the section called the hymn of sorrow. And in his magnum opus from 1934 called BLACK, BROWN AND BEIGE and the ravishing spiritual theme called COME SUNDAY.

Mostly he kept his spirituality to himself until the 1960's when he started writing concerts of sacred music. And these concerns of sacred music gave him a chance to put his spirituality, his deep seeded religious beliefs up on the stage for all to see, hear and feel.

There's a piece of paper in the Duke Ellington archives here at the Smithsonian in which writes, the greatest thing one man can do for another is to pray for him. And I think that says a lot about Duke Ellington's religious conviction.

SMITH: Were there any other jazz figures of any note who came out of this same Washington environment we've been talking about?

HASSE: Before I answer that, could I go back and add one other thing?

SMITH: Sure.

HASSE: Every man prays in his own language, Ellington said, and there is no language that God does not understand. Duke Ellington is by far the greatest jazz figure that Washington, D. C. has produced. But there are other people who claim Washington either as a birth place or as their growing up place, people like Billy Taylor, the pianist. Charlie Rouse who played with Thelonius Monk in later years. Claude Hopkins, a band leader and pianist, who was more or less a contemporary of Duke Ellington. These are some of the people who came up here.

I consider Duke Ellington the greatest figure native to this city. He certainly surpasses John Philip Sousa, another noted Washington native, but no one in my judgment can knock Ellington off his place as the greatest native son of this capital city.

SMITH: John, let me just ask, back to True Reformers Hall, when did -- what did True Reformers Hall mean? What kind of place was it? What kind of place did it have in the African American community?

HASSE: True Reformers Hall was a noted place in the community, noted for meetings and dances.

SMITH: Now, let me go back to the Howard Theater. There was that moment when the Howard had been shut down in the late 20's and it reopened in 1931, Ellington was there. What was that week like, what was that moment like for the community and what was it like for Ellington?

HASSE: It's not something I've thought about for some years. I'm not sure I can say anything intelligent on that. I mean, I can surmise, but I'd have to go back and read the reviews.

SMITH: Let me ask you about Ellington's connection with Washington after he goes to New York. And what it's like, does he come back often, does he feel like this is home, is it family, does he go back and see people like Henry Grant?

HASSE: After Ellington gets -- it wasn't too long -- it wasn't too many years after Ellington established himself in New York city that he brought his parents up to live with him and his wife, Edna, and their little boy, Mercer.

After that, Ellington didn't have too much reason to go back to Washington, except starting in the 30's when he would appear occasionally at places like the Howard Theater.

It was a kind of a checkered relationship with the city after that, because while there was certainly a lot of hometown pride in Washington, he had some pique at the community in this -- for one thing in particular, after his parents died. They were interred in the graveyard and the graveyard was torn up and, so, he was so angry he moved their caskets to another resting place. He was really angry about that.

SMITH: That would have been about when?

HASSE: I don't remember.

SMITH: 40's, 50's?

HASSE: I don't want to say, because I'd have to refresh my memory. But something else happened in 19 -- in the late 60's. In the 60's after Ellington had premiered this big splashy concert of sacred music so successfully in San Francisco and repeated it at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, he was going to do it here in Washington, D.C. But the association of Baptists ministers refused to endorse it. In fact, they denounced people of Ellington's ilk, presumably jazz musicians. And this really hurt Ellington.

This was his hometown after all. He had been raised in part in the Baptist church, and these ministers, these men of the cloth were denouncing him and he was hurt and angry about that.

SMITH: One of the things people say about Ellington's music ... what Ellington himself heard and was able to put into music. I think you said at one point that when Ellington saw color, he heard music.

HASSE: The memory of things gone by, Ellington once said, is important to a jazz musician and most of Ellington's compositions are based on a memory, a mood or an image. For example, one of my favorite pieces of his, CARAVAN, paints an intriguing picture of some distant and exotic place.

By the same token, Ellington had a marvelous ability to deal with color. He had been a painter in high school and he had a painter's eye all the rest of his life that found its way into his music.

He would paint a scene with his notes and harmonies and rhythms and he had particular fascination for the color blue. It was his favorite color and he -- you found Ellington titling a number of pieces with some shade of blue, MOOD INDIGO, ON A TURQUOISE CLOUD, MAGENTA HAZE, various shades of blue, azure. And he was a master colorist as a composer.

He would find ways of combining the usual instruments in a jazz band to create sounds that had never been heard before in all of music like that wonderful muted trumpet, trombone and clarinet that make up the famous sound on MOOD INDIGO in 1930. So color was very important to Ellington.

HASSE: Synesthesia is the ability to translate one sense into another, for example, to look at the color blue and hear a chord or to hear a train and whistle and smell something. Ellington had that, he had that ability to translate back and forth between musical color and visual color.

SMITH: We were talking earlier to the dance craze, relate it to the dance halls in Washington.

HASSE: Rex Stewart was a kid about six years younger than Ellington and an admirer of his. And later one he would play coronet in the Ellington orchestra.

He wrote a wonderful memoir that talks about those Washington years and has some memories of Ellington. Rex Stewart talked about how there were more dance halls in Washington, it seemed to him, than in any other city, except the fabled New Orleans scene. And they were spread out throughout the city.

Over in Georgetown you had the Odd Fellows Hall. You had a dance hall in Anacostia, you had one in Southwest, you had one in Northeast. There was another in Northwest. All over the city there were dance halls for the African American community to meet and socialize and listen to music and to dance.

One night Rex Stewart said he was looking through the window of the Odd Fellows hall in Georgetown and taking in the dreamy lights and the pretty girls and the music. And the band was playing all these popular hits of the day with Ellington at the piano.

And after a while, toughs came and they started a fight. And Ellington and his band were seen hot footing it down 29th Street, Ellington in the lead to get away from these toughs. So, the life of the musician back then had some risk, but as far as is known, Ellington was never seriously injured at any of these affairs.

SMITH: Ellington was a pretty good businessman. We tend to think of musicians as creative artists, but there was more to Ellington than the creative genius, at least for making it work with the big band for decade after decade. Was he a good businessman and, if so, where did that come from?

HASSE: Ellington was a sharp businessman and perhaps he got some of that skill from his father, who was at times an independent caterer.

He also hung out with a fellow named Black Bowie who was a real sharp -- a real hustler. And who knows, maybe Ellington picked up some of his talent for hustling of business by hanging out at Frank Holiday's pool room.

When he was -- just after he dropped out of high school, he went into the sign painting business with a friend named Conaway and he would paint signs by day. And when people would come and say, you know, I'm going to have a dance, will you paint me a sign, Ellington would say, who's playing the music. And if they didn't have a band, he would get himself hired.

And by the same token, when he was playing -- hired to play a dance for somebody, he'd say, have you got a sign. And if they said, no, then he'd get the business to make the sign. So, he was sharp from an early age. And later on he became one of the first African American jazz musicians to form his own music publishing company as a way of seizing control of his own business affairs and making more money.

SMITH: New Washingtonians and Serenaders were the name of his bands?

HASSE: The Washingtonians. The Duke Serenaders was the band that he started when he was in his teens here in Washington. Took out that add in the yellow pages. When he got to New York, the band was called the Washingtonians, and proudly so, because they hailed from a city that had only just been eclipsed in the size of its African American community and still had a very powerful reputation.

 

 

 



 

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