The Duke of U Street

Duke Ellington grew up learning genteel music among Washington sophisticates, but traded it for the pool halls, bars and jazz of D.C. and N.Y.

April 29, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- You can see him from a block away, his profile dominating a brilliantly colored, 24-foot by 35-foot mural.

The eyes with their familiar bags underneath seem to follow passers-by along this revitalized stretch of U Street. In this painting, Duke Ellington looks as if he might have been up all night, composing, thinking about music.

Ellington, born 100 years ago today, grew up here. He lived in the 1200 block of T Street, a block from where this mural casts a steady eye over the old neighborhood. G. Byron Peck, a Washington-area muralist, painted the mural in 1997 with the help of local children. It is based on a picture taken during Ellington's later years, before his death in 1974.

"This is more of a mood photo. That's why we like it. It's more somber, more meditative," says Peck, standing beneath his piece. "It has more to do with the community than with jazz. It was a good community project."

The community, once the heart of black Washington, is trying to recapture some of its past glory. The riots that tore through Washington after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968 started a block from here.

Before then, U Street was not unlike Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue. It was the "main stem." The nightclubs and pool halls were here. Businesses, strong churches and civic clubs were here.

Think of old West Baltimore around Druid Hill Avenue and McMechen Street, move it 40 miles south and you have the neighborhood of Ellington's youth. It was a nurturing black community, filled with professionals and strivers.

Though Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, in what is now called DuPont Circle, he was raised around U Street. His parents, Daisy Kennedy Ellington and James Edward Ellington, "enveloped him with affection," author John Edward Hasse says during a telephone interview. Hasse's biography of Ellington is called "Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington" (Simon & Schuster, 1993). "He said his feet didn't touch ground until he was 8 years old."

He was born to be an aristocrat, born to wear a tuxedo and sip champagne. In his autobiography, "Music Is My Mistress," Ellington says his father "always acted as though he had money, whether he had it or not. He raised his family as though he were a millionaire." A photo taken when Ellington was 4 years old shows him looking like a prep candidate for the nearest military academy.

"Do I believe that I am blessed?" Ellington once wrote. "Of course I do! In the first place, my mother told me so many, many times."

Washington was the center of black America at the time of Ellington's birth. It had the nation's largest and, at least by local conceit, most sophisticated black population. Even as American race relations underwent a terrible period marked by oppressive laws, riots and lynchings, communities such as Ellington's worked to instill pride in their children and protect them against the outside world's slights and horrors.

"They didn't discuss, evidently, lynchings or less evil forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination," Hasse says of Ellington's parents. "They shielded Ellington from most such problems. He grew up with a great cushion of love and, I think, a great sense of possibility."

The U Street community instilled in its young people the same lessons West Baltimore gave Thurgood Marshall, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. and Juanita Jackson. In "Beyond Category," Hasse quotes Ellington's own reminiscences about lessons learned from an eighth-grade teacher:

" No matter where you go or what you do, you are representing your race and your responsibility is to command respect for the race."

Hearing the music

Growing up, Ellington heard the music that was standard fare 100 years ago. His was the last generation before phonographs and radios brought music into homes at the flick of a switch. People made their own music during Ellington's childhood. Both of his parents played piano. His father sang in a barbershop quartet.

"It was genteel, middle-class music," says Hasse. "It's not syncopated. It's not something you would find in vaudeville."

At 7 he started taking piano lessons from the appropriately named Marietta Clinkscales. He wasn't interested. Practicing piano was no fun compared to playing baseball with friends on an old tennis court near 16th Street. Sometimes President Theodore Roosevelt rode by on horseback and waved.

Early on, Ellington gravitated toward the visual arts. In high school he studied commercial art at Armstrong Manual Training School. Around that time he also went back to the keyboard. He realized that if he played well, he'd always have a pretty girl standing at the bass end. But he didn't learn music in school. He got a D in the one music class he took at Armstrong.

"I like to say that Ellington was a student of a conservatory without walls," says Hasse. "He mostly learned by teaching himself, listening to other pianists, observing piano rolls."

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