Cotton Club Essay

The basement club was cramped, and the bandstand was so small that, by the drummer’s measure, it could hardly hold a fight. The clientele included mobsters, musicians, and star performers from the nearby Broadway shows, slipping in among the crowd from the time the band appeared, at about ten o’clock, straight on “until.” The banjoist who provided the schedule could elaborate no further about how long the night went on: “Until you quit. Until period.” After 3 A.M., you couldn’t get a seat. In the fall of 1926, the craze for Negro music was already sending savvy white New Yorkers up to Harlem, but the Kentucky Club, on West Forty-ninth Street, had the hottest band in town. Trumpets, trombone, saxes, clarinet, tuba, banjo, and drums—nine or so players, huddled on the stand beneath the pipes that ran along the ceiling, plus the handsome young piano player who led the group while dancers surged around him on the floor. But the band did more than keep the temperature high and the dancers moving; its arrangements were so startling that even a familiar number like “St. Louis Blues” sounded new. Variety capped a gushing review of the “colored combo” by noting that the club’s patrons—transfixed “jazz boys” and civilians alike—spent a remarkable amount of time just sitting around and listening.

Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians had been performing in New York, under one name or another, for about three years, but their range and ambition were just beginning to show. As new arrivals, they had practiced the sweet, straight, “under conversation” music that had been in demand at the Washington society dances where the original group members started out, but they had quickly discovered that this sound was all wrong for New York. Not brazen enough, not rhythmically driving; not Negro enough; not jazz. In truth, a New York style of jazz hardly existed. In the mid-twenties, the city offered, instead, a heady variety of musical models, including its own native Harlem stride pianists (who welcomed Ellington as one of their own); the blues musicians who were part of the ongoing mass migration from the South; Fletcher Henderson’s big, polished sound; and the great horn players of New Orleans, who blazed through town now and again like comets. And then there were the resident players who had absorbed the New Orleanians’ famed techniques: the trumpeter Bubber Miley joined the Washingtonians before their first uncertain year was out and, with his waa-waa outbursts and uncannily human shrieks and cries, quickly blew their decorum away. Ellington was inspired by Miley’s wild expressiveness, even if he couldn’t yet meet it or let go the promise of all the other sounds he heard.

The number that caught Irving Mills’s attention at the Kentucky Club one night, as he recalled, was “Black and Tan Fantasy,” a three-minute musical drama jointly credited to Ellington and Miley. It isn’t difficult to figure out which of the authors did what, as a throbbingly mournful blues gives way to a refined society tune—rough and smooth, black and tan, Miley and Ellington—or as Miley’s solos rise to a hectoring beauty that finds ease and release in the band’s response. The trumpeter’s manipulation of a simple rubber plunger cup over the bell of his horn makes for some irresistibly antic sounds (the trombonist, not to be outdone, gives a good impression of a whinnying horse), but the piece delivers an unexpected emotional punch: a concluding riff from Chopin’s “Funeral March” is willfully absurd yet seems to seal the trumpet’s urgent message. (“I like great big ole tears,” Ellington said, teasingly, about audience reactions.) The over-all effect is at once mocking and chilling, like a funeral cortège with skeletons dancing behind.

Whether or not Irving Mills shed a tear, he recognized both the artistic merit and the financial potential of such original work. A song publisher with a special interest in blues, Mills immediately decided to go into band management, with Duke Ellington and His Kentucky Club Orchestra (their latest, somewhat grandiloquent billing) as his initial client. Mills insisted that Ellington concentrate on recording his own compositions, and that fall the energized players made their first important disks. One year later, they opened at the Cotton Club.

More than half a century after the Civil War, the most famous night club in New York was a mock plantation. The bandstand was done up as a white-columned mansion, the backdrop painted with cotton bushes and slave quarters. And the racial fantasy extended well beyond décor: whites who came to Harlem to be entertained were not to be discomfited by the presence of non-entertaining Negroes. All the performers were black—or, in the case of the chorus girls, café au lait—and all the patrons white, if not by force of law then by force of the thugs at the door. Ellington had to ask permission for friends to see his show. Ironically, it was the Cotton Club that allowed Ellington to expand his talents, by employing him to arrange and compose for a variety of dancers, singers, miscellaneous acts, entr’actes, and theatrical revues. His most extraordinary talent, however, may have been for making the best of tainted opportunities. For the big revues, with their plots about black savages and threatened maidens, he devised music of sophistication and cheekily exotic allure, under such titles as “Jungle Blues,” “Jungle Night in Harlem,” and—sinister little masterpiece—“The Mooche.” But even before the band sounded a note it delivered a statement: impeccably dressed in matching tuxedos and boutonnières, its members were of a class with the biggest swells in the room. And Ellington was the swellest of all: unfailingly soigné, magisterially presiding over the urban jungle, he stood untouched and never lost his smile.

What was he thinking? What did he feel about—what did he contribute to—the mire of American race relations during the last century? Harvey G. Cohen’s “Duke Ellington’s America” (Chicago; $40) attempts to get under the skin of this apparently most imperturbable of men, and the results, if hardly conclusive, are fascinating. One of Ellington’s few confidantes, his sister, Ruth, believed that he concealed himself under “veil upon veil upon veil,” and Cohen is not the first Ellingtonian to treasure the smallest telltale sign of his subject’s human susceptibilities. There is, for example, an uncharacteristically angry letter to a white business associate with whom Ellington wished to break (which is nevertheless signed “with great respect,” and turns out not to have been sent). Cohen’s extremely intelligent and formidably documented book—a welcome change from much that has been published about Ellington—is not a standard biography; Ellington’s personal life and sexual mores are officially beyond its scope. Nor is it a critical work, since it contains no musical analysis and not a great deal of musical description. Cohen’s long hours in the Smithsonian’s huge trove of Ellington papers were devoted to the business records and the scrapbooks, and, as his title suggests, he has broad social issues on his mind. Even Ellington’s professional life is examined in circumscribed areas, almost all of which touch at some point upon race. The question is whether, sooner or later, everything did.

Early in the book, Cohen quotes Ellington’s longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn objecting to a movie project about Ellington that Strayhorn was told would have a racial theme. “I don’t think it should be racial because I don’t think he’s racial,” Strayhorn protested. “He is an individual.” But Strayhorn concluded, in a line of thinking that seems emblematic of the era and of the personalities involved, “You don’t have to say the darn thing.” Cohen keeps Ellington’s individuality firmly in sight, while detailing such targeted subjects as his relationship with Mills, the white man who has been lauded for launching Ellington’s career and—both before and after they split, in 1939—accused of exploitation; Ellington’s travels with his band in the harshly segregated South of the nineteen-thirties and forties; the overt, if often forgotten, racial programs of much of his music; and his sometimes contentious relationship with the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-fifties and sixties.

A different set of subjects—Ellington’s musical development, his band members, even his women—might have yielded something closer to the post-racial portrait for which Strayhorn argued, a portrait more in accord with the high personal horizon on which Ellington’s sights were set. But “the darn thing” will not go away, and race remains unsurprisingly essential to the story of America’s first widely recognized black artist, and of what he had to say.

An unshakable dignity seems to have been instilled in Ellington from childhood, and Cohen examines the aspiringly genteel society in which the much beloved boy grew up. Ellington’s father, who worked for years as a butler in a prominent white home, saw that his family’s dinner table was always formally set, no matter the lack of funds at any given time. His pious mother virtually worshipped her son—who was her only child until he was sixteen, when his sister finally came along. And Ellington worshipped his mother in return; he fondly remembered her playing parlor tunes and hymns on the piano—he said the music made him cry—and he attributed his lifelong confidence to her frequent assurances that he was blessed, which he had always believed.

And why not? Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in 1899, in Washington, D.C., at a time when the nation’s capital was arguably the best place for an African-American child to live. The largest urban Negro community in the country maintained its own opera company, classical-music groups, and literary societies; its segregated schools taught African history, stressed proper manners and speech, and were intent on producing students who were, in Ellington’s phrase, “representative of a great and proud race.” For many years, from Emancipation through the imposition of onerous racial restrictions by the Wilson Administration, climaxing in a brutal, white-sparked riot following the First World War, the upper stratum of the city’s black population held to a proto-Harlem Renaissance ideal: demonstrate how civilized, intelligent, and accomplished we are, and racism will fade away. One need not demand respect if one commands it.

Ellington acquired the nickname “Duke” on the brink of adolescence, and, whatever its source (accounts differ), it indicates the superior impression that the boy already made—not an insignificant trait in an era when outstanding black musicians were known professionally as Bubber, Sonny, and Cootie. If he was intended for leadership, however, it clearly wasn’t going to proceed from his scholastic efforts. Although his schooling may have afforded him an inner strength, Ellington was a careless student, even in music (where his only grade on record is a D). But then he didn’t respond to formal training of any kind. Early piano lessons failed to hold his interest, and he learned to play mostly on his own, mastering James P. Johnson’s notoriously difficult “Carolina Shout”—well enough to impress Johnson—by slowing down the piano roll and matching his fingers to the depressed keys. When he wanted to go further, he charmed his way into pickup lessons from the professionals who hung out in the local poolroom. He was careful to point out, later on, that these early masters included both conservatory-trained musicians and unschooled “ear cats” who couldn’t read a note, and that he had freely learned from both.

Charm, drive, and an audacious talent: he was barely out of his teens before he had established the Duke’s Serenaders and several other nicely profitable dance bands, and was supporting himself—and a wife and baby—in style. Yet, by his own account, even when he felt sure enough to try his fortunes in New York, age twenty-four, he had never actually written music. He had composed a few songs in his early years, and began composing again as soon as he hit Tin Pan Alley, but he had never written anything down and wasn’t entirely certain that he could. Ellington was himself something of an “ear cat,” and even as he learned what he needed to know, and his music became increasingly complex, his instinctual bias was for the more instinctual art. Partly, this was the natural democrat’s appreciation of the tough and unschooled African-American “gutbucket” sound; partly it was the natural aristocrat’s desire to make everything look easy. (“How was I to know that composers had to go up in the mountains, or to the seashore, to commune with the muses for six months?”) Other popular composers have faced similar gaps between their early training and their goals; George Gershwin’s solution was to make himself a lifelong student, working with a series of teachers on harmony, counterpoint, orchestration. Ellington didn’t have the temperament for this approach, nor did it appear to offer what he needed. He had something all his own, something that made the arduous process of writing music yield immediate and exhilarating results: he had his band.

The scrappy band of the early Kentucky Club days became an orchestra of a dozen players at the Cotton Club. But Ellington wanted an even larger sound: more color, more detail, more possibilities. By the time of the first European tour, in 1933, there were fourteen players, plus a vocalist; the group that was ultimately known as Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra had grown, by the mid-forties, to nineteen players, travelling and recording together, working and virtually living together, fifty-two weeks a year. These musicians were Ellington’s inspiration, not merely as professionals but as individuals with irreplaceable musical personalities. He did not write a “Concerto for Trumpet,” in 1939; rather, it was a “Concerto for Cootie”—that is, a work designed for the specific articulations of the superb trumpet player Cootie Williams, who replaced Bubber Miley and had already been with Ellington for about ten years. (“You can’t write music right,” Ellington told this magazine, more than sixty years ago, “unless you know how the man that’ll play it plays poker.”)

But these musicians were sometimes his collaborators in a more unusual way, described by reporters who sat in, marvelling, on working sessions. Ellington would start off with a melody, or even just a few bars that were quickly tweaked and critiqued into a theme. Then, one by one, the improvisations began—Barney Bigard on clarinet, Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, Tricky Sam Nanton on trombone were all especially fluent—with each player improving on the last player’s phrases, elaborating and extending, while the trombonist /copyist Juan Tizol caught the accumulating effects on paper (albeit not quite as fast as they kept coming). Ellington approved or rejected the additions, made changes and issued challenges, then usually took the results home and worked the whole thing over. The next day, there would be a few hours of refinement and repetition, until the piece was fixed and memorized. (Ellington always preferred memorization: how could you let loose if your nose was stuck in a score?) By this method, the time for creating or arranging a new number—most numbers were about three minutes long, the standard length of a 78-r.p.m. recording—appears to have been just two days. “My band is my instrument,” Ellington said, and the way he played it explains his music’s extraordinary mixture of freedom and control.

This collaborative process could create difficulties when Ellington employed a melody that he had overheard one of the musicians playing, or that a musician had sold him for a regulation fee. The main tune of “Concerto for Cootie,” for example, was something that Ellington bought from Williams for twenty-five dollars, a sum believed to be reasonable by both parties until, a few years later, words were added and it became a hit as “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me”—with no royalties for Williams. Johnny Hodges, the band’s most gorgeously lyrical player and a fount of melody—he contributed the tunes for “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”—became so annoyed that, during performances, he mimed rubbing dollar bills between his fingers when Ellington launched into a number that Hodges felt was rightly his. One of Ellington’s most beloved songs, “Sophisticated Lady,” has several contributing claims and was described by the trombonist Lawrence Brown as “one of those where everybody jumps in.”

But, as Billy Strayhorn pointed out, the various contested melodies were musical scraps that would not have amounted to anything had Ellington not labored to smooth out rough parts, create harmonies, add bridges, and set them in a coherent musical frame. None of Ellington’s musicians—not even Strayhorn—ever composed a hit on his own. Most important, all these works turned out to sound purely and recognizably like Ellington. For those who doubted that he was a “real” composer, here was the conundrum: How could the band have created Ellington, when Ellington created the band?

Despite the air of insouciance, Ellington took his composing seriously. It was gratifying to have people sit and listen to his music in a proper theatre, as they did for the first time in 1930, when the band accompanied Maurice Chevalier during a Broadway run and filled out the bill for an entire act. Coast-to-coast radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club had won the band an enormous following, and it gave concert-style performances throughout its first national tour, in 1931, usually performing in movie theatres between shows. Recordings had similarly prepared the way in England and France, where, in 1933, the band appeared on variety bills in the biggest venues, and was met with a respect that, for all its popularity, it had never known at home. Members of the group were suddenly being discussed not merely as entertainers but as artists, and it seemed that every note they played was considered to be—in the words of one British critic—“directly an expression of Duke’s genius.”

Artist. Genius. Claims of this sort had been made before the European tour, but during the mid-thirties they began to take hold. Cohen documents Irving Mills’s long-term publicity campaign to build his client just such a gold-plated image, unprecedented for an African-American. It does not impugn Mills’s belief in Ellington’s artistry to note that his goal was to share this belief with the increasingly large, white, record-buying public. Most of the campaign revolved around Ellington’s gifts as a composer (“Again!” ran the ad for a new song, “Solitude,” in 1935. “The stamp of Ellington’s genius!”), and Ellington fed the fire with the release of several longer compositions. “Creole Rhapsody” (1931), “Reminiscing in Tempo” (1935), and the conjoined “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” (1937) all took up two or more sides of 78-r.p.m. recordings—until then a length generally granted only to works of classical music, and a sign that Ellington was extending the notion of musical seriousness beyond its conventional bounds. He told reporters that he was working on a symphonic suite and an opera, both based on the history of the American Negro people. It was just a matter of time before he got to Carnegie Hall.

“What we could not say openly, we expressed in music,” Ellington wrote in the British magazine Rhythm, in 1931, trying to explain the Negro musical tradition that had grown up in America, music “forged from the very white heat of our sorrows.” All his life, Ellington gave the impression of having been unscathed by racism, either in his early years—color, he said, was never even mentioned in his parents’ home—or during the long professional decades when it defined almost every move he made: where he could play his music, who could come to listen to it, whether he could stay in a hotel or attend another musician’s show, and where (or whether) he could find something to eat when the show was over. The orchestra made its first Southern tour just after its return from England, in 1933, travelling (thanks to Mills) in supremely insulated style: two private Pullman cars for sleeping and dining, and a separate baggage car for the elaborate wardrobe, scenery, and lights required to present a show more dazzling than any that most of the sleepy little towns where they made their stops had ever seen. Ellington made a special effort to perform for black audiences, even when it meant that the band added a midnight show in a place where it had performed earlier that night exclusively for whites. Reports from both racial groups were that the players outdid themselves; it is difficult to know where they felt they had more to prove.

Segregation was hardly peculiar to the South, of course, any more than it was limited, in New York, to the Cotton Club and its ilk. The down-and-dirty Kentucky Club had been no different: even without thugs at the door, there was an unspoken citywide dictate about where the different races belonged. The only exceptions were the “Black and Tans,” the few Harlem clubs that permitted casual racial mixing, and to which Ellington seems to have been paying tongue-in-cheek tribute with the not-quite-meshing themes of “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This was the first number played, after “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at Ellington’s landmark Carnegie Hall concert, in January, 1943, although the piece sounded very different from his twenties hit: taken at a slower tempo, with extended solos, it was twice its original length—so deliberative it seemed a kind of statement—and showed off the burnished power of Ellington’s forties band.

But much of the program that night made a statement. There were no pop vocals; Ellington presented a trio of new musical portraits of the historic black performers Bert Williams, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, and Florence Mills; even the brassy instrumental “Ko-Ko,” of 1940, was, Ellington told the audience, meant to portray the square in New Orleans where slaves had once come together to dance—the place where jazz was born. Everything was designed to set off “Black, Brown and Beige,” a three-movement composition, some forty-five minutes long, that had been advertised as “Duke Ellington’s first symphony” and that Ellington described as “a parallel to the history of the American Negro.” It seems unlikely that any other musical début has carried such hope of repairing divisions: between jazz and classical, between black and white. The audience itself was described in the press as “black, brown, and beige”—hardly the usual Carnegie crowd—and included Eleanor Roosevelt, Leopold Stokowski, Count Basie, and Frank Sinatra, all waiting for the revelation of a truly uniting, truly American music.

“Black, Brown and Beige” had an elaborate scenario, which Ellington only hinted at in his spoken remarks. The first and most richly developed section, “Black,” began with a powerful work song launched on the timpani and moved on to a homemade hymn of celestial longing; Ellington spoke, rather obliquely, of these related aspects of the lives of slaves. (A recording of the concert, complete with Ellington’s remarks, was released in the nineteen-seventies.) “Brown,” far more disjointed, took on Emancipation and the Negro’s loyal service in a series of American wars (a matter of obvious relevance in 1943), before concluding with a darkly discordant, sung blues. “Beige,” which brought the piece up to contemporary Harlem, was the weakest section, perhaps because Ellington was still working on it the night before the concert, but it stirred him to remarks about the “veneer” of progress and a people who still “don’t have enough to eat and a place to sleep.” Even these mildly critical observations were quickly buried, however, with his reassurance that, these days, “we, of course, find the black, brown, and beige right in there for the red, white, and blue.” The patriotism and the exuberance are affecting, and entirely apt for a concert that served as a benefit for Russian war relief and also marked Ellington’s twentieth anniversary in music. What these sentiments do not jibe with, entirely, are the stark and angry words that he meant the music to express.

Comprising twenty-nine handwritten pages, and drawing on several previous drafts, Ellington’s scenario was grounded in extensive reading and research. An opening section about the proud history of African civilizations quotes from the anthropologist Franz Boas, as transmitted by W. E. B. Du Bois—but is only fleetingly suggested in the opening drums of “Black.” A detailed section on the horrors of the Middle Passage includes scenes of mutilation and sounds of screaming that Ellington described as “a symphony of torture.” Neither the scenes nor the sounds became part of the completed work. The scenario for “Brown” honors the leaders of violent slave rebellions—not mentioned again—and the light café-concert music for “Beige” comes nowhere close to addressing Ellington’s lines: “Who brought the dope / And made a rope / of it, to hang you / In your misery . . . / And Harlem . . . / How’d you come to be / Permitted / In a land that’s free?” Cohen speculates that Ellington muted his message because of the probable cost to his “prominent media status” or, alternatively, because he genuinely believed that he would have greater effect through his music than through confrontation. Another reason is suggested in the scenario itself, where Ellington explains that African-American song began when a clever slave decided to placate and yet evade his master: “I’ll sing, and hide my thoughts from him.”

“Black, Brown and Beige” was torn apart by the major critics. It is difficult not to wonder if Ellington’s work was damaged by his holding back so much of what he wanted to say—if his unyielding self-control was not sometimes less than ideal for his art. Or if the problem, as critics charged, was that he had simply not acquired the technique for an extended work. Judged as jazz, the composition was deemed unrecognizable; judged as classical music, it was found “formless and meaningless,” a series of poorly connected parts that did not add up to a whole. Cohen is not the first to retort that “Black, Brown and Beige” should not be judged by preëxisting standards—that its abrupt musical transitions were not a shortcoming but a choice—and that the composer had achieved exactly what he intended. But Ellington was so discouraged by the reviews that, after the Carnegie concert, he performed the full work twice more, and never again. He recorded only some abbreviated and reworked sections. Near the end of his life, he said that the music was less interesting than the script.

He did not stop writing longer pieces, although they now came mostly in the form of suites, with separate sections bound by an inclusive theme, and no pretension to the kind of unity he had so publicly failed to achieve. Almost all these works were written in close collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, whose shimmering semi-classical touch became as much a part of the Ellington sound through the next decades as the growling brass had been during the “jungle” years; it is possible that no one will ever disentangle which of the pair composed exactly what parts of a long series of works, from “The Perfume Suite,” in 1945, to “Far East Suite,” more than twenty years later. Yet the band remained no less a part of Ellington’s creative life; no other group could get the sound he wanted, and few were even equipped to try. More, he needed his players to give color and form to the musical sketches that now poured forth unceasingly: waking or eating, walking or showering, on a crowded train surrounded by rowdy musicians or in a quiet car travelling through the weary night from one small-town job to another.

It was an ungrateful era. The Harlem craze was dead, the Cotton Club was closed, and the war that had been fought for democracy, equality, and freedom—Ellington had been a true believer, selling War Bonds on the radio and opening concerts with “The Star-Spangled Banner”—had done nothing to improve the status of the country’s Negro citizens. In order to stay together, the band had taken to relentless touring. And, with private Pullman cars a luxury of the past, racial indignities had become an inevitable part of present life: Ellington was reported to be especially fearful of venturing into any place where he risked being turned away. Yet even as the smaller combos of the rising bebop movement drove other big bands out of business, and as Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra found themselves playing an endless series of one-night stands, Ellington pressed on, not merely a Jazz Age survivor but, it seemed, the last believer in big-band jazz as a living, developing art. The new works—especially the longer ones—didn’t always go over with the record companies (RCA Victor waited years to release “The Perfume Suite”), or with the audience, or even, sometimes, with the players. (“We didn’t like the tone poems much,” Johnny Hodges admitted when he and a couple of other band members took off on their own, in 1951.) Disappointed critics prescribed a choice: the century’s most important jazz composer could narrow his focus, concentrate, and compose—or lead the band and tour until he dropped. Not both.

For Ellington it would have been like choosing his heart over his lungs; the whole system by now worked together or not at all. The choice was apparently personal as well as musical: he loved the life of the road, surrounded by people yet essentially alone. (He and his wife had separated early on. A famed sexual raconteur, he was rumored to have a woman waiting at every stop.) Cohen points out that Ellington could have been a rich man if he had stayed home, collected royalties, and composed. The band had become a very expensive proposition, and was subsidized largely by those royalties from long-ago hits. Even when it had a big resurgence, thanks to an appearance at the Newport Festival, in 1956, the stir was due not to the newly minted “Newport Festival Suite” but to a crazily exciting six-minute improvisation by the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, played between the paired 1937 pieces “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Contrary to the long-term concertizing trend in Ellington’s music, the performance got people back on their feet and dancing again, and got Ellington on the cover of Time.

His renewed stature did not prevent controversy in the black community, however, when, in 1959, the N.A.A.C.P. gave Ellington its highest award. Recipients during the previous couple of years had been Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil-rights activists Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine. Now the editorial pages of African-American newspapers doubtfully inquired: What had Ellington done to deserve this honor? It wasn’t just a question of what music had to do with civil rights; Jackie Robinson had won in 1956, with no such questions raised about baseball. Rather, as the Time article had put it, “Duke is not a militant foe of segregation.” It went on to note that “he plays for segregated audiences on his annual swings through the South,” and added that Ellington had explained, with a verbal shrug, “Everybody does.”

What had he done to deserve the honor? The plainly factual answer is that he had raised a lot of money over the years playing benefits for the N.A.A.C.P., and for many other organizations that had asked for his help. But there were deeper answers. Ellington, offended by the accusation that he had been silent on civil rights, replied that those who doubted him had simply failed to use their ears. “They’ve not been listening to our music,” he said. “For a long time, social protest and pride in black culture and history have been the most significant themes in what we’ve done.” In sum: “We have been talking for a long time about what it is to be black in this country.” For Ellington, being black in this country meant approaching difficult issues in strategically different ways. Earlier in the fifties, he had quarrelled with the N.A.A.C.P., in fact, over playing segregated theatres, arguing that his musicians needed to make a living, and that the N.A.A.C.P. ought to focus on more urgent matters (such as “the toilets and water fountains in colored waiting rooms”). At the same time, he had written privately to President Truman, asking if Truman’s daughter, Margaret—a concert singer—might serve as honorary chairwoman for an N.A.A.C.P. benefit, the proceeds of which were to be used “to stamp out segregation, discrimination, bigotry,” and other American ills. The letter was discovered by the music historian John Edward Hasse in the Truman Library, with Ellington’s request marked with the word “No!” underlined twice.

Cohen vigorously defends Ellington against critics and historians, both past and present, who have ignored the “nonverbal communication” that is the real basis of his contribution. The language of music is, of course, allusive; the language of protest, as it was developing in the late fifties, was, of necessity, direct—and therefore depended on words, which helps to explain the presence of white folksingers in the forefront of the movement where black jazz musicians might be expected to stand. But even when Ellington used words, he preferred to remain allusive (and elusive). In the wake of the 1957 school-desegregation battles in Little Rock, Charles Mingus recharged the relation of jazz to politics by composing “Fables of Faubus,” featuring less than flattering lyrics about the Arkansas governor; Ellington recorded a new version of the hymn from “Black, Brown and Beige,” titled “Come Sunday,” in which Mahalia Jackson, pleading with the Lord to “see my people through,” evokes both Heaven and a country redeemed.

His efforts became more direct during the next few years. In 1960, Ellington agreed to accompany some Johns Hopkins students, after a performance, to a Baltimore restaurant that had turned black students away, and to be captured by a local photographer being turned away himself; it was a major act in terms of the cost to his pride. In 1961, his booking contracts began to stipulate that he would not play before segregated audiences. He led a State Department tour, in 1963, designed to counter the news stories about American racism that were proving so useful to the Communist cause, and Cohen believes its political dividends helped to spur the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Cohen offers many other examples of Ellington as a sometimes surreptitious “race leader,” but it is almost embarrassing that he should have to make the effort. Celebrating Ellington’s seventieth birthday, in 1969, Ralph Ellison recalled what it was like when, in his youth, in the thirties, the Ellington band came to Oklahoma City “with their uniforms, their sophistication, their skills; their golden horns, their flights of controlled and disciplined fantasy,” all of it like “news from the great wide world.” For black boys like Ellison all over the country, the band had been “an example and goal,” he wrote. Who else—black or white—had ever been “so worldly, who so elegant, who so mockingly creative? Who so skilled at their given trade and who treated the social limitations placed in their paths with greater disdain?”

Two years before Ellington died, in 1972, Yale University held a gathering of leading black jazz musicians in order to raise money for a department of African-American music. Aside from Ellington, the musicians who came for three days of concerts, jam sessions, and workshops included Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Mary Lou Williams, and Willie (the Lion) Smith. During a performance by a Gillespie-led sextet, someone evidently unhappy with this presence on campus called in a bomb threat. The police attempted to clear the building, but Mingus refused to leave, urging the officers to get all the others out but adamantly remaining onstage with his bass. “Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain’t strong enough to kill this music,” he was heard telling the police captain. (And very few people successfully argued with Mingus.) “If I’m going to die, I’m ready. But I’m going out playing ‘Sophisticated Lady.’ ” Once outside, Gillespie and his group set up again. But coming from inside was the sound of Mingus intently playing Ellington’s dreamy thirties hit, which, that day, became a protest song, as the performance just kept going on and on and getting hotter. In the street, Ellington stood in the waiting crowd just beyond the theatre’s open doors, smiling. ♦

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