Duke Ellington’s birthday was this weekend, and while there wasn’t the same level of hype as there had been for his 1999 Centennial of somewhat recent memory, the occasion was marked by events here in the City.
Getting a handle on Ellington’s politics is difficult due to his deliberate ambiguity. Once when asked in the 1960’s if he supported the Black Power movement, he replied that he was the composer of “Black Beauty.” Of course, that song had been written for an African American dancer, not as a political statement. As a verbal parry, it was classic Ellington, sounding like a satisfactory answer, yet revealing little.
In the 1940’s Ellington performed at benefit concerts for groups that were identified as Communist front groups. However, it is unclear how much should be read into this. Most were groups whose ostensible purpose was to support the war effort, or sounded deceptively benign, like the Hollywood Democratic Committee. Also, many of these events offered the opportunity to perform at venues which at that time would have been off-limits for African-American performers.
In September 1950, if Duke had ever been a fellow traveler, he clearly broke from the Party. The Daily Worker
had falsely claimed Ellington had signed the Stockholm Peace Petition, a Communist sponsored propaganda effort. Ellington repeatedly denied it, and threatened legal actions. Ellington stated: “The only ‘Communism’ I know of is that of Jesus Christ. I don’t know of any other.” (Reminiscing in Tempo
Perhaps awakened by this propaganda effort, Ellington became staunchly anti-Communist. He enthusiastically toured non-aligned countries on behalf of the U.S. State Department and performed for American troops during Viet Nam, even though his health was then failing.
The other constant of Ellington’s philosophy was the depth of his Christianity. While most jazz fans would only become aware of the fact in the late sixties with the great Sacred Concerts
, his first musical expression of this faith premiered in 1943, as part of the classic Black, Brown and Beige Suite—“Come Sunday.”
In apparent bipartisanship, Ellington’s company would be cultivated by two U.S. Presidents. LBJ invited him to the White House seven times, and would appoint him to the National Council on the Arts.
In 1969, Ellington celebrated his 70th birthday in style, returning to the White House for a gala at which he received the Medal of Freedom. Nixon was reportedly more relaxed that night than he would be any nearly any other formal White House occasion. In addressing the crowd he stated:“When we think of freedom, we think of many things. But Duke Ellington is one who has carried the message of freedom to all the nations of the world through music, through understanding, understanding that reaches over all national boundaries and over all boundaries of prejudice and over all boundaries of language.”
That night would forge a friendship between the President and the Duke. According to Leonard Garment’s Crazy Rhythm
, one of the many tragedies of Watergate was that it derailed plans to intercede on Ellington’s behalf with the IRS, which would have made his final years much more pleasant. The newly exiled President would call Ellington on his deathbed in a gesture that impressed many of Ellington’s Nixon-despising friends.
Ellington Medal of Freedom citation stated: “In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke.” While his politics were ambiguous, his principles were clear and rock solid.