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COVER STORY

When the 'A' Train Hit L.A.

Duke Ellington will forever be linked to Harlem and the Cotton Club, but his life had a chapter in this city: 'Jump for Joy,' his proud, satirical revue that blasted racial stereotypes.

April 25, 1999|EMORY HOLMES II | Emory Holmes II is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born handsome, brilliant, blessed and lucky in Washington on April 29, 1899, a century ago this week. The centennial of his birth is being celebrated far and wide, an appropriate feting of the prolific artist who was treasured around the world and who has been called America's greatest composer.

The Ellington sound was fresh, introspective and zestfully democratic; its multiple delights were accessible to everyone. And through 50 years of continuous touring, performing in hamlets and big cities all over the globe, he made new music anywhere and everywhere he went.

Quite memorably, several acknowledged masterpieces of the Ellington canon were created, or first recorded, right here in Los Angeles, including, in 1941, his theme song, "Take the 'A' Train," which had been written by one of the newest members of the Ellington ensemble, 25-year-old composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn.

Yet this city seems mired in the fiction that Ellington developed his heralded bands and reached his creative peak exclusively on the East Coast.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 2, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Page 119 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Ellington musical--In some editions last Sunday, Herb Jeffries was misidentified in a "Jump for Joy" photograph.

True, he had the fortune of arriving in New York in 1923 as the Harlem Renaissance was in bloom. And it was there that he would shape his creative vision and where his considerable genius was first recognized.

But Ellington was here regularly between 1930, when he first came to Hollywood to appear with his band in movies such as "Cabin in the Sky" (1943), on up through his later sojourns composing soundtracks for movies, including "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959).

Ellington spent a major portion of his time here between 1939-43, making movie shorts, writing and performing with his "Great Band." He had a fondness for Los Angeles, which was the home of what he recalled was one of his most memorable experiences as an artist, as a Negro, and as an American: his 1941 production of the musical stage revue "Jump for Joy."

In his 1973 memoir "Music Is My Mistress," Ellington asserted that his "sun-tanned revu-sical" was conceived as a theatrical work "that would take Uncle Tom out of the theater, eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway, and say things that would make the audience think."

"Jump for Joy" was, in effect, a distant and amazing precursor to "The Colored Museum," the scathing 1986 production that put George C. Wolfe on the map.

"Jump for Joy" was also, perhaps, too far ahead of its time.

There were bomb threats at the theater, a cast member was beaten, and some controversial songs were subsequently dropped, including "I've Got a Passport From Georgia (and I'm Going to the U.S.A.)." Ellington admitted bowing to political correctness when they dropped a sketch that had "three colored guys sitting on a table in a tailor shop, sewing, and singing Jewish songs."

The show closed after 12 weeks, victim to the burgeoning war, which claimed many of the performers as draftees, and to the economics of such a large production. Ellington attempted an abbreviated revival of the show two months later at the Orpheum Theater, but could not sustain it. Ellington's only other related effort was another ill-fated revival in Miami in 1958.

But "Jump for Joy" is a marvel for the wealth of odd personalities and geniuses that were drawn into its orbit, and for the controversies sparked by its visionary, biting--if sweetly satirical--content and themes. And, finally, "Jump for Joy" is a marvel of the sheer virtuosity and commitment of its production staff and players--including Dorothy Dandridge, Herb Jeffries and Joe Turner. They were singular talents, most of whom counted it as the crowning achievement of their creative lives.

There had never been a production of its type on the West Coast--it was, some claim, the first musical play entirely conceived, written and produced in Los Angeles.

"Jump for Joy" was created when Ellington was 42. Joe Louis was then boxing's heavyweight champion and, one year earlier, novelist Richard Wright had published his masterpiece, "Native Son."

*

Ellington was by then an internationally acknowledged composing genius and bandleader. America had entered the Swing Era, poised between two world-historic moments--the Great Depression, which had ended circa 1938 as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal had taken hold, and World War II, then raging in Europe.

Ellington and the band were on the West Coast, doing an extended engagement at a segregated Culver City ballroom called the Casa Manana. A couple of blocks away, MGM gag writer Sid Kuller was attempting to crank out a script for "The Big Store," a Marx Brothers film. Annoyed by distractions on the set and enthralled by the swinging Ellington sound, Kuller spent his nights off the lot and under the spell of what Strayhorn termed "the Ellington effect."

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