The Grandest Duke

obrien_1-102810.jpg
Leonard Herman Photography, LLC
Duke Ellington at a private party after a performance, Paris, 1960; photograph by Herman Leonard from Jazz, a collection of his images of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and others, to be published by Bloomsbury USA in November

On more than one occasion Duke Ellington described his childhood in Washington, D.C., as a sort of paradise, at least for him and those around him in the family circle. In the song “My Mother, My Father” (written for his 1963 musical show My People) he wrote:

My mother—the greatest—and the prettiest
My father—just handsome—but the wittiest…
I was raised in the palm of the hand
By the very best people in this land
From sun to sun
Their hearts beat as one
My mother—my father—and love

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in 1899, he was a child of African-American privilege as understood in the early twentieth century. His father James, whose schooling stopped at the eighth grade, was a sometime butler and caterer (he worked on some parties at the Warren G. Harding White House) who later drew blueprints for the Navy; an omnivorous reader fond of operatic music, he “always,” according to Ellington, “acted as though he had money, whether he had it or not…. He raised his family as though he were a millionaire.”

Ellington’s mother Daisy was a high school graduate of strong religious convictions who played piano and insisted on piano lessons for Edward (with the unforgettably named Marietta Clinkscales). Daisy ran her household along lines of Victorian propriety, considered lipstick unacceptable, and disapproved of the blues. She was the object of Ellington’s lifelong devotion. It was in a period of depression following her death in 1935 that he wrote his breakthrough composition “Reminiscing in Tempo.” She had imparted to him the sense of a special destiny, often repeating, as recounted in his autobiography Music Is My Mistress: “Edward, you are blessed. You don’t have anything to worry about. Edward, you are blessed!”

In the social world in which he grew up he was made aware of fine gradations:

I don’t know how many castes of Negroes there were in the City at the time, 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.

At his segregated school, his eighth-grade teacher taught that “as representatives of the Negro race we were to command respect for our people…. Negro history was crammed into the curriculum, so that we would know our people all the way back.” As a teenager he saw and was much impressed by W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1915 pageant of black history The Star of Ethiopia. This was at just the moment when Woodrow Wilson was…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.