Duke Ellington in the Classroom

Black and Tan Fantasy

by Raoul Hernandez

Duke Ellington. The name alone evokes so much -- style, elegance, grace. A certain regal bearing. And images: Grainy black-and-white stills from another time and place. Like Harlem in the Twenties, when underworld refinement flourished in mob spots like the Cotton Club. Splashs of red satin ballrooms from San Antonio to Catalina Island. Top hats and gowns, dancing. Romance -- the kind that transforms misfits into swans.

All that in a name -- a name attached to a musical legacy so rich and vast it boggles the mind. In the Yucatan, as in all of that region of Mexico probably, they say every hill is actually the earth grown over Mayan ruins. An empire beneath every footstep. Such is the body of work left behind by Ellington -- much of it still undiscovered: In 1988, Ellington's son Mercer donated 200,000 pages of his father's materials to the Smithsonian, about half of which was unpublished music. Dig deep enough into the hillside of popular music, and you're bound to uncover Ellington.

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in the nation's capital on April 29, 1899. He wrote his first composition, "Soda Foundation Rag," in 1913, and played or wrote nearly every day after, until his death on May 24, 1974. During the intervening half-century, he composed primarily for an orchestra he'd kept together in one form or another since 1927, the year he opened at the Cotton Club. Seventeen-year-old saxman Harry Carney joined the up-and-coming orchestra that fall, and stayed on for 47 years, dying five months after Ellington. Johnny Hodges played with Ellington 38 years. Sonny Greer's tenure lasted 31 years, Russell Procope's 28, and Paul Gonsalves' 24. The list goes on -- almost as long as the list of standards he wrote: "Take the A Train" (that's by alter-ego Billy Strayhorn, actually), "Sophisticated Lady," "Satin Doll," "Mood Indigo," "Lush Life," "Prelude to a Kiss," "Caravan." Some of his songs -- "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and "I'm Beginning to See the Light" -- have even become part of American phraseology. Perhaps this is why Wynton Marsalis said in a recent PBS interview that Duke Ellington is the most important musical figure of the 20th century -- an artist on the level of Bach or Picasso.

"Sure, more than that," agrees Austin's Martin Banks, who joined the Ellington Orchestra in 1969. "It came through the grapevine that he'd heard me playing trumpet with Lionel Hampton's band. And I remember one night he came to the Metropol where we where playing, and Hamp stopped the band to acknowledge him. That was when I really got to see him up close for the first time. About a year after that, Mercer asked would I like to join the band; `My dad wants you in the trumpet section.' I was kind of hung-up at the time where I couldn't leave New York. But I took it anyway."

Six months later, however, that union was annulled when Banks couldn't travel on a European tour (he consoled himself with his Ray Charles gig and a stint at the Apollo Theatre). As a result, Banks says he never really got to know an employer whose music he'd heard on Dr. Hepcat's radio program during his East Austin upbringing. "I really didn't think of it at the time as being a phenomenal thing in my life," says Banks in his slow `n' smooth, low tones. "I was wild back then. I got to tell [Ellington], though, that I used to watch him growing up here in Austin as a kid in the Forties. We had a theatre called the Harlem Theatre on the Eastside (it was the only theatre for us). They used to show some little shorts between the main features, and they used to have Duke Ellington's band and Count Basie's band, and I told him I used to watch his band. And I got to play with five or six of those guys who were still in the band, like Cat Anderson, Ray Nance (I guess I took his place), Cootie Williams, Mercer, my friend Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, and Harry Carney."

If Banks didn't fully appreciate his brief swing on the orchestra's moonbeam once upon a time, a lifetime in jazz has put the experience in perspective. Perhaps, too, the cycle completes as Banks takes his trumpet and Ellington's music into the city of his youth via the Austin Jazz Workshop.

Taking Chicago's Jazz- mobile program into account -- where jazz musicians of repute took their craft and its history into inner-city schools -- and the example of some friends in Oregon who were doing a similar number, local saxman Mike Melinger conceived the Austin Jazz Workshop (AJW), as a way to combine two loves: jazz and teaching. So he pulled together some fellow musicians who recognized why the idea (and practice) of teaching jazz in the classroom has been gaining popularity since the Sixties -- musicians like Banks, Southwestern State jazz guru James Polk, trombonist Randy Zimmerman, bassist Horacio Rodriguez, and drummer Ernie Durawa -- and took "Currents in Jazz" into Austin classrooms. Palm Elementary music teacher Debbie Tannert, for one, was impressed with what she saw. "They did a really super job by having members of the group come out and give workshops before the concert the next day," says Tannert, who signed up the AJW to talk to her 4th graders after having been to one of Melinger's recruitment concerts. "Last year, Horacio came out and did six 45-minute workshops.

The group did 65 workshops, as a matter of fact -- in 15 schools. Meanwhile, Melinger was also busily setting up AJW as a non-profit corporation in order to gain tax-exempt status from the I.R.S. Help from La Peña got them funds from the City of Austin, the State Commission on the Arts, the Austin Community Foundation, and the Musicians Performance Trust Fund, and by October of '95, AJW was tax-free and incorporated. "It's been proven that kids who join some sort of group like band or athletics tend to stay in school," states Melinger. This is especially true in schools with mostly black and Hispanic student bodies, which is why AJW targets the "at risk" youth (the magic funding phrase) population in Austin. What better way to reach a historically disadvantaged segment of modern society than by teaching them about an art-form that flourished despite the economic and societal repression of an entire race?

"We don't touch too heavily on all that," says Melinger seriously. "I'm hoping that young people will hear the music first, get interested in it, and do some research on their own, because I don't think it's completely appropriate for us to stand up there and raise these issues just to raise them. They're serious issues and they need to be dealt with in a larger arena than performance. I'm hoping their awareness of this will come more so through their digging than from us standing up there saying `Duke Ellington was ripped off by his white publisher.' What we're doing is first and foremost about music."

So it would seem. By 9:30 the next morning -- the first week of a new year and season two for AJW -- Melinger has already been through two or three different grades of school children at Blackshear Elementary. He looks a little haggard. Soon, though, he's back sitting at the head of the class, his gleaming sax cradled in his lap. "What is jazz?" he asks the class of 20 or so 3rd graders. A hand goes up. "When they just be playing instruments and stuff," comes the reply. Melinger accepts this answer, forging ahead. "What's this?" he asks holding up his sax. "Saxophone," comes the cry. "Does anyone know what improvisation is?" he probes further. Not according to the silence. "Say it with me... im-prov-is-ation." Three times the chant goes up. Melinger follows with a quick, bubbly sax thing. Big smiles on little faces. He plays them a tune they know, "Happy Birthday," inserting some stray sax wiggle to illustrate the concept of im-prov-is-ation. They get it.

Then they're gone.

They lose interest the minute Melinger goes into the who's and whereof's on Ellington. The concept of color hues in music leaves 20 mostly brown faces bored, sleepy, and ready for the work in a George Romero flick. Melinger puts on an Ellington CD, and just before he can reel 'em back by getting the group to identify a trombone, 20 5th graders pile into the room, disrupting everything. Now, it's total chaos. Johnny Hodges' sweet alto sax in the background isn't soothing the savage little beasts. Music teacher Robert Sidle calmly threatens the hellraisers, but it's Melinger who regains order by playing the backing track to "Take the A Train" while he's blowing over the top. Unfortunately, a stampede of new blood tramples the moment, and Melinger fades into the background, recounting how once upon a time there were no TVs, movies, or radios; "people had to entertain themselves."

The class, of course, misses the irony of Melinger showing video shorts of Ellington next. But not even the television can get their attention back. It's gone. They don't get it.

Shelly Pittman, principal at Bedichek Middle School -- another stop on the '95 AJW World Tour -- laughs. That's not the point, he says over the phone. "By putting them before the experience, you broaden their possibilities. You sensitize them to a broader sphere of music, and an intelligence. Their sensibilities are flirted with, and if you don't offer it to them, they go to sleep."

"Yes, it makes a difference," says Martin Banks with subtle force. "You got to let kids like to listen to it. They all like to listen to everything -- just put it in a way they can comprehend and understand it. You got to keep doing this. They didn't have that when I was coming up in the schools. Jazz wasn't good, even in the churches -- they hated it. But it was something I liked."

But can it be taught in schools? "I think it ought to be taught in American schools," says Sidle, who's taught kids for the last 40 years. "It should be everywhere -- in all our schools, especially high schools." But it's a black thing, man, the white establishment will never allow jazz to be taught in schools. "Look at basketball," says Sidle. "If that were true, there'd be no one at the games."

The following day at Blackshear the cafeteria is full -- 200 little frames seated between painted lines on the wooden gym floor. Sidle gets up to introduce the Austin Jazz Workshop. He takes time in particular to introduce a "young man" he used to play trombone with in high school: Martin Banks. With that, the band (minus Polk and with Jeff Hellmer) begins an hour-long set that includes "C-Jam Blues," "Satin Doll," "Lush Life," and "Caravan."

Probabilities are that not one child in that auditorium will know any of these titles. Nor will they know that in 1935, Austin's own Teddy Wilson joined Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa as part of the first interracial group to appear on a U.S. bandstand. They'll not have heard that be-bop spawned the beat culture in the Fifties, which became the hippie culture of the Sixties. Bassist Ron Carter's assertion that changes in jazz not only reflect, but in most cases anticipate, profound changes in society at large probably won't spark debate among these school kids.

Fortunately, that's not what matters. Not at this point, at least. What matters is that nearly every one of those 200-or-so kids sat there (or bounced there) for one whole hour listening to Melinger, Banks, and the rest of AJW play the music of Duke Ellington. n

Tax deductible donations to the Austin Jazz Workshop can be mailed to: Austin Jazz Workshop, Inc., PO Box 3741, Austin, TX 78764

Raoul Hernandez took Jazz History during graduate school at Stanford University, and says it was one of the best courses of his collegiate career.