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Ellington, the Duke of Musical Royalty

By Patrice Gaines

Washington Post Staff Writer

Stanley Nelson was at Union Station. It was in the early 1930s and he was 14. He turned to see a group of black men stepping off the train, elegantly dressed, commanding attention with their strides.

"I had never seen a group of black men so proud and magnificent in their presentation," recalled Nelson, now a dentist in New York. "It wasn't just the clothes, it was the way they wore them."

The men were Duke Ellington and his orchestra. At a time when stereotypes reigned as truths, when whites perpetuated the image of black men as shuffling, singing, back-bent men, there was Ellington. He shattered stereotypes, wore none of their myths, composed music that defied definition in its range: jazz, sacred music, symphonic scores.

"I was young and impressionable and I never forgot that moment," Nelson said. "It was in my bone marrow after that, that a black man could have that kind of respect and be that magnificent."

This month, the District pays homage to its most famous native son, born on April 29, 1899.

WDCU radio personality Felix Grant has worked for 15 years to get a marker placed at the composer's birthplace. "Ellington has been a name in music for about six decades of this century," he said. "The only other person I can say that is true of is Irving Berlin."

On the day that Stanley Nelson saw Ellington, no one could have imagined such a tribute to a black man. Ellington rented his own train car so that he and his band members would have a place to sleep and eat when they pulled into segregated towns.

Yet by the time he died in New York City on May 24, 1974, Edward Kennedy Ellington, dubbed Duke by high school friends who felt his immaculate dress and grace made him worthy of a title, had earned an international reputation as a musical genius.

"He was a self-educated man, but if you heard him speak you thought he had attended the finest university in the world," said June Norton, 64, a District resident and former vocalist with the Ellington orchestra, who became a close friend to Ellington and to his wife Edna.

There are many Washingtonians who remember Duke Ellington personally. He often looked to Washington in his search for new band members. He whetted his own appetite for jazz by catching some of the best acts of the day at the Howard Theater. This was the city that nourished his beginnings, the place where he found his first music teachers and his first fans.

Ellington's mother Daisy was the daughter of a District police captain. The composer's father, James Edward, learned catering while working in the home of a well-known doctor at 1462 Rhode Island Ave. NW. He catered some of the city's most important functions, and family parties were marked by an abundance of food.

Among the houses the family lived in was one on Elm Street in LeDroit Park, another at 1914 13th St. NW, then across the street, a bigger house at 1816 13th St. NW.

Ellington attended Armstrong High School, now an adult education center, at First and O streets NW. As a senior he was offered scholarships to art schools, but he left high school just short of graduating, beckoned by his love of music.

He met a number of older musicians and teachers at Frank Holliday's pool room on T Street in Northwest, next to the Howard Theater. In 1918 he married his high-school sweetheart, Edna Thompson. He formed his own band and by 1922, Ellington had earned enough money to buy his first house at 2728 Sherman Ave. NW.

The composer was a star by the time his sister Ruth, 16 years younger than he, was in first grade. "My earliest memories of him are that when I was about 6, I was listening to him on the radio," Ruth Ellington Boatwright said in a telephone interview from New York City, where she now lives and heads Tempo Music Inc., the music publishing company founded by her brother.

It was their mother, Daisy, who Ellington said in his autobiography taught him to believe in himself by repeatedly telling him: "Edward, you are blessed. You don't have anything to worry about."

The family's last home in the District was at 1212 T St. NW. When Ruth was 14, her brother moved the family to New York.

When District vocalist and club owner Jimmy McPhail won first place in a talent contest at the Howard Theater in 1950, the prize was a week's engagement with the Ellington Band. McPhail chose to perform on tour with Ella Fitzgerald first, though, and he didn't join Ellington until 1962.

"We did a concert ... in Chicago marking 100 years since slavery," McPhail said. "Later we did the sacred concerts, with the first at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco."

The first sacred concert was a landmark, premiering Ellington's religious music. "People had never seen anything like that in church," said McPhail, 61.

"Ellington was religious in his own way," said McPhail. "He would take things out of the Bible and set it to music." McPhail remembers Ellington as "an artist and mathematician" and he was always impressed with his ability to focus on one thing: his music.

"It's hard keeping 20 guys in a band together, all with different personalities," said McPhail. "He kept them together with the music. Many things cropped up that could be disappointing, but Duke didn't seem to let that stuff upset him."

Repeatedly, people call Ellington "a private man." But June Norton saw beyond the private man. She worked with Ellington in 1949, 1950 and 1960.

"We didn't know [Ellington] because he didn't say anything to us," said Norton. "He seemed lost in thought. I understood later that he was always thinking about music. Being very young and very unsophisticated, I opened my mouth and said what some people only thought. 'You're a very private and lonely man,' I told him once. He bristled, said, 'Oh,' but he settled down and dealt with the comment, too. A line of open communication started between us."

Ellington's home town has paid tribute to him in the past, in ways both large and small.

When Western High School became home to a program called "Workshops For Careers in the Arts," the building was renamed Duke Ellington School for the Arts.

When WPFW-FM radio station went on the air in 1977, the first song that producer Von Martin played was Ellington's "Take The A Train."

Leon Collins is general manager of WPFW today. When he was 26, Collins moved into a building Ellington owned in New York. "The office for his music company was there and I ended up being the keeper of the keys," said Collins. "In the office were his awards, trophies, gifts, keys to various cities. There was French antique furniture, a Louis XIV desk, Tiffany lamps. There were dolls from China, tuxedo jackets. It was as elegant as Duke Ellington was.

"People came from all over the world to visit," said Collins. They took off their shoes. They treated the room like a shrine . ... When I was alone I'd sit and play his piano and fantasize about his life. It had a major impact on me to know that black people could travel the world, demand respect, rise above the limitations set by others. It let me know I could achieve."

It was part of Ellington's legacy that he instilled pride in many blacks and awe in all lovers of music.

Norton recalled that when Ellington died there was a piano in his hospital room. He had requested it and when his strength allowed it, he tinkered at compositions. She was among the friends who journeyed to see him one last time.

"I thanked him and told him I loved him," she said. "I said, 'Most people are contented to walk the earth, but you, you thrust your feet down and planted seeds for all the world.' He looked at me, grabbed my hands and kissed me."

This story originally appeared in the Washington Post on April 29, 1989.

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