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Duke Ellington's Washington DC
Davey Yarborough

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HEDRICK SMITH: What is the connection between the Ellington School of the Arts and Duke Ellington.

DAVEY YARBOROUGH: I guess the largest connection is the Washington and that being that Duke was a native. That's first. In terms of a school, we're looking for a model for young people to pattern and you want to make the goal high and Ellington is about as high as you can go. With his accomplishments as being one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century.

SMITH: What does Duke Elington mean to you personally, as a musician and as a teacher.

YARBOROUGH: As a musician he epitomizes the ability to have his instrument become a part of his body. He has made the connection of what he thinks comes through, what he feels comes through the instrument. Not only through the piano but also in terms of composition and arranging.

SMITH: So Ellington is for you the best of the best.

YARBOROUGH: Definitely. Again we're making the connection of the Washingtonian. The best of the arts, and you know he was not just a piano player or just a musician, he was a visual artist. He was a writer. I mean the idea was what he did, he did well. And that's the idea behind the school and the students and of the people actually involved with the school.

SMITH: Does it matter to the kids that Ellington was from Washington? I mean they're from Washington, you're from Washington, and there's a lot of connections there. Just talk about what that means to the kids.

YARBOROUGH: Well take myself, for instance. I'm a Washingtonian and I'm here because I believe in the environment that I grew up in. And having Duke as model for myself to say, hey here's a human being who was from Washington who has made these types of accomplishments. That means it's tangible, it means that I can probably do it too. So that's the biggest thing it does for me. I take that same concept and try to transfer it to the students.

SMITH: How do the students in your orchestra respond to Ellington as an inspiration, as a model?

YARBOROUGH: Well about the same as I do. I started with an early introduction to Ellington, as opposed to a Count Basie or a Manard Ferguson, and maybe it didn't seem like it knocked me out as much. But by the time I saw the library of material, the wealth of material, I began to understand arranging and how this man could create the mood. He could make you feel like you were right out in the street and the trolley cars are running behind. You can hear them and this is based on music that came from his pen. This is what separated him from the other artists.

SMITH: And when you walk through the streets of Washington, do you sort of feel his music?

YARBOROUGH: Definitely. Not only Washington but New York too. I mean when you think about the 'A-train', I can see myself sitting on the subway. Oh Harlem. 'Daybreak Express' is one of my favorites that I really just came across about 3 or 4 years ago. But I really felt like I could hear the cars over top of my head. I could hear the buses and the trains and the people talking and the clank of the street and whatever noises, I mean whatever is going on. People yelling at each other, whatever is going on. I can hear that and at the same time enjoy this music. I mean, there's a lot of music coming through there but there is life coming at the same time.

SMITH: Now the Washington connection you said, to me, is really important. He's a Washingtonian, I'm a Washingtonian, the kids are Washingtonian. When you listen to any of his music do you hear Washington coming through?

YARBOROUGH: Well you have to because he's a Washingtonian. What you hear coming through is himself. Now how do I recreate that? So one of the hardest things to do is get someone to see what you saw and feel what you feel. Well this is what he was a master at doing. I really felt that I was sitting in the same situation that Ellington was sitting in when he wrote certain compositions.

SMITH: What do the students respond to in Duke Ellington?

YARBOROUGH: The music. Again, his charisma in working with the band and what he pulled out of the band members. Not only could he pin it himself, but he could take somebody like Johnny Hodges and make Johnny give you his all. And give a surrounding that would allow him to give everything, to give more than what the average band would give. And our band members, we're trying to pull, we're trying to get them to reach inside themselves and really add their personality to what they're learning. It's hard enough just to learn the terminology. It's hard enough to learn the technique and the tone but then you want to take all of those things and take a piece of you, your energy and put it into the product. This is what the ultimate in music is.

SMITH: Take Shannon Browne the drummer, what does she get out of Ellington?

YARBOROUGH: The energy of his music and how it's generated and how it is applied through the profession. Take a perfect example of this year. We went by the Kennedy Center to see the Lincoln Center recreate Ellington's music. And the finesse that Herman Rally used in his dynamics...he made the drums speak softer than Shannon had ever heard. She says how can you continue to keep the pace, keep the pulse, keep the energy going and play as sensitively as he does? This is the type of thing that Elllington did. This is what he brought to the art of composition and performance.

SMITH: Does Ellington's music particularly challenge the students?

YARBOROUGH: Oh definitely, definitely. I mean you use everything in music to play Ellington, and more. You use all of the rhythmic concepts. When you start trying to recreate life it's not a basic pattern, you're going to have something new all the time.

SMITH: What does a drummer like Shannon Browne get out of Duke Ellington?

YARBOROUGH: She gets to experience the emotion, the sensitivity the technique, the diverseness of color, all in one package. I mean total creation.

SMITH: For somebody like Shannon is Ellington's music a real challenge?

YARBOROUGH: A big challenge. Before Shannon came into Ellington, before she was ever listening to Ellington, she only had heard a small part of what music could be. Her exposure to him has allowed her to really look for much more. She says ok, well, what he has done is done, and I knew nothing about it. Now I want to go study all of the other musicians and artists because they've done what they've done and for me to be able to have my own voice I'm going to go beyond.

SMITH: Give me an example. I mean you were jut talking about it. Just go back to this. Ellington requires the drive but he also requires finesse and combination, particularly for somebody who's 17 or 18 years old. I mean, the drums are banging, their noise, their rhythm, that kind of stuff. So, talk about how she matures as a musician as she's playing Ellington.

YARBOROUGH: There's a natural tendency to add more energy to get a point across, more physical energy to get a musical point across.

SMITH: You mean she plays the drums loud.

YARBOROUGH: She will play the drums loud, to be able to get especially a speed and volume associated with the most of the young artists. What you hear in Ellington is the speed with finesse, and quietness. And the energy is that much stronger and the use of dynamics brings the music out that much more. So she gets that exposure to the total concept. So now she tries to keep up physically with the speed. But not heavy handily. Also, it takes more strength to play dynamically diverse than it does to just let it all hang out. But you develop stronger and faster by having that control of the dynamics.

SMITH: So Ellington's a particular challenge.

YARBOROUGH: Definitely.

SMITH: And then what you're saying then is that through Elllington. Shannon Browne becomes a more sophisticated drummer.

YARBOROUGH: Definitely, definitely.

SMITH: Have you seen that change take place?

YARBOROUGH: Oh yeah, sure. I wish I had a videotape of when she first came. And, you listened to what she's doing now, and she's on her way. I mean she, she's quite talented. She's quite creative but she's also a sieve in terms of learning. She's now open to everything that's out there. She wants to try anything. You know you give her suggestions and she goes for it.

SMITH: If you go to the before and the after, if you could hear her back when you had that videotape what would we hear.

YARBOROUGH: The old days, you still saw Shannon's talent, but not a concentration on, tightness on keeping the tempo, or making the tempo stay the same. As you changed dynamics as you changed fields. A lot of times you go from one style of music to the other. It doesn't say that one has to be louder than the other. it's just a different style. She can now approach different music and not be have mentally challenged to hear or to apply the difference in dynamics.

SMITH: Let me ask the question in a different way. What's special about Shannon Browne?

YARBOROUGH: Oh, Shannon is, first of all, from the young lady's point of view. Young lady sitting down behind the drum set, in my experience and I've had a few of them to come through, feel apprehensive already because they got to be one of the guys. So first thing that they're going to do is they're going to try to bash. And what she's gotten out of Ellington was that drumming is not just bashing. It's playing, it's applying, it's creating, it's using all the elements to create the energy or the ideal or the feeling that you want to get from the instrument. What do you want the instrument to say? She's gotten the connection of what she wants the instrument to say.

SMITH: What about her commitment. I mean coming here. I understand that she had rather special commitment. Tell me about that.

YARBOROUGH: She had to come back. She had to go because of some of the residency problems. And while she was here she got the bug and she says ok, I'm going to go, we're going to get this problem taken care of and I'm going to be back. And within a year's time, she's back and she's back with a vengeance. And of course she's finished and she had to catch up academically as well as artistically. She met those challenges, and I mean serious challenges. She had tutors and went through school. Went to night school in some cases to catch up on some classes that she missed on that year that she was out, even though she was in school. She didn't have the rigorous curriculum that we have here but she met all of those challenges, and of course now she's on the way to college.

SMITH: Let me put it another way. Does Shannon Browne have the passion?

YARBOROUGH: Yeah, she does really have the passion, you can see it in her eyes. She's got that gleam, that glow, just music, period. Certain type of energy just come from the being of someone who says oh yeah this is it, this is what I have to do.

SMITH: And when did she get that, did she have that when she came? I think she got that here.

YARBOROUGH: I think she had some when she came but she was sure after that first year. She was positive.

SMITH: I want to be sure factually. What happened was her parents moved out of the district so she was at another school for a year and then she came back. Just factually is that what happened?


SMITH: So she's the one that kind of had to arrange it to make sure

YARBOROUGH: So she could get back.

SMITH: She was the one. Talk about graduation. That was a wild scene, what is graduation like here.

YARBOROUGH: Well I would say it, it's a wild scene for those who have not experienced it, Ellington graduation is like no other. What you have is these people who have made this commitment and have achieved beyond what the norm is. The energy now has outdone it. I got through. I mean I've seen expression on kids' faces when I said you just got here and you going to be here until 6:00, 7:00 in the evening. You might come in at 7:30 in the morning, and they say what are you talking about. You got to be kidding. I said well this is what it takes and you've got some extra studying to do. And you in the jazz orchestra, you must maintain the honor roll, you've got to do your home study and you've got to do a balancing act in developing the art and keeping your books straight. Well after 3 or 4 years of doing that and then accomplishing it here's a night when all of the scholarships make themselves known. And all the acceptances, these students are balls of energy and their parents and their relatives come in to see all this happen and they've got that energy and they get a chance to also display some of their talent. It creates a different scene.

SMITH: You talked about balancing academics and working long hours and so forth. How much of what you're teaching these students here, again going back to Ellington is not only musical talent and ability but also discipline and focused energy? Again, Ellington the model, talk a little bit about the richness of what it is you're trying to teach.

YARBOROUGH: Well, I guess the concept of going to an Ellington, why have an Ellington. The saying that we have here is that if you must be an artist, if you have to be an artist, this is the place for you. If it's ok that you are or you may or you may not, it's not necessarily the place for you. This is a place where you have committed yourself to become an artist no matter what it takes and you're willing to buckle down and you believe that after you have successfully gone through this institution you are well on your way to becoming an artist.

SMITH: And where are these kids going, what's going to happen in their future? Where is Shannon Browne headed?

YARBOROUGH: Well Shannon has been offered a scholarship at Howard University. She wants to be a performer. She wants to play drums. She wants to be that lady drummer who stands out above and beyond any other percussionist. Not just being a lady but being a percussionist. Where she'll take it, you know, the sky's the limit.

SMITH: But you won't be surprised if she's...

YARBOROUGH: No by no means. I will not be surprised if I look up and see her on television shows, conducting, performing, composing, arranging. Her name prominently in the music, in the musical books.

SMITH: Talk to me a little bit about Shannon's commitment to the music. How committed has Shannon been to being in the school and pursuing the music?

YARBOROUGH: Shannon was excited about coming to Ellington in the first place. When she got here she understood why she was excited about it. She felt it was everything that she was looking for in terms of developing herself. In the course of the year she ran into a few problems and she had to leave for a year. But before she would leave, I mean she was really going to fight leaving, she made me promise that if she left that if she could come back in a year that she could audition again and, and be admitted.

SMITH: I'm going to ask you that. I don't want anybody to think she left for any choice of her own. She left because her family moved, an obstacle outside of herself. So pick it right up there. She was determined to be here and then...

YARBOROUGH: She was determined to, to be at Ellington. She had to leave and she promised that she was coming and she did. She came back within a year and picked right up where she left off. And caught up on things that she had missed within that year's time.

SMITH: She wasn't going to let a family move keep her out of this school.

YARBOROUGH: Definitely not. Not at all. She said this is what she wanted to do. This is where she wanted to graduate from and that's what she did.

SMITH: She overcame the obstacles.

YARBOROUGH: Definitely.

SMITH: What is this school's connection to Duke Ellington?

YARBOROUGH: The connection is the legacy that he left. The school is picking up. The idea is not to forget. This is an event in history that can be perpetuated and it's set the stage for its perpetuation. So Ellington the school exhibits the opportunity to continue to create the best in the art.

SMITH: Which Duke Ellington symbolized.


SMITH: You say it.

YARBOROUGH: Yeah, well the school exhibits the excellence that Ellington portrayed. in his life. I don't know where I was in that.

SMITH: Just talk about your role as a teacher. Connect it a little bit further. Ellington was there, he is my teacher. I'm a teacher. And you know just that connection.

YARBOROUGH: Well Ellington left his mark all over DC and in growing up I grew to know who he was. The more I understood who he was the more I understood the importance of everyone in Washington...or everyone in the world to know the mark, the goal, the benchmark that he left. Which we aspire to, if nothing else. If we ever get to that point that we can begin to look to how much further we can go.

SMITH: I'm going to ask you again, what was the school's connection to Duke Ellington?

YARBOROUGH: The idea of the school being named after Ellington comes from the legacy that Ellington left. It says 'I have set the standards for achievement in Washington DC,' and the school is the vehicle to perpetuate that legacy.





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