'Duke Ellington'

Story Time

April 25, 1999|By Andrea Davis Pinkney

Editor's note: The story of the musician and composer who helped shape the future of jazz

Duke's name fit him rightly. He was a smooth-talkin', slick-steppin', piano-playin' kid. But his piano playing wasn't always as breezy as his stride. When Duke's mother, Daisy, and his father, J.E., enrolled him in piano lessons, Duke didn't want to go. Baseball was Duke's idea of fun. But his parents had other notions for their child.

Duke had to start with the piano basics, his fingers playing the same tired tune -- one-and-two-and-one-and-two. Daisy and J.E. made Duke practice day after day.

To Duke, one-and-two wasn't music. He called it an umpy-dump sound that was headed nowhere worth following. He quit his lessons and kissed the piano a fast good-bye.

Years later, on a steamy summer night, Duke heard that umpy-dump played in a whole new way. Folks called the music ragtime -- piano that turned umpy-dump into a soul-rousing romp.

The ragtime music set Duke's fingers to wiggling. Soon he was back at the piano, trying to plunk out his own ragtime rhythm. One-and-two-and-one-and-two ... At first, this was the only crude tinkling Duke knew.

But with practice, all Duke's fingers rode the piano keys. Duke started to play his own made-up melodies. Whole notes, chords, sharps, and flats. Left-handed hops and right-handed slides.

Believe it, man. Duke taught himself to press on the pearlies like nobody else could. His one-and-two-umpy-dump became a thing of the past. Now, playing the piano was Duke's all-time love.

It wasn't long before Duke formed his own small band, a group of musicians who played all over Washingon, D.C. But soon they split the D.C. scene and made tracks for New York City -- for Harlem, the place where jazz music ruled.

They called themselves the Washingtonians, and performed in all kinds of New York City honky-tonks. Barron's Exclusive. The Plantation. Ciro's. And the Kentucky Club. Folks got to know the band by name and came to hear them play.

Then, on an autumn day in 1927, Lady Luck smiled pretty on the Washingtonians. They were asked to play at the Cotton Club, Harlem's swankiest hangout, a big-time nightspot.

The Cotton Club became a regular gig for Duke and his band. They grew to twelve musicians and changed their name to Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Night after night, they played their music, which was broadcast live over the radio.

Duke painted colors with his band's sound. He could swirl the butterscotch tones of Tricky Sam's horn with the silver notes of the alto saxophones. And, ooh, those clarinets. Duke could blend their red-hot blips with a purple dash of brass from the trumpet section.

In time, folks said Duke Ellington's real instrument wasn't his piano at all -- it was his Orchestra. Most people called his music jazz. But Duke called it "the music of my people."

And to celebrate the history of African-American people, Duke composed a special suite he called "Black, Brown and Beige." A suite that rocked the bosom and lifted the soul.

"Black, Brown and Beige" sang the glories of dark skin, the pride of African heritage, and the triumphs of black people, from the days of slavery to years of civil rights struggle.

Duke introduced "Black, Brown, and Beige" at New York's Carnegie Hall, a symphony hall so grand that even the seats wore velvet. Few African-Americans had played at Carnegie Hall before. Duke and his Orchestra performed on January 23, 1943. Outside, the winter wind was cold and slapping. But inside, Carnegie Hall was sizzling with applause. Duke had become a master maestro.

Because of Duke's genius, his Orchestra now had a musical mix like no other.

Now you've heard of the jazz-playin' man. The man with the cats who could swing with his band.

King of the Keys.

Piano Prince.

Edward Kennedy Ellington.

The Duke.

Reprinted from DUKE ELLINGTON by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Text Copyright c 1998 by Andrea Davis Pinkney; Illustrations Copyright c 1998 by Brian Pinkney. Published by Hyperion Books for Children.

Pub Date: 04/25/99

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