THERE have been few periods in my life when I have met so many charming people as I did during my all-too-short stay in New York. It is a city of actors, musicians, writers and painters, whose enthusiasm, manners and natural charm delight the foreigner from the first moment. But there have been few personalities that have impressed me at any time so much as that of the young Negro musician, Duke Ellington.
Edward Kennedy Ellington, who was born in Washington, D.C., on April 29th, 1899, is one whose natural modesty, and almost infuriating reluctance to talk about his own music, are something all too rare in these days of indiscriminate publicity and gratuitous ballyhoo.
Physically he is a fine, well-built figure ; his smile is slow and enchanting ; his sense of humour as irresistible and charming as his manners ; his generosity towards, and appreciation of, the work of others as encouraging as it is sincere. Beneath this attractive personal exterior Duke is a man passionate in his artistic beliefs and sincerity ; proud of his race, and proud of the music of his race.
He was a talented child ; and, like many composers before him, it was a toss-up whether music or some other art was to be his outlet for self-expression.
As a youngster he was naturally musical, but concentrated his attentions upon the study of painting and drawing'' art ' if you will'before realising, when he took his first job as pianist in a soda-fountain, that this temporary means of earning a living was really his true metier.
His subsequent schooling in music consisted of piano lessons and a course in harmony. He refused to study composition, for he felt that as a Negro he had something essentially Negro to express in his music, something which European musical culture and methods would stifle rather than encourage. His command of orchestration he acquired in the only possible way'by practical experience and experiment.
Early in his career, after a period of small jobs in various Washington cafés and night-clubs, Duke Ellington came to Harlem, as pianist in a five-piece band led by Elmer Snowden. The other members of this combination were Sonny Greer, Art Whetsel and Otto Hardwick. The two first-named have remained with Duke since the beginning, while Hardwick stayed on with Snowden for a while, and after a time spent with his own and other bands, eventually rejoined the Ellington orchestra last year' leaving Snowden to do so!
With Sonny Greer and Art Whetsel as a nucleus, Duke Ellington's band went the rounds of the Harlem gin-mills. The names of these night-haunts do not matter, for they can only be referred to as 'So-and-so's' which 'used to be' where 'Somebody-else's' is now. That is the way with night-clubs in Harlem ; you go to a grand opening on the Monday and by the following Thursday the place has a new name and a new proprietor.
Eventually the little band led by the young Negro pianist, whose music had become the talk of Harlem, found itself at the Kentucky Club, which ' used to be ' on Broadway at 49th Street.
That was in 1923.
With jazz then in its most pretentious and ' symphonic ' state, it was not long before New York realised that Duke Ellington's simple, direct, and powerful music was something quite new ‘down town' at any rate.
One man alone in the American metropolis had the foresight to perceive something more than a mere band leader in Duke Ellington. Irving Mills, to his eternal credit, became Duke's manager, and, with a wisdom that is rare among showmen, allowed Duke a free rein in building up his band, increasing its numbers as he found that he needed a larger canvas upon which to work. Irving Mills, of course, was also responsible in conjunction with his brother Jack, for the publication of much of Duke's music.
By 1927, when he started a four years' engagement at the Cotton Club in Harlem, Duke Ellington had ' arrived.'
The world at large, through the medium of frequent gramophone records, began to realise that Duke Ellington was the first essentially American composer, the first composer to produce music which was really American in its idiom : not just European music watered down, or ' jazzed up ' with fancy titles. (I believe more strongly than ever in Duke Ellington's claim to be the first American composer since I have just survived part of a New York concert season. The self-styled serious composers of America are still floundering in the backwoods of symphonic poems, writing music which is so banal as to be humorous, and American in so far as the attendant programme notes could never have been conceived by any other race on earth.)
Of Duke's career since he left the Cotton Club in 1931 there is not much to relate or, rather, there is too much to relate, for he has crossed and recrossed the United States during the past two years, playing vaudeville dates, dance halls, concerts and radio, and the thousand-and-one other engagements that come the way of the successful musician in America.
But although he has never, until now, left his native country, Duke Ellington is perhaps comparatively better known in Europe than in the States. At least, his worth as a composer is more generally accepted and appreciated in this continent than on the other side of the Atlantic.
And I fully expect that Duke himself will be surprised to find how famous, and how deservedly famous, he is among musicians and critics, and a million other people who appreciate beauty and originality in music when they find it.
But throughout all the publicity and applause, Duke remains the same modest, quiet, dignified person : one who has not for nothing been christened ' the Duke’.
Certainly few men have ever so honestly deserved the title.
Melody Maker 1933 Tour Programme