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Duke Ellington's Washington DC
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Transcript of Chat

On Thursday, February 3, 2000 Hedrick Smith was the guest for an Internet chat about the documentary Duke Ellington's Washington. If you missed it, the following is the text from the event. The online chat took place before the national broadcast of the documentary on February 7, 2000, so the chat participants had not yet seen the show.

ChatYahoo_Lisa: Welcome to Yahoo! Chat
ChatYahoo_Lisa: Tonight we will be chatting with PBS about Duke Ellington's Washington
ChatYahoo_Lisa: Send in your questions now!
ChatYahoo_Lisa: Soon we will be chatting with Hedrick Smith about Duke Ellington's Washington ... send in your questions now!

duke_host: Welcome to Duke Ellington's Washington Chat!
duke_host: We'll be starting in just a few minutes.
duke_host: Welcome to Duke Ellington's Washington Chat Room!
duke_host: Please send us your questions for Hedrick Smith...
duke_host: regarding Duke Ellington's Washington and Urban Revitalization.
duke_host: Hedrick Smith online live to answer your questions.

duke_guest: Welcome to our chat room Duke Ellington's Washington, a brand new PBS documentary that will be on the air Monday, February 7 all across the country.
duke_guest: It's about the community where Duke grew up, learned how to play the piano and played his first gig.
duke_guest: Wonderful Music, interesting people and a piece of American history hardly anyone knows.
duke_guest: So come on, let's talk about it.


sleet_beagle asks: What year was the Duke's first recording session (in a studio)?
duke_guest: He did that after he moved to New York in 1923. He was already 24 years old and had established a reputation in Washington for playing with his own combo, Duke's Sereneders, at places like True Reformer's Hall, which is being rebuilt right now and is becoming a tourist site.
duke_guest: In Washington, Ellington played at a lot of parties and in band competitions, what they called "play-offs".
duke_guest: He didn't begin his recording career until he got on the radio and started playing at the NYC clubs.
duke_guest: Like the Cotton Club and the Kentucky Club.
duke_guest: So we're talking mid to late 1920's

maxschwartz asks: Who is Hedrick Smith?
duke_guest: I'm a longtime New York Times correspondent who has been producing TV documentaries for PBS for about ten years. We've done topics from Power Plays in Washington to Teen Violence to the impact of globalization on working Americans, from Russia to China to the American inner cities to Duke Ellington.
duke_guest: You can find out more on our website, www.hedricksmith.com
duke_guest: Come visit us.

duke_host: What is the documentary Duke Ellington's Washington about?
duke_guest: It's about how Duke and other important African Americans emerged from the Washington community, people like Thurgood Marshall, Mary Church Terrell, Doctor Charles Drew, Ralph Bunche, Senator Ed Brooke, Pearl Bailey, Ellington and many others.
duke_guest: This was a hot jazz and cultural scene for 20 years before the Apollo Theater in Harlem began headlining black musicians.
duke_guest: At the Howard Theater in Washington, you could catch Louie Armstrong, Ellington, Cab Calloway, Jellyroll Morton, Ella Fitzgerald, and the list goes on and on and on.
duke_guest: It was also a community with great schools, fantastic high school drill teams, strong churches, black-owned businesses, the first black YMCA in the country and all other kind of notable black institutions like various black newspapers, banks, businesses, you name it.
duke_guest: It's also the story of Duke's family and how he got the elegant style that made him famous.
duke_guest: There are even people who recall him getting piano lessons and others who fell in love in their teenage years to Ellington tunes and saw him play at the Howard Theater. These are folks now in their 80's and 90's.

leadbelly44 asks: How did Washington, DC influence the dook?
duke_guest: The African American community when Ellington was growing up had very high standards and a very elegant style.
duke_guest: Duke's father was a butler for a prominent doctor, and sometimes he even worked at the White House for Teddy Roosevelt and others.
duke_guest: So he learned about fancy society, fine wines, how to set a good table...and as Duke said, 'He treated us like a millionaire.'
duke_guest: So Duke learned a lot of his elegant stage presence from his family and the strong cohesive community that made Duke and other young people confident that they could succeed in spite of a system of segregation and prejudice against them.
duke_guest: Duke also was shaped by the ragtime piano players who played in the pool halls around the Howard Theater, and also the classical musician, Henry Grant, who was his piano teacher during his late teens.
duke_guest: Grant taught Duke - and later on, a currently famous jazz piano player, Billy Taylor, a lot about classical harmonies and comosers.
duke_guest: And that influenced the cool orchestrations for which Ellington later became famous.
huggieb412 asks: When will the documentary be on PBS?
duke_guest: Most of the 300 PBS stations, "Duke Ellington's Washington", will be on the air, Monday, Feb. 7, at either 9 or 10 PM. Check your local listings.
duke_guest: Some places, like San Fransisco are running it Sat. or Sun., Feb 12 or 13.
duke_guest: So check your local paper.

johnnycoltrane asks: Was there tension between Duke and his great altoist, Johnny Hodges?
duke_guest: There was tension between Duke and lots of members of his band.
duke_guest: But one of Duke's great skills was managing jazz musicians like Hodges who could be difficult.
duke_guest: He was not only a great composer and pianist, but he was an excellent manager.
duke_guest: He was known as a charmer. He charmed the ladies and he charmed the guys in his band, so he got brilliant instrumentalists like Hodges to cool down and do what the Duke wanted.

johnnycoltrane asks: How important a figure was Billy Strayhorn in Duke's creative life and how important was he in Duke's personal life?
duke_guest: Strayhorn was enormously important. He became an alter ego to Duke. There are many tunes where they are listed as joint composers and it's hard to tell where Duke ended and Strayhorn began.
duke_guest: Duke has written about Strayhorn in his own memoirs, and so have many other jazz critics and writers, as being essential to Duke, especially in his later years.

huggieb412 asks: Is the Howard Theatre still in existence?
duke_guest: Even when Duke was traveling abroad and Strayhorn was home in NYC, Duke would call him on the phone almost every night and sway ideas and ask Strayhorn to compose or arrange new pieces. They were like two peas in a pod.
duke_guest: The Howard Theatre, which was built around 1910 still stands today, but unlike a lot of other major buildings in what used to be called the Uptown section of Wash., it has not been restored.
duke_guest: You'll see it as it is in our documentary, "Duke Ellington's Washington".
duke_guest: We go back there with some people who remember, not only seeing Ellington, but actually performing on stage themselves.
johnnycoltrane asks: I wanna see this special.
duke_guest: You can see the stage, some of the rows of seats, the balconies, the stairways - but it's still pretty much in ruins.
duke_guest: The marquee out front is legible, but beat up.
duke_guest: Some people in Washington are organizing to try to bring the Howard Theatre back, either as a sight of performances or as a jazz museum.
duke_guest: It's really sad the Howard has not been revived because lots of other old buildings have been brought back, like the 12th St. YMCA, The Lincoln Theatre, The Whitelaw Hotel, and True Reformer's Hall.
duke_guest: So D.C. folk are hoping that somehow the Howard Theatre will be revived.

pablobaba22 asks: what about the religious compositions by the duke--didn't he think they were the most memorable, for him???
duke_guest: Certainly Duke put a very high stake on the religious compositons that he wrote late in his career.
duke_guest: They showed the influence not only of jazz, but also of religion and church music to which Duke was exposed in his early life.
duke_guest: Duke's mother took him to the 19th Street Baptist Church and his dad took him to a Methodist Church, so he got double exposure, and it obviously was very meaningful to him. It reflects the very active musical culture of Washington's African American community in the first few decades of the 20th century and that was a profound influence on Ellington.

huggieb412 asks: Did white people ever try to claim jazz as "their own" music?
duke_guest: There probably have been some whites who have made that claim as the originators of jazz.
duke_guest: But most writers on the subject say that it came out of the African American community. In two ways - traveling up the Mississippi river from New Orleans to Chicago, and traveling up the east coast from the Carolinas through Washington, to New York.
duke_guest: So Duke Ellington was one of the primary carriers of the eastern seaboard "cool" style of jazz.
duke_guest: But, of course, over the last several decades, blacks and whites, have played in all kinds of jazz orchestras, bands, combos, trios together.
duke_guest: So it is one musical tradition that has united the races in recent decades, though for a long time jazz bands were largely segregated.

pablobaba22 asks: Isn't Ken Burns doing a jazz special for airing next year?
duke_guest: Yes, Ken Burns is doing a massive series on jazz which will come out next fall.
duke_guest: But "Duke Ellington's Washington" is very different.
duke_guest: You get to hear a lot of Ellington music and you get to see some of the top Ellington performers. But this documentary goes way behind jazz to tell the story of the whole community that Duke grew up in - how well African Americans did in running their business.
duke_guest: Who were the top photographers, what kind of kids went to the high schools. Who were the teachers. Why did Pearl Bailey call U Street, the" Black Broadway."
duke_guest: What was the whole social scene like. And what was it like to live under Jim Crow.
duke_guest: So our documentary has a lot of history and a lot of personal stories - really moving personal stories, that capture the flavor of the times as well as the rollicking rhythms of ragtime and jazz.

ismelljazz asks: Does the Howard Theater have any relationship to Howard University in Washington????
duke_guest: Only in name. Howard University was established right after the civil war in 1867 and named after a black general.
duke_guest: It attracted the black intelligentsia from all over the country and for many decades produced 90% or more of the leading black lawyers and doctors all over the country.
duke_guest: The Howard Theater was built many years later and shares the same name but is otherwise unconnected to the University.
duke_guest: They are about fifteen blocks apart from each other. On either side of what is known in Wash. as the "U Street Corridor". In Ellington's day the area was called Uptown.
duke_guest: Today it's called Shaw.
duke_guest: The area is about 20 blocks from the White House and the easiest way to get there is to take the Metro which lets you off at 13th St. and U Streets, Northwest.
duke_guest: Howard University is to your left, further northwest. the Howard Theater is to your right toward the South east
duke_guest: So you see, there in the same neighborhood, but not in the same place.

johnnycoltrane asks: But Ken Burns is no Heddrick Smith.
johnnycoltrane asks: How long have you been working on this documentary?
duke_guest: Ken Burn's has been doing documetaries for a long time. I've only been doing them for 10 years after working for 26 years for the NY Times and writing several books, which happily turned out to be best sellers.
duke_guest: But documentaries are great because they touch people and tell stories so directly. Many of our documentaries are about current issues in public affairs.
duke_guest: But "Duke Ellington's Washington" is a historical documentary, and in that sense, it is more like some of the work Ken Burns has done.
duke_guest: We've been working on this documentary for more than a year.
duke_guest: One of the real challenges was to find people alive today who remember seeing Duke in the early years.
duke_guest: One of the most fascinating is Alice Spraggins, who was the daughter of Henry Grant who taught Duke piano lessons. She's in her 90's.
duke_guest: Then there are Charles and Virginia Williams who fell in love over Duke Ellington's song, "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart."
duke_guest: and many other interesting people, it takes time to find them.
duke_guest: Another thing that's really interesting are the photos we found that come from 70, 80, 90 years ago.
duke_guest: We went combing through all kinds of libraries and personal collections.
duke_guest: And then producer Stanly Nelson, editor Cliff Hackel, and associate producer Teresa Gionis wove all that material together with Ellington's music, as well as the story of the revival of U Street today.
duke_guest: So you can see why it took us a year or so to put this together. Plus we needed some more time to raise the money to produce "Duke Ellington's Washington."

PorgieTirebiter asks: So does the special get into the Harlem scene then? Or does it stop at the Mason Dixon line?
duke_guest: This is a story about Ellington's Washington.
duke_guest: Because the Harlem story has been told so many times before, we didn't want to repeat the old story.
duke_guest: This is fresh stuff and so we stick to Washington.

duke_host: Has anyone seen Duke Ellington's Washington yet?
duke_guest: Yeah. We had a great premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington last week and it was great to see the live audience laughing at the funny stories and shedding a tear at the sad stories and tapping their feet to the great music.
duke_guest: Then we had another premiere last night, Feb. 2, at the revived Lincoln Theater right on U St. It was a great turnout. People loved it. And there were speeches afterward about how the documentary showed a moment in American History that shouldn't be lost and the mood and success of the local community.
duke_guest: So the reaction of the audiences at these two premieres makes us very optimistic when the 350 PBS stations carry "Duke Ellington's Washingon" next Monday, Feb. 7, there will be a lot of positive reaction.
duke_guest: At least we hope so. The way people have reacted so far, it should be a hit.

pablobaba22 asks: Who are featured "live" in the special Monday?
johnnycoltrane asks: Wynton Marsalis is something of an expert on Ellington. Did you include any commentary from Wynton in this special?
pablobaba22 asks: any jazz specialists like Whitley Balliett or Nat Hentoff on the special?
duke_guest: Yes, we have used experts and they appear on the program.
duke_guest: The main Ellington expert that we quoted John Hasse of the Smithsonian who wrote a biography of Ellington, "Beyond Category."
duke_guest: We also talked to lots of other experts like Marc Tucker.
duke_guest: Of course we know about Wynton Marsalis and his affinity for Duke, but there is an earlier documentary out of Lincoln Center in NY which leaned heavily on Marsalis and we did not want to repeat that old material.
duke_guest: And we also wanted to highlight Ellington playing his own music rather than someone else playing his music.
duke_guest: We also used two other historians who are experts on Washington's history and Ellington's place in it. - Jim Horton of George Washington and Ed Smith of American University.
duke_guest: And we consulted with Kathy Smith who is a former president of the Washington Historical Society.
duke_guest: Plus we read books and articles and of course Duke's own biography, "Music is My Mistress."
duke_guest: So expert opinion was a big part of it, and you'll be able to find out about in not only in "Duke Ellington's Washington" but our web page www.PBS.org/Ellingtonsdc.
duke_guest: Come visit us.

duke_host: We are getting close to the time to wrap up the chat. Send in last minute questions and remember to watch Duke Ellington's Washington on PBS Monday, February 7th at 10 pm (but check local listings)

pablobaba22 asks: Who are sponsors, Hedrick?
duke_guest: This is entirely non-profit because it's for PBS and all the funding came from private foundations or private individuals in the Washington DC area.

Skier69_00 asks: What is the main emphasis of this documentary?
duke_guest: There's a double emphasis. One emphasis is on Duke and his growing up. How he learned the piano, where he went to school, who were his main teachers, how did he launch his career, what were the hot dances and songs when he was getting started. In other words, Duke's story in the early years.
duke_guest: The other emphasis is the community, the African American community in which Duke grew up and which produced other great black talents like Thurgood Marshall and Senator Ed Brooke and poets Sterling Brown and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and civil rights activists like Mary Church Terrell, and even the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
duke_guest: So it's personal history and jazz and fun and it's social history and it's importance to all of us today and to the revival of a great community over the last decade.
duke_guest: I guess one other thing is for out of town visitors it also offers a guide to some very unusual and unexpected sights and historical places that you can see when you come to town, in addition to the White House and Congress and the museums on the Mall.
duke_guest: By the way, that tour is really one of the main features of our website put together by our research staff headed by Tamara Neely, who's helping me with this chat.
duke_guest: There's lots of interesting materials on the website and it would be great to get your feed back both for the documentary and the website.
duke_guest: and of course we have a place for you to give us your views so please pass them on.
duke_guest: I really enjoyed chatting with everyone tonight.
duke_guest: I'm really glad to have worked on this documentary because I learned so much myself about the history of my own hometown and how Washington actually shaped Duke Ellington.
duke_guest: I met Ellington when I was in Russia as a correspondent, but I had no idea that he had been born near where Blackie's House of Beef stands today or that he used to stay at the Whitelaw Hotel and hang out in the after hours clubs around the Howard Theater after he performed there.
duke_guest: So this project has been a lot of fun for me and the others on our production team. I hope you all enjoy seeing it as much as we did making it.

johnnycoltrane asks: Thanks for coming on! Glad to hear of the special. I'll be tuned in Monday night!
pablobaba22 asks: Thanks Hedrick---looking forward to it.
duke_guest: Thanks for your interest. I enjoyed the chat. The questions were great and I hope you enjoy the show Monday night. Take care and thanks for your interest.

duke_host: Thanks for joining us -- be sure to tune in on Monday night! Check local listings.
duke_host: Most PBS stations will air Duke Ellington's Washington at 10pm.
duke_host: Check out our web site at www.pbs.org/ellingtonsdc
duke_host: or Hedrick Smith's web site - www.hedricksmith.com
duke_host: Thank you everyone for joining us.
duke_host: Have a good evening!

 

 

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