Today is Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington’s birthday (as well as a few college classmates of mine). This is the first time I’ve posted this photo from my Aunt Emma’s scrapbook. It’s a photo of the teenage Edward Kennedy Ellington, I’m assuming taken around maybe 1914 or 1916. I did send it to Undercover Black Man (David Mills) when he was having writer’s block. Thought he’d find it fun. Ellington went to Armstrong High School in Washington, DC and even had a teacher named Miss Boston (no relation I think). He was composing rags and played the piano at parties. So how did this photo end up in my aunt’s photo album? I can only assume through her uncle Edgar. Ellington wrote the following in his autobiography:
“…just before I went to high school, and before my voice broke, I got my nickname, Duke, I had a chum, Edgar McEntree (he preferred the accent on the “en”), a rather fancy guy who liked to dress well. He was socially uphill and a pretty good, popular fellow around, with parties and that sort of thing. I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship I should have a title. So he named me Duke.”
I never knew about my family connection to Edward Kennedy Duke Ellington until a visit in my late teens to my Uncle Mervin and Aunt Emma’s house in McLean, VA. My father just casually blurted out something about “well, ole Duke’s gone.” I can’t remember the exchange of words, but I remember a tone of something more on the level of familiarity than just fan fodder. At the time I was also a student at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I wondered why this was kept under wraps for so long. It was even longer before photos emerged.
Duke isn’t the only one gone since this photo emerged. Aunt Emma, Uncle Mervin, dad, even Undercover Black Man. No, the photo is not like the Hope Diamond. Much time passed as this story continues to unfold.
A few weeks ago at the opening of the restored Howard Theatre Clayton LeBouef and I happened to run into Duke Ellington’s son Edward at Chix, a sustainable chicken and veggie joint (I mean that in the positive sense) in the U Street area. I happened to have a copy of one of my aunt’s pictures on me, just in case. I gave it to Edward. His sister April joined us in dining area not long after. Serendipity? Destiny? We discovered we all had family connections to one another that day. Ellington. Still universal.
BTW – My favorite Ellington recording – “Live at Newport.” This was the band’s comeback performance at the Newport Jazz festival in 1956. It was assumed big band was dead. Not so fast. If you like it hot. This Ellington band performance is definitely on fire.