This one-hour historical documentary on the remarkable African American community in Washington which nurtured the emergence of a surprising array of talented African-American lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and cultural figures, epitomized by Duke Ellington. “Duke Ellington’s Washington” is a dynamic blend of the music and pictures that illuminate both young Ellington and the hometown that nurtured him, and the intimate oral histories of people who knew Duke as a boy and the community that was home to so many talented African Americans. The program takes an unconventional approach by combining the celebrated past of Washington’s black community with its modern revival of that heritage along with another of Ellington’s legacies, the Ellington School for the Arts which is producing a new stream of talented DC musicians, actors, dancers, and artists of all kinds.
Executive Producer/Correspondent: Hedrick Smith
Producer: Stanley Nelson
Coordinating Producer/Production Manager: Sandra L. Udy
Editor: Cliff Hackel
Associate Producer/Senior Researcher: Teresa Gionis
Executive Producer/Correspondent: Hedrick Smith
Producer: Stanley Nelson
Coordinating Producer/Production Manager: Sandra L. Udy
Editor: Cliff Hackel
Associate Producer/Senior Researcher: Teresa Gionis
Running time: 58 minutes
To purchase this video: call Films Media Group at 1-800-257-5126. You may also purchase the show online at www.films.com, or mail your order to Films Media Group PO Box 2053 Princeton, NJ 08543-2053 Or fax it to: 609-671-0266
HORTON: We’re not talking about just any community. This is the capital of the country, and it is in this place that African Americans have been able to build a kind of community that has allowed them to produce the Thurgood Marshalls, the Duke Ellingtons. So that Washington becomes in some ways a center of African American life for the whole nation.
TAYLOR (v/o): The one thing Washington, D.C., instilled in almost everybody that came up in Ellington’s generation and it spilled over into mine was …you had self respect. You believed that you were somebody, that you could do something.
SMITH: Now Ellington never graduated from high school, so when you speak about his success as a musician, his success as a businessman, his success as an organizer, the city was his tutor.
STANDUP: DUKE ELLINGTON’S LIFE AND SUCCESS WERE WOVEN FROM THE FABRIC OF THE BLACK COMMUNITY IN WASHINGTON WHICH NURTURED HIM…AND WHICH FOR DECADES SENT A STREAM OF TALENTED AFRICAN-AMERICANS INTO THE NATION AT LARGE. HELLO, I’M HEDRICK SMITH. IN THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, BEFORE THE DAWN OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE, DUKE ELLINGTON’S WASHINGTON WAS A FOCAL POINT OF BLACK LIFE IN AMERICA. FROM 1900 TO 1920, IT HAD THE NATION’S LARGEST AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY – ALMOST AS LARGE AS THE ENTIRE POPULATION OF LOS ANGELES. WASHINGTON HAD A GROWING, AND PROSPEROUS BLACK MIDDLE CLASS…WHICH FORGED A STRONG SOCIETY OF CHURCHES, NEWSPAPERS, BUSINESSES, AND CIVIC INSTITUTIONS. IT WAS A PROUD AND ELEGANT SOCIETY THAT FLOURISHED IN SPITE OF – OR EVEN BECAUSE OF – JIM CROW, THE OPPRESSIVE SYSTEM OF SEGREGATION THAT FORCED BLACK PEOPLE TO CREATE THEIR OWN SEPARATE DESTINY.
NARR: WITH FEDERAL GOVERNMENT JOBS AND HOWARD UNIVERSITY AS MAGNETS, WASHINGTON ATTRACTED AMERICA’S BLACK INTELLIGENTSIA FOR GENERATIONS… FROM THE FAMED ABOLITIONIST FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO POET LANGSTON HUGHES AND SUPREME COURT JUSTICE THURGOOD MARSHALL.
THIS HISTORIC COMMUNITY, ONCE KNOWN AS UPTOWN AND NOW CALLED SHAW, FELL VICTIM TO RIOTS AND URBAN DECAY IN THE 1960S. BUT TODAY, IT IS ENJOYING A REVIVAL BUILT AROUND THE RICH ARTISTIC AND CULTURAL LEGACY OF THE ELLINGTON ERA.
CHARLES WILLAMS: The specialness about Washington was it was a cosmopolitan city; yet, it was a divided city. It was a separate school system, separate entertainment. So the black community was complete within itself.
HASSE: Washington was the undisputed capital of black America. It had the largest black population of any city in the country and it was the leading center for African American culture. Washington developed a climate of discipline, of decorum, of putting your best foot forward in public and in private and of getting ahead.
VIRGINIA WILLIAMS I was so proud to be a Washingtonian. Washington was special — it had schools that cared about you. It had wonderful entertainment. And I felt good about being a part of that, even as a little child.
SMITH: I think in terms of the specific aspects of making Washington different than say Atlanta or even Richmond or many other southern cities is the immediate post civil war period. The fact that you create Howard University in 1867 just two years after the war ends. No other city that has a black community can claim a Howard.
HORTON: Howard University became a magnet for lots of people who came here to participate as students, to participate on the faculty, participate in Howard University hospital.
NARR: WITH HOWARD AT THE CORE, WASHINGTON’S AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY BECAME A CREATIVE SEEDBED FOR TALENTED AND INFLUENTIAL BLACK LEADERS FOR MANY YEARS …FROM THE POET PAUL LAWRENCE DUNBAR… TO FUTURE SENATOR ED BROOKE …CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST MARCH CHURCH TERRELL…LATER UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY RALPH BUNCHE…AND EDWARD KENNEDY ELLINGTON.
NARR: ELLINGTON, LATER NICKNAMED DUKE, WAS BORN INTO A MIDDLE CLASS FAMILY IN THIS THRIVING COMMUNITY IN 1899. HIS MOTHER, DAISY ELLINGTON, WAS THE DAUGHTER OF ONE OF WASHINGTON’S EARLY BLACK POLICE OFFICERS.
HASSE: Daisy Ellington loved her son fiercely. Evidently a prior baby died in childbirth or infancy and that could explain why she was so protective and so fiercely — fiercely loving of him. At one point Ellington developed pneumonia and he said for days on end his mother would not leave his bedside. Daisy and the other female relatives coddled and protected Ellington and didn’t let his feet touch ground ’til he was six years old. And they spoiled him rotten, he said.
HORTON: For a period of his life, Duke Ellington’s father was a butler and he served in some of the most elegant homes in Washington. In fact, for a period of time, he served in the White House. He knew about fine wines. He knew about the proper way of doing things. He was impeccable in his manners. These are the kinds of things he conveyed to his son….
HASSE: Ellington wrote that his father treated his family as if he were a millionaire. And set a very high standard. And, of course, his mother expected a very high standard. Ellington said the good had to be examined to make sure that it was good enough for his mother.
NARR: FOR SEVERAL DECADES, THE HEART OF ELLINGTON’S NEIGHBORHOOD WAS U STREET, A FIFTH AVENUE PROMENADE FOR FAMILY STROLLS ON SUNDAYS….BUT SO CRAMMED WITH THEATERS, MOVIE HOUSES, DANCE HALLS, AND AFTER HOURS CLUBS THAT SINGER PEARL BAILEY CALLED IT THE BLACK BROADWAY. IT WAS A JAZZ MECCA FOR GIANTS LIKE LOUIS ARMSTRONG, JELLY ROLL MORTON, CAB CALLOWAY, AND ELLA FITZGERALD.
VIRGINIA WILLIAMS: U Street was the place for entertaining. They had everything you needed. It had theaters, it had clubs. It had great places to eat. It was the black social street in D.C.
NELSON: The Lincoln Colonnade was there between 12th and 13th Streets and that was where the dances were held. The people looked very nice all the time. You dressed up when you went to the movie houses at that time. You just didn’t drop in on the movie. You dressed up for the movie.
HORTON: U Street was a very middle class commercially successful district. You’ve got the doctor living down the street. You’ve got the dentist living across the street. You have the Howard University professor living at the, at the corner. So in terms of role models for children the black community in Washington could have provided all kinds of possibilities.
SPRAGGINS: We had dentists, beauty parlors, a floral shop. We had the bank, which is still there, the industrial bank.
BALTIMORE: Anything that you wanted you could find on U Street, the very best quality and the best services.
HORTON: And there was also a sense of ownership. I mean you could walk down U Street and you know this is my street. These are my people who own these businesses. I’m somebody on this street.
McNEILL: Doctors, lawyers, housemaids, government workers, trash men, ash men, delivery boys, lived together. That’s really what made it fascinating.
NARR: UPTOWN WAS RACIALLY SEGREATED BUT ECONOMICALLY INTEGRATED. ALTHOUGH THERE WERE MANY POOR PEOPLE, THIS WAS A DIGINIFIED SOCIETY, PROUD OF ITS HIGH STANDARDS, ITS TRADITIONS, AND INSTITUTIONS – ALL DULY RECORDED BY PHOTOGRAPHIC CHRONICLER, ADDISON SCURLOCK.
MCNEILL: Addison Scurlock was of course the premier photographer of the era. It was said that if Scurlock didn’t take your picture…. at a wedding, you weren’t married. Every school, every junior high and high school called Scurlock for their senior picture or their class picture and I used to watch what he did to take the pictures. A view camera putting a hood over his head, looking through it to make it focus. If he knew I was snooping on him, he would, he would never have showed me those little tricks.
NARR: IN SCURLOCK’S FOOTSTEPS, ROBERT MCNEILL PHOTOGRAPHED BLACK WASHINGTON IN THE 1930s.
MCNEILL: What I liked about being a photographer was the freedom of expression. It was my creative urges were fulfilled. It was my passport to life.
NARR: AMONG MCNEILL’S SUBJECTS WERE THE MORE THAN 300 BUSINESSES IN UPTOWN…AND UNLIKE HARLEM, MOST WERE ENTIRELY BLACK-OWNED AND BLACK-MANAGED. THE BUILDINGS WERE DESIGNED, BUILT AND FINANCED BY AFRICAN AMERICANS. U STREET’S OLDEST ARCHITECTURAL LANDMARK WAS TRUE REFORMERS HALL….BUILT IN 1903 BY A BLACK FRATERNAL SOCIETY. A COUPLE OF BLOCKS AWAY, THE WHITELAW HOTEL WAS THE PREMIERE LODGING FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN DIGNITARIES AND THE CHOICE SITE FOR FORMAL DINNERS.
CHARLES WILLIAMS: A club would decide to have a formal. And, so, they would have it at the Whitelaw, because it was a beautiful place. So you would come in and there you were, and the people would be beautifully dressed.
NELSON: The Whitelaw Hotel’s significance was that was a place for black people to congregate on Sunday afternoons. That was a place where dances were held. My senior prom was held there.
NARR: THE 12TH STREET YMCA, THE NATION’S FIRST “Y” FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS, WAS AN IMPORTANT COMMUNITY CENTER – A MEETING PLACE FOR THE NAACP, THE NEGRO MEDICAL SOCIETY, AND OTHER GROUPS, AND A GREAT ATTRACTION FOR UPTOWN’S YOUNG.
MR. WILLIAMS: The “Y” to me was a home away from home. When you were a little guy in the Y, you learned to play ping pong, you learned to play pool, you went there for hobbies, you were taught all the things that a young man would need to grow.
HARROD: The Y was a place of refuge as far as I was concerned. You had a couple of pool tables in the Y. And they had outdoor basketballs or indoor basketballs that you could use up there.
WILLIAMS: You learned to swim. I mean, a lot of old guys my age who learned to swim at the Y. Because there weren’t many places that you could go to learn to swim as a black. There were people who lived at the Y, who worked in the government and ah, it was a wonderful place.
HARROD: Sometimes I’d go in the reading room and sit up and read but I think that it was an oasis for the blacks in the area because they flocked to the place.
NARR: WHAT’S MORE, UPTOWN BOASTED THE BEST BLACK EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS IN AMERICA – HOWARD UNIVERSITY AND TOP HIGH SCHOOLS.
NARR: ARMSTRONG HIGH, THE VOCATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL, WAS WHERE DUKE ELLINGTON PURSUED A CURRICULUM IN APPLIED ARTS, SUCH AS DESIGN, PAINTING AND MUSIC.
CHARLES WILLIAMS: As soon as you got in that school, you knew that Duke Ellington was – had gone there, preceded you there. This is important; tradition. I was a little guy who thought he could play a little bit, that big old grand they had in the auditorium, probably was a piano that Duke had played on.
NARR: ARMSTRONG’S MAIN RIVAL…DUNBAR…WAS A COLLEGE PREP HIGH SCHOOL – THE FIRST AND MOST PRESTIGIOUS HIGH SCHOOL FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE NATION.
TAYLOR: Dunbar was unique because when I was there were five teachers with doctorates on a high school faculty. This is ludicrous for a high school but they couldn’t get jobs in the places where they should have been teaching–in a college or in some other place so they taught at Dunbar High School.
NARR: ACCOMPLISHED SCHOLARS TOOK JOBS AT DUNBAR BECAUSE THERE WERE SO FEW OTHER EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES IN ANY FIELD. WHAT’S MORE, THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PAID BLACK TEACHERS IN WASHINGTON THE SAME AS WHITE TEACHERS, MAKING DUNBAR’S FACULTY AMONG THE HIGHEST PAID AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE COUNTRY.
TAYLOR: It was like going to a prep school. Like going to a private school because they the standards were very high. They really, really made you study.
GREGORY: I think that the idea was the world would open someday, and these beautiful children are coming out; not only bright, not only coached but they’re going to be leaders and that is really what happened .
BALTIMORE: And most of the students that finished Dunbar High School went to college. Up the eastern coast, to the Ivy league schools and the rest of us went on to school here in Washington, to Minor Teachers college and Howard University.
NARR: AROUND 1900, DUNBAR STUDENTS SCORED HIGHER ON STANDARDIZED TESTS THAN DC’S TWO WHITE HIGH SCHOOLS. AS A RESULT, MANY FAMILIES UP AND DOWN THE EAST COAST SENT THEIR CHILDREN TO WASHINGTON… JUST FOR THE CHANCE TO STUDY AT DUNBAR.
HARROD: I moved to Washington because I knew and had heard all my life that Dunbar high school was the premier black high school in this country. It was tough. The first thing the coaches of the athletic teams will tell you was that you get your books and you can play. If you don’t get your books, turn in your uniforms.
NARR: ONE WHO LEARNED THAT LESSON THE HARD WAY WAS CHARLES DREW, WHO LATER CRACKED THE SECRET OF STORING BLOOD PLASMA…HELPING TO SAVE THOUSANDS OF LIVES IN WORLD WAR II.
GREGORY: My big brother Charlie was an outstanding football player and I think he was one of the stars of the team at Dunbar High School. Unfortunately he was neglecting his geometry. And my mother found it out. … Mama got on the streetcar, rode to Dunbar High School. She went down to Mr. Pinderhughes who was the coach, and she said, ‘Then he may not play.’ She left Dunbar got on the streetcar and went home. Charlie passed geometry. And Charlie played and Charlie starred. You were expected to do well in your academics – first.
NARR: DREW GOT INTO AMHERST COLLEGE AND THEN WENT TO MEDICAL SCHOOL AND MADE HISTORY WITH HIS DISCOVERIES ON BLOOD PLASMA.
NARR: IF ONE ACTIVITY EPITOMIZED THE DISCIPLINE AND HIGH STANDARDS IN DUKE ELLINGTON’S WASHINGTON, IT WAS THE HIGH SCHOOL CADET CORPS DRILL TEAMS.
BALTIMORE: there was great competition between Dunbar and Armstrong. They practiced all during the year and then in the spring they had what was called the drill.
HARROD: The big day was at Griffith stadium in Washington. And you had every cadet company participating individually
MRS. WILLIAMS: All the schools closed and let all the children out, so they could go to the drill. It was that significant and important. And, so, all the little girls, we dressed in our school colors, blue and orange for me, red and black for Dunbar. So, it was like a party atmosphere.
HARROD: Griffith stadium was full. It was the parents, the friends, ex classmates, they filled that place.
VIRGINIA WILLIAMS: We would go to the stadium and we’d walk the aisles back and forth looking down on the field. We were profiling so the little boys could see us showing off our attire and all. We’d be giggling and carrying on while the boys would be making remarks at you, et cetera.
CHARLES WILLIAMS: And in my family, it was traditional that the male had to drill. You drilled all three years because the crowning point was to be an officer in your senior year, which meant you had a saber, you had command and you had ladies.
HARROD: I call Dunbar High school a flower garden because it had a collection of the most beautiful women as a group of any school in the country. Believe me. It was fantastic. From the darkest of blacks right straight up to the whites that you couldn’t tell were not white. And gobs of em. You had a selection that was just something else. And in the middle of it you had peach colors. Yeah. Nice.
NARR: IN THIS SOCIAL WHIRL, DUKE ELLINGTON GREW UP WITH THE ROLLING RHYTHMS OF RAGTIME. DANCING QUICKLY BECAME THE RAGE… FIRST CAME THE PRISSY PRANCING OF THE CAKEWALK…AND THEN A WHOLE SLEW OF NEW DANCE FADS.
HASSE: Jazz was coming in at about 1916, 1917, 1918; and the bands would be playing rag time and hot rag time — would soon be known as jazz bands. But during these formative years for Ellington, dancing was becoming more and more popular and more and more acceptable. The dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle helped legitimize a lot of these dances of the period, like the Fox Trot, the Two Step, the Bunny Hop, the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear.
TAYLOR: At the turn of the century you had music (plays some ragtime) By the time Duke came along, they were playing much faster because it was for dancing and people were kind of moving along–that was kind of the rhythm they were dancing to
GREGORY: I think there were pianos in all of the homes.
BALTIMORE: Everybody had a piano.
GREGORY: Everybody had a piano.
BALTIMORE: And most children were trained to play the piano.
TAYLOR: You could go to somebody’s house and. there was a piano sitting there, and somebody in the family or some friend played that piano. It was a means of entertainment. If you’re going to dance, you dance to the music of the piano player. If you’re going to sing, you sang for the accompaniment of the piano player. So the pianist was the life of the party. Pretty girls always came and sat on the piano stool. Hey, that was motivation. For real.
NARR: WITH NEW MOTIVATION, YOUNG ELLINGTON – WHO HAD ONLY DABBLED AT THE PIANO AS A BOY – TOOK IT UP SERIOUSLY AS A TEENAGER.
HASSE: This was the height of the rag time era, when ragtime was captivating every little kid and every teenager with a piano and even those without…. And Ellington really gravitated towards the piano players and the dance bands.
NARR: DUKE RAVED THAT “THERE WERE A LOT OF GREAT PIANO PLAYERS IN WASHINGTON.” HE PICKED UP KEYBOARD TECHNIQUES BY HANGING AROUND VETERAN PIANISTS LIKE DOC PERRY AND LEWIS BROWN. “IT WAS A VERY GOOD CLIMATE FOR ME TO COME UP IN, MUSICALLY, HE LATER RECALLED. “THOSE RAGTIME PIANISTS SOUNDED SO GOOD TO ME. AND THEY LOOKED SO GOOD, PARTICULARLY WHEN THEY FLASHED THEIR LEFT HANDS.”
NARR: ELLINGTON RODE THE CREST OF THE DANCE CRAZE. HE ORGANIZED HIS OWN JAZZ COMBO, DUKE’S SERENADERS.
HASSE: Ellington said he played his first gig at True Reformers Hall, which was a prominent community meeting hall and on one of the upper stories there was a dance area. He had a little group with him and when he finished, he got paid 75 cents. He ran home and showed it to his mother and she was so proud of him.
HASSE: He put an ad in the yellow pages and got a lot of so-called dickdee or high toned jobs after that. And, of course, there were rewards that were much deeper than the pretty girl or the money for playing music and the musical life. There were deep, psychic, emotional, even spiritual rewards. Ellington once said, music is my mistress and she plays second fiddle to no one. And without music life would be inexistent .
NARR: AS THE TEENAGE ELLINGTON GAINED A REPUTATION PLAYING FOR SOCIETY PARTIES, HE FELT THE NEED FOR MORE FORMAL TRAINING. SO HE TURNED TO HENRY GRANT, HIS HIGH SCHOOL MUSIC TEACHER….GRANT, A GRADUATE OF THE WASHINGTON CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC…AND FOUNDER OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF NEGRO MUSICIANS, PERSONIFIED THE RICHNESS OF BLACK WASHINGTON’S WORLD OF CLASSICAL MUSIC, OPERAS, GLEE CLUBS, AND CHURCH CHOIRS. BUT IN 1919, AS HIS DAUGHTER RECALLS, HE ALSO TOOK AN INTEREST IN FLEDGLING JAZZ MUSICIAN DUKE ELLINGTON.
SPRAGGINS: Duke came to take these lessons because I think he just wanted to be a little more knowledgeable about music and papa was right there for him….Duke could stand out on the porch and talk with us until my father was ready for him…You couldn’t forget him (laughs). Our porch became quite a popular place. And all the girls around wanted to come to look at him. Here was this man at my house that I wished I was a little older and I could get a little closer to him. (laughs) And that’s how I felt.
NARR: ANOTHER PUPIL OF HENRY GRANT FROM THE NEXT GENERATION WAS FUTURE JAZZ GREAT BILLY TAYLOR. GRANT TAUGHT BOTH OF THEM TO APPRECIATE CLASSICAL EUROPEAN COMPOSERS AND TO ADAPT CLASSICAL IDEAS AND HARMONIES TO JAZZ.
TAYLOR: One of the things that he did–Ellington would take something, for instance like you would hear this in Debussy … you know, from “Claire de Lune.” He might take that idea and say … and…(another few chords) it might come out another way.
HORTON: Ellington is known for his music which is very sophisticated, very well structured. At the time people refer to his music as high brow music. Well this comes I think out of the class structure in the African American society in Washington. Ellington grows up in a community that certainly places a great deal of value on doing things properly, on being dignified. Ellington is shaped by those forces.
NARR: IT WAS NOT ONLY A PROPER SOCIETY BUT A CLOSE-KNIT COMMUNITY WHERE PEOPLE KNEW THEIR NEIGHBORS AND LOOKED OUT FOR EACH OTHER’S CHILDREN. MANY WASHINGTONIANS IN THEIR 70S AND 80S TODAY FONDLY RECALL HOW SAFE AND SECURE THEY FELT BACK THEN.
HORTON: ….I think that when people look back on Washington, DC, people who grew up in the black community here and they say, Boy, you know those are the good old days,’ in part they’re right. I mean for many people they were the good old days at least in part because they were the days that protected you. But of course the fact is there was something from which you needed to be protected.
SPRAGGINS: I went down there once to Kahn’s, and I wanted to try on a hat, and the lady said, ‘You cannot try on a hat unless you put this something on your head.’ I said, ‘But I won’t wear that something on my head when I put the hat on.’ So she said, ‘Well you just cannot try the hat on in here.’ I felt like anyone else would feel. Why am I in this place where I cannot even buy a hat, can’t even try a hat on? So I left.
GREGORY: We knew that there were theaters downtown. There were restaurants downtown and that was somewhere we didn’t go…. I think we were protected when we went downtown to shop with our parents. We ate lunch before we left home. You went to the bathroom before you left home and so all of that was taken care of. I don’t ever remember asking. ‘May we go in here for lunch?’
BALTIMORE: They never used the word segregation.
BALTIMORE: They never said you’re segregated. They never said you can’t go this place or you can’t go that place. We were never told that. We were just guided away from those places.
GREGORY: It was as if we wouldn’t go near a lion’s den. That was his place and this was ours and that was it.
SMITH: There was just this vast separation that you didn’t have any kind of contact with until you went beyond the boundaries of your community. You could live within your community for months, and have no contact with them.
SPRAGGINS: I remember one person vividly, Mrs. Goldberg, who used to come with suitcases of clothes to your home…. Everybody bought clothes from her in the neighborhood. For years this went on, as I can recall….I think this woman came because she saw the opportunity, the golden opportunity, to sell to us because we couldn’t go downtown.
HORTON: If you grow up in the South – even if you are middle class and privileged – you live in a society which engenders a great deal of frustration and anger in you all the time. Especially when you leave the protection of the black community and go into the wider society. Now for a person like Ellington, one of the ways you deal with this is to present yourself to the world as a person of worth, a person who is dignified, a person who demands your respect.
SMITH: Clothing was a very important aspect of Ellington’s life. When you went into the public, you were supposed to make a proper presentation of yourself. There’s a way in which you can look at clothing as your outer skin. And because you were discriminated against because of your complexion, the way in which you could overcome that was through the way in which you presented yourself with your clothing.
HASSE: I think Ellington had a couple of responses to the really horrible Jim Crow and racism that he grew up in. One was a strategy of overcoming it with his personal charm, his personal style, his high standards of musical performance and entertainment….
HASSE: And that was his secret weapon throughout his teenage and young adult years here in Washington and then through the rest of his life.
NARR: IN TIME, DUKE’S PERSONAL STYLE BEGAN TO INFLUENCE THE COMMUNITY THAT HAD SHAPED HIM AS A YOUNG MAN.
HARROD: I believe that all of us sort of copied the way he dressed and the way he conducted himself. And all of us became very fashion conscious, all of the young men in those days, became fashion conscious because of Ellington.
VIRGINIA WILLIAMS: We were taught a sense of pride. And Duke was really a fine example of that. He was proud. The way he carried himself and everything, he was proud.
NELSON: When I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. I happened to be at the Union Station in Washington, D.C., I encountered the Duke Ellington orchestra with of course Duke Ellington. And I was impressed first of all with their demeanor, their carriage. And I had never seen men so elegant, men of color – so strong and forthright. Their attire was immaculate. The confidence they exuded just made me know that I am somebody. And that stayed with me for my lifetime.
NARR: FOR CHARLES WILLIAMS, IT WAS ELLINGTON’S MUSIC THAT MARKED A TURNING POINT.
CHARLES WILLIAMS: One day I was at Minor’s Teacher’s College and I saw a young freshmen go by and I wanted to know who she was. And a friend found out the next day who she was and told me that she sang. So, we went down to the gym, where my favorite piano was. And so, I said, how about this new song that Duke just published, I LET A SONG GO OUT OF MY HEART? She says’ I’ll try it. And it sounded somewhat like this: PLAYS SONG
(singing behind husband on piano bench)
VIRGINIA WILLIAMS: “I let a song go out of my heart…it was the sweetest melody…
CHARLES WILLIAMS: That song made me know that I had to know more about his lady. I knew then that this lady was for me . Duke Ellington was the major-understand the MAJOR importance in my life. And so here we are…60 years later…(off camera).
NARR: IN 1923, DUKE MOVED TO NEW YORK AND IN HOMAGE TO HIS HOMETOWN, HE RENAMED HIS BAND THE WASHINGTONIANS. HIS CAREER TOOK OFF ON A WIDER STAGE, BUT HE CAME HOME OFTEN TO SEE HIS FAMILY AND TO PERFORM AT THE HOWARD THEATER IN WASHINGTON. THE HOWARD OPENED IN 1910, NEARLY 20 YEARS BEFORE HARLEM’S APOLLO THEATER FEATURED BLACK ENTERTAINERS. BY THEN THE HOWARD WAS ALREADY A LANDMARK.
TAYLOR: When I was a kid, this was a huge, big, just gorgeous place with I mean balconies. I mean it just looked big.
BALTIMORE: The Howard Theater was a beautiful theater. It had gold embellishments on various parts of the wall. It had beautiful draperies.
SPRAGGINS: The ticket was 25 cents (laughs). So but you know we would save our money all the week to get that 25 cents to go to the supper show.
VIRGINIA WILLIAMS: Well, when Duke Ellington came to the Howard Theater, somehow, some, way, you had to get money to go see him.
TAYLOR: All of a sudden an off-stage voice was saying ” and now ladies and gentlemen, the internationally famous Duke Ellington orchestra.”
VIRGINIA WILLIAMS: …and then you’d hear this–[Singing] The beginning notes of “A Train”.
TAYLOR: …curtains would part and instead of the bright lights and the band blasting and swinging everybody patting their foot, it was very quiet., and just a pin spot, and everybody else is behind a scrim in darkness.
HARROD: And that scrim curtain jumped back and they flashed those lights on Sonny Greer and there he was sitting up there beating on those chimes.
VIRGINIA: And here’s Duke sitting side ways on the piano.
HARROD: And that band was rocking to ‘Ring Dem Bells’ and you just wouldn’t believe that, I thought the theater was going to explode.
VIRGINIA WILLIAMS: People went, Yaahhhh…[Laughs] They went crazy at that point
STANDUP: THOSE TIMES WERE THE ZENITH OF BLACK WASHINGTON IN THE 1920S, 30S AND 40S. BUT THE GOLDEN AGE COULDN’T ENDURE FOREVER IN THE WHIRLWIND OF SOCIAL CHANGE THAT FOLLOWED. LIKE MANY OTHER URBAN CENTERS OF BLACK AMERICA, U STREET LOST ITS GLORY AND COHESION…AND IT SPUN INTO DECLINE IN THE 1950S AND 60S AND 70s. IRONICALLY, IT WAS THE END OF LEGAL SEGREGATION IN THE 1950S THAT BEGAN TO UNRAVEL THE FABRIC OF THE SPECIAL U STREET COMMUNITY.
SMITH: Integration principally speaking is the right way to go. People should have the choice to be able to live where they want to live, go to school where they want to go to school, marry whoever they want to marry regardless of what their complexion is and so forth. But when you allow people those choices, then what happens is they’re going to take those choices. And one by one you’re going to have the disintegration of this community that was forced to be contained. It could not break out. That’s one of the prices you pay for progress.
NARR: THE U STREET COMMUNITY WAS DEALT A CRUSHING BLOW IN1968. BACK THEN, ARCHITECT PAUL DEVROUAX WAS IN THE ARMY.
DEVROUAX: I was stationed in the army at FT. Meade Maryland and I would travel back and forth between Baltimore and Washington, DC. I stopped at the 7-11 on my way to Baltimore actually and that’s when I heard that Dr. King had been assassinated.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: Tonight, at approximately 8 pm, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
NARR: VIRGINIA ALI, OWNER OF BEN’S CHILI BOWL, REMEMBERS THAT NIGHT.
ALI: It was a very traumatic and sad time. People just started to cry. Everyone that came in started to cry. And just threw the first brick in the People’s drugstore. This was at 14th and U. And, of course, it escalated from then on in. It was like a war zone.
DEVROUAX: It was not until the next day that our unit was called into Washington to be stationed at Old Soldiers’ Home….. There was fires burning on both sides of Rhode Island avenue. We came down to the 14th and U Street corridors and there were a number of burned out buildings during that period of time.
ALI: We identified our business by writing Soul Brother across the window. We stayed opened during the entire time. Although there was a curfew for the next few days.
ALI: After the riots, this area just deteriorated to absolute slums. Drugs started to infiltrate the community. People were just intimidated. People didn’t want to come into this community. I mean, I’m talking about African/American people.
DEVROAUX:. A lot of the businesses closed up. You still felt the scars of the riots for years to come.
ALI: There was no offers of help from the city. Many businesses never reopened, and we were the only light on U street at night for a long time.
NARR: JUST TWO BLOCKS FROM BEN’S CHILI BOWL, THE ONCE GRAND WHITELAW HOTEL WAS REDUCED TO A CRUMBLING, DANGEROUS DRUG DEN DOGGED BY FIRES AND KILLINGS.
BRYANT: Whitelaw had a reputation that it was easy to get in but you may not ever come out. We had really destroyed a work of beauty. I’m sure there probably were a few good families in the building. I can’t really recall any, because the negative aspect of what was going on in the Whitelaw – it just overwhelmed, it smothered anything positive that might have existed.
DICKERSON: And the hotel and the building went the way of the inner city. It just went down, down, down. It was just a rooming house – turn tricks, it was notorious for that. And in a way it became known for that rather than its glorious past.
NARR: KEVIN BRYANT TOOK ACTIVE PART IN THE WHITELAW DRUG SCENE.
BRYANT: I woke every morning just feeling overcome with anxiety, feeling disconnected, feeling despair, feeling depressed. Physically hurting.
DICKERSON: Well Kevin’s story is a metaphor, a parable for the community at large as well. And especially where the community was at one time in terms of on the bottom with very little hope.
ED SMITH: The darkest period came about four or five years after the riots. It wasn’t the physical deterioration of the community that I felt was darkest. It was that sense of forlorness on the part of long-time residents, who felt that the world that they knew, that made them what they were, had gone and would never be brought back.
NARR: FINALLY IN 1986, THE CITY INVESTED 50 MILLION DOLLARS TO ERECT A MAJOR OFFICE BUILDING AT 14TH AND U STREETS, TRYING TO SPARK AN ECONOMIC REVIVAL.
SMITH: Paul this is an area that you saw destroyed, what was the next time you got a chance to get involved in U Street?
DEVROUAX: Well Rick I as an architect I got an opportunity to help design this, the Reeves Center, the building that you see directly behind us. So it was an opportunity for me to see the destructions of 1968 and be a part of…the resurgence or the renaissance if you will of this area, the regrowth of it.
NARR: EVIDENCE OF A U STREET COMEBACK BEGAN APPEARING…A NEW METRO STATION WHICH BECAME AN IMPORTANT CATALYST TO THE AREA’S REVIVAL…THEN ANOTHER BIG STEP – THE OLD LINCOLN MOVIE THEATER WAS RESTORED AT A COST OF 10 MILLION DOLLARS AND BECAME A U STREET SHOWCASE…. JAZZ CLUBS AND RESTAURANTS WERE REOPENED. FINE OLD HOMES THAT HAD GONE DOWNHILL WERE RESTORED. HOWARD UNIVERSITY JOINED A PLAN FOR NEIGHBORHOOD RENEWAL. DEVELOPERS BUILT UP-SCALE CONDOS. …AND OVERLOOKING IT ALL… AN ELLINGTON MURAL LAYING CLAIM TO U STREET’S ILLUSTRIOUS PAST.
NARR: TRUE REFORMERS HALL WHERE DUKE ELLINGTON PLAYED HIS FIRST GIG GOT A FACE LIFT.
JARVIS: You can see this part here. Duke Ellington would come up and down U Street at the nightclubs and come here for a late night jam session.
NARR: THE PUBLIC WELFARE FOUNDATION BEGAN INVESTING 8 MILLION DOLLARS TO RESTORE THE FAMED OLD BUILDING TO ITS ORIGINAL GRANDEUR AND TO USE IT FOR MODERN OFFICES.
JARVIS: And it’s going to be the centerpiece of a re-emerging U street. People really appreciate the history. A lot of elderly people walk through. It’s like walking down memory lane for them.
NARR: DENNETTE HARROD TAKES HIS OWN TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE VISITING HIS BOYHOOD HAUNT -THE 12TH STREET Y – ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF THE REJUVENATION OF THE U STREET AREA. RENAMED FOR THURGOOD MARSHALL, THE “Y” WILL HOUSE SOCIAL SERVICES AND A SMALL MUSEUM.
HARROD: The main attraction for me was the swimming pool.
SMITH: That’s where you learned to swim?
HARROD: That’s where I learned to swim – in that pool, here in the YMCA.
HARROD: It brings back a lot of fond memories as far as I’m concerned. It helped me mature and I’m hoping and praying that it will do the same to the youth of today and tomorrow that come in here and use this place.
SMITH: Why bring this particular building back?
LYNCH: There is so much history in this building as Mr. Harrod has, has illustrated already, that people need to learn, that people need to understand. And one of the driving forces is to provide these inspirational stories as a method of getting children in this generation to be the leaders of tomorrow.
SMITH: So it’s recapturing history to power the future?
NARR: NOWHERE IS ELLINGTON’S LEGACY DOING MORE TO POWER THE FUTURE AND CREATE A NEW GENERATION OF ACTORS, DANCERS, MUSICIANS AND ARTISTS OF ALL KINDS, THAN AT THE ELLINGTON SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS. THE SCHOOL CLAIMS ELLINGTON AS A LOCAL HERO AND USES HIM AS A MODEL.
YARBOROUGH: I mean the idea was what he did, he did well. And that’s the idea behind the school…
NARR: JAZZ SAXOPHONIST DAVEY YARBOROUGH HEADS THE SCHOOL’S INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC DEPARTMENT.
YARBOROUGH: You want to make the goal high and Ellington is about as high as you can go. And our band members, we’re trying to get them to reach inside themselves and really add their personality to what they’re learning. Take a piece of you, your energy, and put it into the product. This is the type of thing that, that Ellington did.
NARR: ELLINGTON’S MUSIC GIVES SPECIAL INSPIRATION TO MEMBERS OF THE SCHOOL’S JAZZ ORCHESTRA, THE NEW WASHINGTONIANS, LIKE SHANNON BROWNE.
SMITH: …What’s Ellington’s special influence on you, his music?
SHANNON: His swinging, his band, his music, his piano, his drummer. Everything is just a hard swing, always in time. I love it.
SMITH: For somebody like Shannon is Ellington’s music a real challenge?
YARBOROUGH: A big challenge. Before she came into Ellington, before she started listening to Ellington, only had heard a small part of what music could be. Her exposure to him has allowed her to really look now for that much more
VOICE: Say class of ’99!
GROUP: Class of ’99!
NARR: AFTER A TOUGH FOUR YEARS OF BALANCING ENDLESS PRACTICE AND PERFORMANCES WITH A FULL ACADEMIC LOAD, SHANNON AND HER CLASSMATES ARE NOW HEADED FOR THE WIDER WORLD…
Natsot: PRINCIPAL: Shannon Hassim Denise Browne!
SMITH : What’s the most important thing you’ve learned at Ellington?
SHANNON : The most important thing I’ve learned is no excuses. Everything that you do has to be on time, has to be solid, has to be straight and right and tight.
NARR: ONE MAJOR OMISSION IN THE U STREET RENAISSANCE IS THE CROWN JEWEL OF THE AREA, THE HOWARD THEATER, WHICH STILL LIES DESTITUTE…ITS FRONT LOBBY A CRUMBLING RUIN.
NARR: CHARLES AND VIRGINIA WILLIAMS PAY A SENTIMENTAL VISIT TO THEIR FAVORITE OLD HAUNT …AND HEAR FROM CITY OFFICIAL OLIVER CROMWELL ABOUT A MOVE TO BRING BACK THE HOWARD, POSSIBLY AS A HISTORICAL MUSEUM.
CROMWELL: The development in this area that’s going on, the old Dunbar Theater is getting ready to be turned into an office retail complex. There’s all sorts of things that are happening here. So now is the time.
NARR: THE WILLIAMSES REMEMBER THE HOWARD THE WAY IT WAS SIXTY OR SEVENTY YEARS AGO.
SMITH: What do you see, what do you remember?
CHARLES: I remember every seat.
CHARLES: I wish I had been good enough to play here. I would love that.
VIRGINIA: You were good enough. You just didn’t play here.
CHARLES: Oh thank you.
SMITH: Mrs. Williams, you sang up on that stage?
VIRGINIA: I sang up on that stage and I danced on that stage.
SMITH: Mr. Williams, what do you think, seeing where you used to see Duke play?
CHARLES: It’s a thrill. It’s a thrill absolutely. I…it’s been so long and I can hear it. I can hear the music. I can hear the beat…..
NARR: BUT IN THE SAME NEIGHBORHOOD, THE WHITELAW HOTEL HAS BEEN RESTORED TO ITS OLD ELEGANCE BY MANNA, A COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION. NOT ONLY HAS THE DRUG DEN THAT THE WHITELAW BECAME BEEN TURNED INTO LOW-COST APARTMENTS…THE LIVES OF COMMUNITY RESIDENTS LIKE KEVIN BRYANT HAVE BEEN TRANSFORMED BY MANNA.
BRYANT: I didn’t know at the time but, but their arrival in that neighborhood actually opened up a window of opportunity – an opportunity for me to step out of that life.
NARR: AS KEVIN BROKE HIS DRUG HABIT AND MADE A NEW CAREER WITH THE CITY GOVERNMENT, HE AND JIM DICKERSON BECAME CLOSE FRIENDS. IN 1996, A NEW KEVIN BRYANT RETURNED TO A NEW WHITELAW HOTEL.
BRYANT: I got a call one night. And it was Jim Dickerson and he told me that there was one unit vacant in the Whitelaw: ‘Just pack a bag, come get the key, just put your bag in there. It’s yours if you want it.’ And I did that. And that brought me back to the Whitelaw. I guess what was really just unimaginable was that to see the luxury of this place today. This is a very desirable place to want to live and raise your family.
DICKERSON: And now Kevin lies here with his two boys and helps us to and provides leadership as the president of the tenant association. That’s who he was always. It was just buried under a lot of rubble. And that’s where the community was, was buried under a lot of rubble and stereotyped in a way that it, by the, by outsiders who would say this can never be any different.
BRYANT: Right now life has never been better and I, I would hope and I like to think that, that my kids feel the same way. That even for them life has never been better.
NARR: KEVIN’S NEW LIFE AND THE WHITELAW’S REVIVAL SYMBOLIZE THE REBIRTH OF DUKE ELLINGTON’S OLD STOMPING GROUND AND THE NEW MOOD OF OPTIMISM ALONG U STREET.
ED SMITH: What you see on U Street and the surrounding area is a corridor being brought back with black and white cooperation. It’s not being brought back just by whites, it’s not being brought back just by blacks. It’s being brought back by a coalition of both.
BRYANT: There was a time if a white person came down U Street, they wasn’t leisurely walking. I mean, they wanted to hurry up – and get up out of there. But now, you, you see people from all nationalities walking up and down U Street, and they’re not intimidated. Actually you see the look on their face that they’re home.
DICKERSON: Well this is the cradle of African American and American history, right here in this neighborhood. I have older people who drive by here… They saw it is in its elegance and they saw it go way down and out. And they are so proud that it has come back. The essence of it is the sense of community. And the sense of solidarity here and the sense of hope and the sense of power.
HORTON: You can look around, you can see that something special is happening here. When this place comes back, when this place can restore itself to some of its former glory of a century or more ago, it seems to me it offers hopes to a, a Detroit, A Cleveland. We’re talking about a community which has a history. History is important to a community. It is the thing that provides the foundation.
NARR: JUST AS THE NATIONAL CAPITAL SYMBOLIZES THE NATION, SO THE REVIVAL OF DUKE ELLINGTON’S WASHINGTON – FOR SO LONG THE CULTURAL CAPITAL OF BLACK AMERICA – IS IMPORTANT, TOO …NOT JUST TO AFRICAN AMERICANS BUT TO ALL AMERICANS.