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D.C. Proved a Cradle
For Young Duke and His Gift

By Marc Fisher

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, April 11, 1999; Page B1

They're ripping the roof off the house. Prying up the floorboards. Tearing out everything but a couple of chandeliers and there, up against the back brick wall, covered with dust and dirt, a black upright piano, the one Duke used to play.

Randolph Jenkins takes a break from his renovation work at 1807 13th St. NW and opens the piano. He plays a few notes, wildly out of tune. The owner told Jenkins to gut the place but for two things – an ornate and original banister, and the piano that, according to family lore, Duke Ellington used to practice on.

Ellington once lived right next door, in the row house that shares a wall with this one, and Ellington once lived right across the street, and he once lived a couple of blocks away. Ellington's 23 years in the capital were spent mainly within an easy stroll of this spot in Shaw, a place that was the core of black Washington. Here, the great composer and bandleader learned his art, developed his sound, built his reputation.

A century after his birth here, the physical remnants of Ellington's Washington are faint.

What remains of Duke Ellington in the capital is a high school and a bridge named in his honor, and little more. Not one of his houses has been protected by historic status. Of the six places where Ellington lived in Washington, at least four still stand, but none is open to the public. His birthplace on Ward Place in the West End is gone, razed to make way for a post office loading dock where the workers say they have never even noticed the Ellington commemorative plaque on the wall.

Hardly any of the clubs and theaters where he played have been preserved in any recognizable way. And nowhere in the city he called home is there even a statue of Ellington.

If many black Washingtonians who went on to greatness looked back with some bitterness at a city that subjected them to a second-class existence, Ellington had no such antipathy. His memories of Washington were suffused in a sweet nostalgia for summer walks from 15th and H streets NW all the way over to Southwest and back up to Mount Pleasant, for cakes and ice cream at family gatherings in Rock Creek Park, for the hot scene at Frank Holliday's pool hall on T Street NW between Sixth and Seventh.

Ellington lived in a strictly segregated city, where his fondest academic memory was of his eighth-grade English teacher at Garrison Elementary School, Miss Boston, who spent "as much time in preaching race pride as she did in teaching English, which, ironically and very strangely, improved your English." In a 1969 interview with Washington Post reporter Hollie West, and in his autobiography, Ellington, who died in 1974, recalled with a warm glow a city where a young black kid with a keen sense of propriety and manners could make the princely sum of $10,000 a year playing the society dances and embassy parties and Virginia hunt country balls of white millionaires.

Ellington appears to have moved with extraordinary ease between that world of wealth and privilege and the separate black Washington, a place of another time, one before integration, opportunity and the promise of suburbia emptied the old city neighborhoods, first of commerce and then of much of the black middle class.

His parents, James Edward and Daisy Ellington, lived as if they were part of the city's black upper crust. They were not wealthy, not professionals. The father was a butler whose family had moved to Washington from North Carolina to escape the lynchings there. The mother held a series of domestic and government jobs. But despite their modest financial standing, the Ellingtons created "a sense of courtliness and civility in the house," says Reuben Jackson, curator of the Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

The wooden row house on Ward Place and the family's next residence, a tiny rented house on Elm Street in LeDroit Park, were hardly homes where the well-to-do might live, though the one on Elm Street was but a block away from some of the grand mansions in which Howard University professors, physicians and other members of the black elite lived. (Today, the Elm Street address shows no sign of Ellington's presence, but a new row of town houses a block away has been named Ellington Mews.)

But no matter whether they lived in compact rental homes here or in the more substantial red brick Victorian places in Shaw where the family would finally buy their first property, the elder Ellington "raised his family as though he were a millionaire," Duke wrote in "Music Is My Mistress."

Dinner at J.E. Ellington's house was a display of formal manners, polished speech and fine accouterments: "The way the table was set was just like those at which my grandfather had butlered," recalled Duke's son, the late Mercer Ellington.

J.E. Ellington had worked for many years as chief of staff at the Rhode Island Avenue home of a well-to-do physician, Middleton Cuthbert. Biographers including Mark Tucker and John Edward Hasse say the elder Ellington picked up much of his appreciation for finery and manners from his work at the Cuthbert house. The Ellingtons raised their children to read Sherlock Holmes, attend church, play the piano, speak properly and consider themselves better than the riffraff.

"I don't know how many castes of Negroes there were in the city at that time," Ellington later wrote, "but I do know that if you decided to mix carelessly with another you would be told that one just did not do that sort of thing."

The poet Langston Hughes, who spent a good deal of time in Washington, then considered the Oxford of black civilization, complained of the city's black society: "So many pompous gentlemen never before did I meet."

When Duke, then 8, got hit in the head with a bat while playing baseball on an abandoned tennis court on 16th Street – President Theodore Roosevelt used to ride by on horseback and stop to watch the boys' games – his mother declared an end to his diamond career and hired Marietta Clinkscales to be the boy's piano teacher. (Today, all three of the Clinkscaleses in the District phone book say they believe they are related to that piano teacher, even though the three do not know one another.)

His mother's efforts did not take at first. Ellington cut more lessons than he attended, and when he found he could make some change by selling popcorn at Senators games at Griffith Stadium, he began spending his afternoons there instead of at the keyboard.

Ellington relished his father's style and adopted his passion for sartorial grace. Duke even had his young cousins bow down to him. But the young boy couldn't quite live within his parents' strictures. Although he remained conscious of his social standing, he was, by the time he was 12, making regular forays to the Gayety Burlesque Theater on Ninth Street, where blacks were permitted only in the balcony.

And he found paradise at Frank Holliday's pool hall, a place where Pullman porters and Howard University medical students, nationally hailed singers and local hoods all came together to shoot pool, tell stories and find out, as Duke later wrote, "how all levels could and should mix."

This, Ellington wrote, was "the highspot of billiard parlors," where pickpockets and pool sharks demonstrated their craft. "At heart, they were all great artists," Ellington said.

The elements that would combine to create Ellington's compositions were beginning to come together – the blend of high and low, of church music and popular dance music and the ragtime that could be heard at the Howard Theater and the Lincoln Colonnades and Murray's Casino.

The Ellington family had a piano, and both his parents played, as did many of the clan's cousins and other relations. Young Edward's early influences included the popular tunes and operatic arias he heard at home, and the hymns he sang at his mother's 19th Street Baptist Church and his father's John Wesley AME Zion Church, then at 18th between L and M streets NW.

Although Ellington himself had little formal musical training, he benefited from a Washington that was home to a wealth of black musical institutions, including the Washington Conservatory at Ninth and T streets NW, where many of the most prominent ragtime players of the early century trained, the Colored American Opera Company and numerous groups associated with Howard University. But the paramount musical center for black Washingtonians was the Howard Theater, which opened in 1910.

Now padlocked, filthy and fraying, waiting endlessly for a rebirth that may never come, the Howard was the heart of black Washington, a place where every night brought supper club performances followed by evening headliners followed by late-night jam sessions. For a dime, the Howard presented film shorts, a comedian, dancing girls, a big band, a dance act and a magician.

A small city of spillover culture and business surrounded the theater: A parade of ermine coats, top hats, striped pants, big cars and the best musicians in the nation crisscrossed the block, stopping in at Louis DeMarco's fruit stand, Tim Paulin's hot dog place and various upstairs after-hours joints. The crowds were mostly black, joined by "all of the white folks who were not supposed to be there," dancer Yale Lewis recalled in the 1987 documentary "7th and T."

A short walk from any of Ellington's homes, the Howard was the mecca, a fabulous showcase and a considerable point of pride. With richly decorated boxes, 1,500 seats, and the ability to book the best performers in the nation, this was where Ellington heard pianists Luckey Roberts and Eubie Blake and early jazz bands such as James Reese Europe's Clef Club Orchestra.

As he reached his teens, Ellington, now living on 13th Street, began to take his music more seriously. First of all, the connection between playing piano and getting a girl's attention became clear. Duke got a job as a soda jerk somewhere on Seventh Street and in 1913, he wrote his first piece, the "Soda Fountain Rag," later renamed the "Poodle Dog Rag" after the Poodle Dog Cafe, a Georgia Avenue restaurant and club. Ellington never recorded the piece, but occasionally played snatches of it in concerts. Jackson says it is a "wonderful mix of stride piano and impressionism that influenced Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor."

Never much of a student, Ellington attended Armstrong Manual Training High School rather than the local academic powerhouse of Dunbar High (then still M Street High School). But at Armstrong, Duke spent more time sneaking out of class to play the piano in the gymnasium than applying himself to his books. He quit school in 1917 and started a sign-painting business. (For much of his youth, Ellington's superior talent was drawing, not music. He even won an NAACP scholarship for his art, but never took advantage of the offer of a college education.)

His second song, "What You Gonna Do When the Bed Breaks Down?," was a "pretty good hug-and-rubbin' crawl," Ellington said many years later. It proved exceedingly popular among schoolkids, as the lyrics might indicate: poetry.

Tried it on the sofa, tried it on the chair,
Tried it on the window, didn't get nowhere.
What you gonna do when the bed breaks down?
You've got to work out on the floor.

With many young white men heading off to the war in Europe, black teens found work relatively easily in Washington. Ellington got a job as a messenger, first at the Navy Department and then at State.

Nights, he played piano with Louis Thomas's society band and others before starting his own group, the Duke's Serenaders, which debuted at True Reformers Hall at 12th and U streets. Within a few months, Ellington was confident enough to take out an ad in the phone book offering "Irresistible Jass Furnished to Our Select Patrons. The Duke's Serenaders. Colored Syncopaters. E.K. Ellington, Mgr."

The address given was 2728 Sherman Ave. NW, Ellington's first home of his own, a row house a couple of blocks from Howard University where he moved after marrying Edna Thompson. They were students at Armstrong when they met: She was the daughter of a neighbor, and in 1918, when Duke "jazzed" the 17-year-old, both sets of parents demanded a shotgun marriage a few months before baby Mercer was born. The marriage never took, and while the couple remained legally bound for many years, Duke and Edna actually lived together for only a couple of years.

The Sherman Avenue house was a few steps down from the Ellington family's wartime houses on 13th Street and then at 1212 T St., but it was Duke's. He ran the bands out of his place and shared his sign-painting venture with Ewell Conway in a shop at Sixth and T. Ellington was quite the operator: "When customers came for posters to advertise a dance, I would ask them what they were doing about their music. When they wanted to hire a band, I would ask them who's painting their signs."

Before long, the Serenaders were actually half a dozen bands operating under Ellington's aegis. Duke himself would appear only for a premium price. They played everywhere from Middleburg, Culpeper and Orange, Va., to Embassy Row, the downtown hotels and the U Street scene…the enormous Murray's Casino at Ninth Street; the Lincoln Colonnade ("America's Most Beautiful Dance Gardens") in the basement of the Lincoln Theater; the Industrial Cafe on 11th Street ("Soft Shell Crabs, hot cakes, sandwiches, salads and drinks"); the Dreamland Cabaret around the corner from the Howard, a favorite hangout of Babe Ruth when his Boston Braves were in town; and the ultimate, the Howard itself.

They played ragtime and a syncopated sound called "jass," and while there are some player piano rolls from the period and some written music to indicate the mix of show tunes and early jazz, there are no recordings, no definitive evidence of what Ellington then played.

"There wasn't necessarily a Washington sound," says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian and author of an Ellington biography, "Beyond Category." "But there was certainly a Washington way of behaving – you put your best foot forward ... Ellington proudly called his band the Washingtonians because people from the city were known as having a certain bearing and discipline."

For many years after he left Washington in 1923 for New York and far greater success, Ellington would return to play the Howard. "He had an aura about him," recalls Nap Turner, a longtime WPFW blues and jazz deejay who used to hang out at Seventh and T hoping for a glimpse of Duke. Turner attended Armstrong High too, and heard the tales of Ellington before him. "We were all so impressed by his elegance."

Turner, 68, describes the upstairs and basement clubs where all the jazz greats would play after their downtown engagements. "They felt like such big joints, but they really were little 9-by-12 rooms, with a bandstand near the front windows and a handful of tables."

Integration brought the demise of the clubs along the alley, Wiltberger Street, that abuts the Howard Theater. "The white people who loved the music and brought the money didn't need to come uptown anymore," Turner says.

For many years after integration, the area around Seventh and T became even more segregated, as both whites and middle-class blacks avoided the neighborhood, especially after the 1968 riots chased away most of the remaining businesses. A few old places hang on – K.W. Ballard's Barber Shop on Seventh Street occupies the space that was once the Little Harlem club – but many of the streets that once rang out with fresh music are now tunnels of urban crud – cemented doorways, barbed wire, shattered bottles, plywood sheets over lost windows.

There are also signs of change on Seventh: A CVS drug store, an entire block cleared for a new health clinic, the Metro station bringing in a new population, including many young professionals, both white and black.

But the Howard, the Dunbar theater and many of the storefronts where Ellington once played remain discarded, forlorn shells – reminders of grand times, subjects of ambitious but never realized plans. Bill Hassan, a local jazz activist and city employee, is one of several people who have sought for years to create a heritage tourism business featuring the Howard and the Seventh and T area, but they have made little headway.

The people who live in Ellington's houses today are resolutely private, spurning requests for interviews or tours.

And so one of the most powerful forces in American music goes virtually unnoticed in his hometown.

The Sherman Avenue house, the only one Ellington himself owned in Washington, is locked tight. Annette Reed owns the building, now painted a fading yellow. More than 20 years ago, she filled the house with clothing and set up the D.C. Council on Clothing for Kids. Needy children could find shoes and coats and anything else to wear there.

The agency has been dormant of late. "The children are no longer willing to take a bag of clothing," Reed says. The neighborhood has turned largely Hispanic; the Salvadoran men on the corner say they have never heard of Duke Ellington.

In the upstairs bedroom of the shuttered house, piles of shoes are parked where Ellington once slept. There's a small, tarnished plaque on the outside. "I Love You Madly," it says.

This report is based on interviews with Ellington experts, Shaw residents and historians of Washington, as well as records at the Washingtoniana Collection of the D.C. Public Library and biographies by Mark Tucker, John Edward Hasse and James Lincoln Collier.

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