Swing Music up: Duke Ellington’s Jungle Nights in Harlem.
EXIT of the Day: EXIT 44 I-95n to West Palmetto Park Road.
On April 29, 1899 Edward Kennedy Ellington, America’s greatest composer, was born up in Washington D.C. to Daisy and Jim Ellington. At the dawn of the 20th century, DC was actually the biggest African American community. It managed to flout the Jim Crowe humiliations just across the river in Virginia. Both parents were amateur pianists and taught their son opera and gospel music. Mom Daisy had ambitions for her handsome son and she dressed him well and insisted he learned proper manners. Young Edward’s regal bearing soon earned him the name Duke. And so not far into he’s teens, Edward Ellington faded from history and Duke Ellington was born.
Despite his parents ambitions, in his teens, Ellington had dreams of becoming first a baseball player, then an artist. But instead, being musically gifted, he started a small band called the Washingtonians that evolved into The Duke Ellington Orchestra.
In the "Roaring Twenties", the group’s big break came when they travelled to New York and won the job of house band for Harlem’s Cotton Club.
New Orleans Blues, Ragtime, and a whole lot of Swing… it all went into the rich mix that made up Duke Ellington's groundbreaking Big Band jazz. Always borrowing from other genres, Ellington soon composed tropical Latin themed pieces and exotic-sounding ensembles that were called “jungle music”. You are listening to Jungle Nights in Harlem now and can Claim the Duke Ellington song now by saying, "Claim my Duke Ellington song and RoadSpoke sent me!"
After the Cotton Club’s heyday in the 1920’s, Ellington’s band toured tirelessly. Not long after World War Two, in 1950 he toured Europe and played 70 of 74 nights. Some years he played 340 nights. The Duke worked with almost every great musician of his time from Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, to Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole. Ellington took his band on the road for thousands of gigs: clubs, concerts, dances.
Despite white demand for his music, he was not welcome in many towns along the way. In 1955, on a Tour of the South, the Duke came here to Boca Raton, Florida. In 1955 Florida, the greatest band leader in the United States was forced to stay in run-down Negroes Only Motels. There are images of The Duke and his band playing baseball outside his hotel amongst the palm trees.
Still, he was only allowed to visit certain stores and restaurants denoted by the Jim Crowe era Green Book.
The Green Book was a motorist guide written by Harlem post office employee, Victor Hugo Green. The Green Book provided African American motorists information about safe motels and restaurants that welcomed Black travelers. Otherwise blacks were persecuted and denied access throughout the south. In fact entire towns had sundowner laws that said that African Americans had to be out of town by dark or they may be brutally treated. Updated regularly, The Green Book became the one of the Biggest selling travel guides of its era. . Step into the wrong shop or cafe and a black man could get beaten or worse. A World Famous performer like Duke Ellington was treated no better.
Still, throughout all Duke’s non-stop touring, he managed to compose dozens of hit songs that found their way into the Great American Songbook :“Sophisticated Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Take the A Train”, “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Cotton Club Stomp” and “Satin Doll”. He worked until the day he died in 1974.
The breadth, importance, and significance of his music has only grown in the succeeding decades. The triumph of his artistry stands in stark contrast under the conditions from which it sprung.
Almost 30 years after his passing, in 1999 Duke Ellington was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. On February 24, 2009, The United States Mint issued a 25 cent coin with Duke Ellington on it, making him the first African American to appear by himself on a circulating U.S. coin. The Duke appears above “E Pluribus Unum” on the reverse side of the District of Columbia quarter. And finally, not to be out classed, in 2011, the Duke received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
From Jim Crowe to Pulitzer Prize, by way of Boca Raton, Florida… one never knows where your road will lead you. But just like the Duke, you got to keep on driving.
#DukeEllington #Greenbook #VictorHugoGreen #SatinDoll