What did Duke Ellington have to say about racism?

The bandleader and composer was reserved in talking about his experiences of racism. But his music speaks volumes

In 1965, Duke Ellington was denied a special citation by the Pulitzer prize board. By that time, the Duke Ellington Orchestra had been performing for more than 30 years and achieved worldwide renown for songs including It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing). Many responses in the media suggested that the decision revealed the racial bias of the Pulitzer board — that they disrespected Ellington because he was black, and because his medium was black music. Two Pulitzer music judges resigned in protest. And yet Ellington himself said little. He expressed gratitude for the consideration, and added, “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young”. He was 66.

Incidents such as this epitomise how Duke Ellington brushed off racism with articulacy and humour in the public eye. Despite living and working through the civil rights movement, Ellington never garnered a reputation for speaking out about the cause. Aware of how easily, as a black man who rejected stereotype, his success could be snatched away in the early 20th-century US, he often expressed his pride in the African American community in his art rather than in statements. “You can say what you want on the trombone,” he said, “but you gotta be careful with words.”

Lucky, then, that Ellington was a master of writing music that could articulate. From his captivating tone parallel to Harlem (1951), to his revue Jump for Joy (1941) that staged the death of Jim Crow, to the epic Black, Brown and Beige (1943), “a parallel to the history of the Negro [sic] in America”, Ellington’s experiments with turning dance music into art music — often played in “white” venues in uptown New York, such as Carnegie Hall — were undeniably entrenched in vernacular forms and African American culture. As Paul Allen Anderson notes, Ellington “saw no contradiction between the folk roots of jazz and his own cosmopolitan ambitions”, revelling in proving that something traditional can be modern, that something black can be American.

The dualism at play here was famously expounded by WEB Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), in which he theorised that the African American “ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro [sic]; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two waning ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”.

Ellington was vocal about his dislike of artistic categorisation, especially the word “jazz”. But this extended beyond genre and into form, in works that combined music with writing, dialogue, visuals, dance and many other forms of art, such as A Drum is a Woman (1956), his unfinished jazz opera Queenie Pie (c1974), and Black, Brown and Beige, for which he wrote a long poem that is yet to be published, residing in manuscript form in the National Museum of American History, Washington DC. While this dislike could be interpreted as a declaration of artistic and political universalism, critic Graham Lock reads it “as an attempt to evade the racial stereotyping that was frequently implicit in such categorization and that generally had the effect (and presumably the intention) of restricting the fields of activity in which African American artists were ‘permitted’ to function”. Moreover, the arts, particularly music and writing, were situated in dialogue with one another by many African American figures preceding Ellington, from the Fisk Jubilee Singers to James Weldon Johnson.

All of this is not to say, however, that Ellington avoided speaking or writing about the impact that racial prejudice had on his life, from his upbringing in Washington DC to his death in 1974. In his autobiography Music is My Mistress, Ellington recounted being told as a child that “we would have the grave responsibility of being practically always on stage, for every time people saw a Negro [sic] they would go into a reappraisal of the race”. Ellington’s carefully cultivated public persona speaks to the friction between internalised manifestations of prejudice and the radical declaration of black respectability that was popular in the intellectual circles of the era.

The poet Langston Hughes — who was a contemporary and collaborator of Ellington — explored the fear that embracing American identity over African American was a symptom of internalised racism in the 1920s, the desire “to be as little Negro [sic] and as much American as possible”. It’s an idea that is dialogue with Du Boisian double consciousness and that lies at the heart of much of Ellington’s work in the 1940s.

Ellington, in a 1941 speech inspired by Hughes’s well-known poem I, Too, suggested that being African American is not in conflict with being American, but epitomises being American: “We recreated in America the desire for true democracy, freedom for all, the brotherhood of man, principles on which the country had been founded.” In other words, he echoes Hughes’s famous last line: “I, too, am America.”

Elsewhere, Hughes declared that “we younger Negro [sic] artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame”. Ellington explored the anxiety around this call to action in this extract from the Black, Brown and Beige poem, telling of the journey from Africa to slavery in America to thriving in Harlem:

Did it say to them

That all your striving

To take your rightful place with men

Was more than jazz and jiving?

The verse offers a response to I, Too: where Hughes declares “Tomorrow | I’ll be at the table | When company comes”, Ellington’s question embodies the voice of critics who undermine the importance of black cultural contributions. Jive can refer to both the dance, which originated among African American audiences of swing bands like Ellington’s, and Harlem slang (i.e. jive talk). To read it autobiographically, the lines could be indicative of Ellington’s fear that his smooth-talking stage presence and vernacular-inspired music might not be enough to demand change. But there is also a gesture towards African American intellectuals as he recalls the “two unreconciled strivings” of Du Bois’s Souls. The poem goes on to criticise racist stereotypes of black performers who “dance and sing and moan”, dismissing it as “ofay hocus pocus” (“ofay” being a defamatory term for white people).

Du Bois’s double consciousness is heavily concerned with “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”, measuring oneself by the standards of a society marred by racial prejudice. This idea speaks to the anxious questions of Ellington’s poem, and his comments elsewhere about comparing his musical output to Wagner’s: “To attempt to elevate the status of the jazz musician by forcing the level of his best work into comparisons with classical music is to deny him his rightful share of originality.” Langston Hughes called jazz “the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world”. Though Ellington may have been measured in talking about racism, he championed African American excellence using his greatest talent: composing music.

Originally published on Medium.

Bibliography and further reading

Paul Allen Anderson, Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001)

WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed by Brent Hayes Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Brent Hayes Edwards, Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017)

Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress (New York, NY: W.H. Allen, 1974)

— — — , Black, Brown and Beige, c. 1943, unpublished MS, Washington, DC, Archives Centre, National Museum of American History, 301.4.2, Box 3, Folder 8

Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)

Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999)

Graham Lock, Blutopia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999)

Mark Tucker (ed), The Duke Ellington Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)