In 1965, the panel nominating candidates for Pulitzer Prizes in music made so bold as to cite Duke Ellington for a special award. Not a full-scale Pulitzer, for those were reserved for "serious" musicians. The panel was overruled by the ultimate arbiters of these honors. They took the token away from Duke. Asked for comment, Ellington would only say publicly: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young." He was 66 at the time.
Privately, he was disappointed but not surprised. "Most Americans," Elington told me, "still take it for granted that European- based music is the only really respectable kind."
This spring, posthumously, Ellington has received a certain degree of official respectability. His face will be on a postage stamp, part of the Performing Arts Series. It is doubtful that most people using that stamp will have any idea that Ellington was the most abundantly original composer, beyond category, in this nation's history. Charles Ives was a respectable second. Ellington's works, short and long, speak, among many other things, of centuries of changing black American consciousness -- from "Black, Brown and Beige" to "Harlem."
Except in rare places by rare teachers, Ellington's music and his history are not taught in the schools. In fact, some years ago, when pianist Marian McPartland was rehearsing a large number of Washington, D.C., school kids in a tribute to him, she asked how many of them knew who Ellington was, what he'd done. Hardly any did know. That is no longer the case, I expect, at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, but I wonder how much other kids in Washington know of Duke Ellington. Ignorance of what drummer Max Roach calls America's true classical music is pervasive among most Americans of all ages. Once, when a black principal was taking me on a tour of a largely black elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, I noticed portraits on the walls of Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Roy Wilkins, William DuBois. I asked her if the paintings of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Lester Young were on another floor. She looked at me with disdain: "We do not put pictures of entertainers on our walls."
They sure were entertainers, but they also were deep story tellers; and night after night, taking more risks than most of the rest of us do in a lifetime, they improvised luminous melodies and intricately textured waves of rhythm that made people dance and laugh and cry -- and remember what they'd felt for a long time after. And they were heroes, in the classic mold. Engaging in fierce after-hours tournaments of improvisation, going back on the road to deal with hydra-headed Jim Crow, and in time getting to meet kings and queens who couldn't swing but gave them, fleetingly, honor they did not receive at home.
Kids across the board can learn a lot from the music of jazz people, and from their lives. One way to start teaching them their heritage would be an adaptation of what Lincoln Center in New York is doing to bring classical music into schools in a way that propels kids and teachers into the very center of the sounds and forms. Musicians, called master teachers, are dispatched to public schools, where they teach the teachers -- in lay language -- how particular compositions are made. It is as if the piece were suddenly outfitted with windows, and the fun of following the interplay of the shapes inside becomes all the more infectious when the schoolteachers go on to instruct the kids in how to go through the musical looking glass.
There are many jazz musicians who could illuminate jazz in that way in the schools while also telling stories about the lives of these classic heroes and about their own odysseys. In this year of the Ellington stamp, maybe one cultural center somewhere may begin to help reduce the cultural deprivation of the nation's young by hiring a pride of jazz master teachers.
Wynton Marsalis, a young jazz trumpeter who has also earned renown as a classical player (to show he could do it), recently wrote an article for Ebony about preserving the jazz heritage: "The same recognition of deep human values that you hear in Beethoven, you hear in Louis Armstrong. . . . Jazz has all of the elements from the spare and penetrating to the complex and enveloping. It is the hardest music to play that I know of. And it is the highest rendition of individual emotion in the history of Western music. . . . Negroes have been more concerned with freedom and the quality it can provide than any other group in this country. . . . What is so remarkable, however, is that Negroes invented a form based on freedom, a great art form."
How many teachers, principals and school superintendents know that? How many kids?