Duke Ellington’s Washington

Correction: An earlier version of this feature incorrectly said that one of the D.C. houses in which Duke Ellington lived, at 1955 Third St. NW, had been replaced by Howard University’s Diggs Slowe Hall. The house is still standing. The Howard dormitory is at 1919 Third St. NW. This version has been corrected.


(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)
February 4, 2012

The elegance and sophistication of musical genius Edward “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington, where the musician grew up, was influenced by the music of the last century — ragtime, church and classical — before he began writing music and forming his first dance bands while still in high school. February marks a sort of homecoming as Ellington is the subject of a month-long festival at Music Center at Strathmore. (You’ll find a schedule below.)

Before he moved to New York in 1923 and the fame that recordings and widespread touring would bring, he was a mainstay on the lively “Black Broadway” of the District’s U Street NW, playing its plentiful dance halls, grand theaters and smoky after-hours clubs.

Like much of the Shaw neighborhoods where he grew up, which stood decaying in a 30-year blight after the riots of 1968, many of the houses where he lived are still standing (though none is open to the public), as are many of the theaters and clubs where he played. And some, from the Lincoln Theatre on one end of U Street to the Howard Theatre on the other, are being renovated to their Ellington-era heyday.

It makes for a rewarding self-directed walking tour for fans of American music at a time when his talent continues to be celebrated.

1 2129 Ward Pl. NW

James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington were living with her parents when they had their son Edward Kennedy Ellington, who would be known to the world as Duke, on April 29, 1899. There’s nothing left of the home on the street that was then known as Ida Place. There’s a post office building there now.

2 420 Elm St. NW

One of a series of homes his parents rented, circa 1906, near Howard University in LeDroit Park.

3 1805 13th St. NW

Beginning a seven-year stay on the street, the Ellington home from 1910 to 1914, like all of the places where the musician lived in the city, is a private residence, though there is a historical sign out front.

4 1816 13th St. NW

There was a little more room as the Ellington family moved just up the block. Still, there’s no historical marker in front of the private home to denote the fact that he lived here about the time he started writing music, from 1915 to 1917.

5 1955 Third St. NW

The first home for Ellington and his new wife, Edna Thompson Ellington, in 1918.

6 1206 T St. NW

Ellington and his young family – his son, Mercer, was born in March 1919 — rented a room here. The townhouse sold for more than $1 million in 2010.

7 2728 Sherman Ave. NW

The modest rowhouse, the only property Ellington purchased in the District, was on busy Sherman Avenue in Columbia Heights. It was also the contact address on the business card for his first band, Duke’s Serenaders, a group that played “Irresistible Jass.” After standing neglected for years, it became the office for the National Partnership for Community Leadership and sports a plaque noting its musical legacy.

8 The Howard Theatre,

620 T St. NW

Built in 1910, it began as the center of black culture locally and nationally. The largest venue in the world to serve those of African descent when it opened, it had its struggles over the years, closing after the 1929 stock market crash, only to reopen in 1931 with a weeklong engagement by its own favorite son, Duke Ellington. Decaying for decades, it’s in the midst of a huge renovation, and a spring reopening is still planned.

9 The Lincoln Theatre,

1215 U St. NW

Another cornerstone to the U Street corridor, it opened in 1922 as a silent movie house and vaudeville site for the city’s African Americans before turning into a luxury movie house in the late ’20s with a ballroom in the basement, the Lincoln Colonnades, one of the many dance halls Ellington’s popular band played. Closed and deteriorating, its renovation came in 1994, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities took over operations last month.

10 Frank Holliday’s Poolroom, 624 T St. NW

Right next to the Howard Theatre, it’s where young Ellington would listen to the piano players beginning at the age of 14 and eventually play there himself. Most recently the Cafe Mawonaj, it’s now part of the renovated complex of buildings alongside the Howard.

11 The Poodle Dog Cafe, 2000 block of Georgia Avenue NW

One of many clubs across the country to borrow the name of the New Orleans original, it was also a place where young Ellington worked at the soda counter, inspiring his first original composition, “Poodle Dog Rag,” later known as the “Soda Fountain Rag.”

12 True Reformer Hall,

1200 U St. NW

A local African American landmark, it’s where Ellington played his first public performance in one of the second-floor ballrooms. Still standing, it’s the headquarters of the Public Welfare Foundation. The Ellington mural there, by G. Byron Peck, gazes down at the nearby U St./Cardozo Metro stop.

13 The Whitelaw Hotel,

1839 13th St. NW

The first luxury hotel for African Americans opened in 1919, was closed and now retains its noble facade as affordable housing, just up the block from two homes Ellington lived in as a teen. Ellington played functions there and was a frequent guest when he returned to his home town to perform.

14 Little Harlem,

1837 Seventh St. NW

One of a dozen nightclubs in the neighborhood that Ellington and his musicians have played or hung out after hours with other musicians. Since turned into a barbershop near the Shaw/Howard University Metro stop.

15 Ben’s Chili Bowl,

1213 U St. NW

Though it looks historic — as the city’s only remaining structure built as a nickelodeon — the famous eatery didn’t open until 1958. But the popular place notes Ellington as someone who made sure he dropped by when his concert tours brought him back to town.

16 Bohemian Caverns,

2001 11th St. NW

Founded in 1926, the jazz club that began life as the Caverns and Crystal Caverns is one of the spots Ellington and other musicians came to relax after local shows to enjoy after-hours jazz. It’s also one of the few clubs from the 1920s to have survived, despite some periods of shutdown, and remains one of the jazz hot spots of contemporary D.C.

17 Murray’s Casino,

918 U St. NW

In its time, the vibrant nightspot featured plenty of music, including performances by Ellington’s band. In recent years, the building has been renovated and is used as offices by Sorg Architects.

18 The White House,

1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The home of the president, where Ellington’s father occasionally did catering jobs, is where Richard Nixon gave the musician and international ambassador the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a gala event and late-night jam session on the Duke’s 70th birthday, April 29, 1969.

19 Duke Ellington

Memorial Bridge

The span on Calvert Street NW between Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road was

named in his honor in 1974, the year he died.

20 Duke Ellington School of the Arts, 3500 R St. NW

Founded in Georgetown in 1974, it was also named after the musician who wrote more than 1,500 pieces of music and changed American music. The classroom bell there famously evoked one of the best known Ellington songs, “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

21 Duke Ellington Building, 2121 Ward Ct. NW

The office building containing a post office takes up the site of Ellington’s birthplace. A plaque denoting the birth was installed in 1990 and a mural above it by Aniekan Udofia was completed in November.

22 The John Wesley AME Zion Church, 1615 14th St. NW

The church favored by his father is where Ellington first heard age-old hymns and spirituals in complex arrangements. Extensive renovation were recently completed on the 1894 building, and it is reopening Sunday.

23 The 19th Street Baptist Church, 19th and I streets NW (southwest corner)

Before it moved further north on 16th Street in 1975 (while confusingly retaining its name) the church that has long figured in the culture of the city and was originally known as the First Colored Church of Washington in 1839, was the house of worship favored by his mother Daisy Kennedy Ellington, where young Edward also attended Now an office building housing the 19th Bar on the ground level stands on the site.

24 Armstrong Manual Training School, 1400 First St. NW

Though the other school for African Americans, Dunbar, stressed academics, Ellington chose to learn the more practical arts, in the manner of Booker T. Washington. He became adept enough in design to win a scholarship from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, but, deciding to concentrate on music, declined the scholarship and even dropped out of Armstrong three months before his 1917 graduation. Currently home to the Ernest & Virginia Amos Campus of the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter Schools.

25 Henry Grant home,

1114 Fairmont St. NW

Ellington took piano lessons from Henry Grant, a major figure in D.C. music who taught at Dunbar and led the all-high school orchestra, helping create a sound in Ellington’s mind. Ellington stayed in contact with him, consulting with him after he bought his own house in the neighborhood, and later after he moved from town.

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