With a combination of live music, audio clips of historic interviews and discussion among Duke Ellington experts, the GW community commemorated Foggy Bottom’s most famous and influential native on Monday. “Foggy Bottom’s Duke: A Tribute to Duke Ellington,” held in Jack Morton Auditorium, focused on Mr. Ellington’s local roots and the early experiences that shaped his influence as a composer, musician and “world citizen.”
George Washington President Steven Knapp welcomed GW students, faculty and community members to the event, noting that Mr. Ellington played an important role as a cultural diplomat, taking jazz around the world and representing the United States and Washington, D.C.
“This is a great opportunity to celebrate what it means for this university to be in and of the District of Columbia and in and of this neighborhood,” Dr. Knapp said. “And [we’re] proud and honored to have a connection with such a great figure of American history.”
John Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, spoke about Mr. Ellington’s roots in D.C. and his early musical education, including piano lessons with a teacher named Marietta Clinkscales.
At age 14, he started sneaking into Frank Holliday’s Poolroom, an establishment where African Americans of all different occupations and classes mixed—including doctors, waiters, porters, students and musicians. It was, Dr. Hasse explained, young Mr. Ellington’s first opportunity to appreciate how a diverse group of people can come together. While D.C. was, in Mr. Ellington’s youth in the early 1900s, the “undisputed center of American Negro civilization,” it was still a segregated city. Mr. Ellington’s parents, who were comfortably middle-class citizens, taught him to be proud of his race and his background and to achieve as much as he could.
As a teenager, Mr. Ellington took a job as a “soda jerk” in the Poodle Dog Café, located on Georgia Avenue. At the time, the Poodle Dog had a not-often-sober piano player, Dr. Hasse said, and sometimes the café owner would get frustrated with him and throw him out, allowing Mr. Ellington to take over on the piano. He composed his first tune, the “Soda Fountain Rag,” during that time. He also started studying music with Henry Grant, who taught music at Dunbar High School, had a solo piano career, worked with church choirs and edited the Negro Musician magazine.
“For someone so well trained in European classical music, Grant was unusual,” Dr. Hasse said. “He didn’t condescend to or scorn popular music.” His influence on Mr. Ellington’s future was profound, and he helped the young musician jump-start his career.
After Dr. Hasse’s presentation on Duke Ellington’s early life, he was joined by GW professors Alison Crockett and Jon Ozment, both members of the music faculty.
Mr. Ozment said he believed Mr. Ellington was actually quite underrated as a pianist, because of the overwhelming focus on his accomplishments as a composer and bandleader.
“I’ve been rediscovering his piano playing, and I really love what he does,” he said. “I think he was perhaps underrated because his other achievements were so great. His piano playing was kind of taken for granted for years.”
Ms. Crockett talked about introducing students to Mr. Ellington’s music and how it can be a challenge for them.
“Some of his music I use quite a bit teaching specific tools about pitch. But with the lyrics, there’s so much storytelling going on in his music… I end up teaching a lot about lyricism and the melodic with his music. It takes a while, like any other set of information, for you to hear it enough…about two years in, [the students] say, ‘Ahhhhhhh, I see what it is he’s doing.’”
The event closed with a live concert of five selections of Mr. Ellington’s music, including his famous “Take the A Train” and “Satin Doll.” Mr. Ozment (piano) and Ms. Crockett (vocals) were joined by GW faculty musicians Herman Burney on bass, Alejandro Lucini on drums and Peter Fraize, director of jazz studies in the Department of Music, on saxophone.
Dick Golden, GW’s special assistant for broadcast operations and university events, who served as master of ceremonies for the celebration, said Mr. Ellington’s influence extended far beyond his music itself.
“He was one of America’s greatest ambassadors, touring the world for almost half a century with his unique orchestra and exposing millions to music uniquely American, created in a country that offered its citizens freedom of expression,” he said.