Many people played significant roles in the story of Washington's black community in the early 20th century, but no one better personified the elegance, the dynamism and the spirit of that society than Duke Ellington. He embodied the powerful connection between cultural success and economic achievement among African-Americans. And he was a creature of the fertile, talented, secure middle-class society that nurtured him. As musical historians Marc Tucker and John Hasse have observed, the Duke was shaped by Washington's black community - by its schools and churches; by the elegance and etiquette his father learned as a butler and caterer to some of Washington's most prominent families; and by the confident aspirations of his elders.
It was into this world that Duke Ellington was born in Washington's west end on April 29, 1899 and through which he moved as a young man. Ellington's family life, education and early career prior to his move to Harlem in 1923, were representative of the black community of Washington. His father, a well-respected butler (house manager) for a prominent Washington doctor, sometimes served at the White House and ran his own catering business. His mother was a beautiful woman who sometimes worked as a domestic. His parents were solid middle class, well enough off to afford comfortable row-house apartment homes in LeDroit Park and just off U Street, to insist on good manners and proper coat-and-tie dress, to enjoy elegant meals and wines sometimes brought home by his father from his butlering or catering jobs, and to possess an upright piano.
As a boy, Ellington took piano lessons, though in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, he confesses that he did not take to the piano in childhood. He apparently wanted to play baseball. Subsequently, his first job was as a peanut vendor at Washington Senators' games. Ellington's mother played piano and had encouraged his lessons early on, but it was not until his teenage years, when he began hanging out with other high school and college students as well as pool sharks at Frank's Billiards next door to the Howard Theater, that Ellington really focused on his future musical career. He fell in love with the rolling style and the chatty worldliness of the itinerant piano players, whose style he combined with that of the "academic" pianists such as Henry Grant, with whom he studied. Caught up in the dance craze that mushroomed during World War I, Ellington gave up his training in design and an arts scholarship at Armstrong High School to start playing professional piano gigs for parties, dances and clubs. He wrote his first composition at the age of 16. By his early 20s, Ellington had his own four-piece combo, Duke's Serenaders, and was a fixture in the U Street musical scene.
Ellington moved on to New York where he started working with a band he later took over and named, "The Washingtonians." Duke and the Washingtonians played regularly at the Hollywood Club in Manhattan that later became known as the Kentucky Club. In 1927 Ellington and his band landed a permanent spot at the famous Cotton Club. Their popularity grew as the Cotton Club included them in regular broadcasts on NBC and drew a substantial increase in their audience.
Time and again in his career, Ellington's destiny was linked to developments in his home community. His first paid professional performance for a public audience was at True Reformers' Hall, an early landmark of U Street's prosperity and proclaimed by its builder as "an exemplar of the quality the Negro race could achieve." Even after moving to Harlem, Ellington returned to Washington many times to perform. One of his most important trips was to give a boost to the re-opening of the Howard Theater that had fallen on hard times in the late 1920s. At the Howard on September 29, 1931, Ellington was the top headliner and he played for an entire week to Standing Room Only audiences.
For decades, Ellington nurtured his hometown connection. On trips back to Washington, Ellington always visited his parents and often saw his many aunts, uncles and cousins. But he liked to stay at the Whitelaw Hotel, the first elegant hotel establishment for blacks in Washington, frequented by other headliners, businessmen and black professionals into the 1950s. He also maintained contact with his classical piano teacher, Henry Grant. The sophistication and intricate harmonies of Ellington's musical compositions owe a debt to Grant's teaching of the harmonies of European composers such as Ravel and Debussy, according to another Washington jazz great, pianist Billy Taylor. Ellington showed his gratitude by taking Grant on tour with his orchestra.
Ultimately, Ellington influenced the hometown community that had shaped him. Not only did the young people from Washington turn out in great numbers to see Ellington perform at the Howard Theater, The Lincoln Colonnade, and Murray's Casino, but many began to copy his dress and manners. Through the elegance of his own stage presence, his life-style and the formal attire of his orchestra, Ellington passed on to the next generation not only his music but the values, the self-confidence and the aspirations that he had learned from the high tone and cultural richness of the Washington community that shaped him.
Well-known pianist and composer Billy Taylor was born in 1921 in Greenville, NC but very soon thereafter, his family moved to Washington, D.C. and Taylor grew up in the capital. Through his nationally broadcast radio program, "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center," he has not only developed a wide following among jazz fans but maintained his Washington connection.
As a young man, Taylor attended Dunbar High School, long the premier high school for African Americans in the country. He took piano lessons from Henry Grant, the same classical music teacher who taught Duke Ellington a generation earlier. For his higher education, Taylor graduated from Virginia State College.
In 1942, he moved to New York and played with such major musicians as Ben Webster, Eddie South, Stuff Smith (with whom he recorded in 1944) and Slam Stewart. From 1949 - 1951 he was the house pianist at Birdland and soon afterward Taylor formed his first of many trios. He helped found the Jazzmobile in 1965, in 1969 became the first black band director for a network television series (The David Frost Show).
In 1975 he earned his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts and he both founded and served as director for the popular radio program Jazz Alive, which became the most listened-to jazz program in the country during the '70s and '80s.
For almost 20 years, new generations of jazz fans have tuned in to watch his profiles as a correspondent for CBS News "Sunday Morning." Since 1994, Taylor has been associated with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as an artistic advisor and performer. His current jazz trio performs more than 150 concerts a year.
Vocalist, movie and stage actress Pearl Bailey was born in Newport News, Virginia, and was a lifelong resident of Washington, D.C. The daughter of a minister, she began her career on U Street, at a small club called the Jungle Inn, and from there went on to perform at the Republic Gardens, further up U Street.
An irrepressible show business personality, she began as a dancer and won an amateur contest in Philadelphia in 1933, which led to work in touring shows. In 1938 she won a singing contest at Harlem's Apollo Theatre and was subsequently featured with big bands led by Noble Nissle, Edgar Hayes, Cab Calloway, and Cootie Williams, with whom she recorded in 1945. In 1946, she starred in the Broadway musical St. Louis Woman. Beginning with Carmen Jones in 1954, she appeared in numerous films, television, and stage shows, including Hello, Dolly! in 1967-69. She hosted her own television variety show in 1970-71.
Jazz musician Ferdinand Joseph "Jelly Roll" Morton was born in New Orleans. A nomadic figure, legendary braggart, and self-proclaimed "creator of jazz in 1902," he was actually an important pianist and prolific composer who recorded many landmarks of small group classic jazz with his Red Hot Peppers in the 1920s. Jelly Roll Morton lived out his last years in Washington, D.C. He played his music on U Street, at a small club known as the Jungle Inn in the late 1930s, and died in Los Angeles in 1941.
William Clarence "Billy" Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1914, but spent a significant amount of his life and career as a singer in Washington, D.C. One of the most popular black vocalists in the 1940s and 1950s, he was known especially for the big band he led from 1944-1947, which included most of the great musicians of the bebop era. Later in his career he worked without the band and moved more into pop music, spending nearly half his time working Las Vegas casinos. Eckstine died in Pittsburgh in 1993.
One of the pianists Duke Ellington approached during his high school years was Doc Perry, one of the most popular black bandleaders in town when Ellington was growing up. Conservatory trained, Perry showed versatility as a piano player and his refined personal style put him in demand as a performer at fancy functions. He took an interest in the young Duke Ellington, and began sharing his knowledge with him. Doc Perry's guidance helped Duke Ellington gain both musical skills and a professional attitude toward performing.
Native Washingtonian Davey Yarborough is a saxophonist, flutist and vocalist, and has been a bandleader and arranger for a jazz quartet and a trio. Yarborough studied music at the University of the District of Columbia, and earned a master's degree in music performance from Howard University. He has accompanied Patti LaBelle and Joe Williams, and it was his saxophone featured for three years in the theme song for "The Cosby Show."
Since 1986, he has established and developed the jazz studies program at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and is now chairman of the instrumental music department. Billy Taylor, (with whom Yarborough has taught workshops at the school), has said that "there are hundreds of jazz educators. The difference with Davey is he can play and is a good musician on his own. He is making a sacrifice, giving up opportunities to get his name out there."
Yarborough had decided early on that he wanted to be a teacher. He hopes to be a teacher. He hoped to give something back to Washington by creating young ambassadors for jazz, as well as for all forms of music.
He sets a very high standard for his students. In many ways he uses Duke Ellington himself as a model. "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," Yarborough has said. His instrumental music class and jazz band, "The New Washingtonians", have achieved much success, performing and competing not just locally, but around the world.
Henry L. Grant, one of Duke Ellington's early piano teachers, was one of Washington's most important black musicians. The son of a music teacher, Grant himself studied music at New York University and went on to become one of the first graduates of the Washington Conservatory of Music. He began teaching music at Dunbar High School in 1916, but his musical activities ranged beyond the world of public school music.
Grant composed, directed choirs at various churches, led the L'Allegro Glee Club, and gave solo piano recitals. He was also director of the Washington Conservatory of Music, and he helped to found the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1919, and edited its journal. Ellington claimed that he was invited by Grant to study harmony and that he "jumped at the opportunity," since Grant taught "most of the advanced musicians."
Like Doc Perry, Louis Brown led bands that played for dances, dance classes, parties and receptions in the Washington, D.C. black community. Brown also played piano at the Lincoln Theater, and performed solo concerts. Duke Ellington admired Brown's "unbelievable techniques" at the piano, and learned from much his observation of him.