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The Capital of Duke

A tour of Ellington's Shaw neighborhood celebrates the musical, literary and legal geniuses of its early 20th century residents

August 06, 2000|RAYMOND M. LANE | Raymond M. Lane is a Washington-area freelance writer

WASHINGTON — There were flowers.

Each of us plucked a carnation, red and white and spicy, from Judith Bauer's outstretched hands and quietly placed it beneath the large portrait painted on the side of a building that faces the U Street/Cardozo Metro stop.

City traffic seemed to stop swirling for a moment, and Saturday became less urgent as we paused to honor Edward Kennedy Ellington--"Duke" Ellington--whose sad-eyed portrait stared down at us.

Ellington, the extraordinary jazz composer, pianist and bandleader, was born and grew to manhood here, but this was a city where the white majority paid little heed to him while he lived. When a walking tour called "Duke Ellington's D.C.: A Tour of the Historic Shaw Neighborhood" began recently, 14 of us took the opportunity to learn more about the man who brought us "Satin Doll," "Mood Indigo" and "Sophisticated Lady," among hundreds of compositions. As a nearly lifelong resident of the Washington area, I joined the 4 1/2-hour tour to learn more about my hometown and its history.

The Shaw district, a few square blocks of old homes and churches, small businesses, theaters and restaurants, begins about a mile north and east of the White House. It's a mixed neighborhood of fine 19th century row houses being gentrified and of deteriorating buildings that have their own story to tell.

Most of the Shaw neighborhood where Ellington grew up was woods and fields until the Civil War, when three military camps were set up in the area. One of them, Camp Barker at 13th and R streets--near one of Duke's boyhood homes--was a resettlement area for slaves fleeing the South, a tent city that grew into prosperity after the war.

By the 1880s Shaw was thriving, with new homes, businesses and the fast-growing Howard University a few blocks away lending stability to a black community whose members were determined to build their own lives in America.

"We're going to enter a 1923 snapshot of Washington's black world," said Bauer, who leads tours for the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition, a nonprofit organization of community groups and businesses. In March it began offering walking and bus tours to historic neighborhoods and places far from the tourist crush on the National Mall.

Bauer had us clattering over the streets and sidewalks of Shaw, named for Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the white commanding officer of the black Massachusetts 54th Regiment that fought in the Civil War (and whose story was told in the 1990 movie "Glory," starring Denzel Washington).

From about 1900 to 1950, this was the heart of black Washington's professional, educational and cultural world. U Street was Washington's black Broadway, where all the great black entertainers played, a place so grand it was said you needed a tie just to walk down it.

Duke was born here on April 29, 1899. As a young man, his father, James Edward, fled the poverty of North Carolina to come to Washington, where he worked in a variety of jobs for a wealthy white physician. In those jobs the elder Ellington picked up social skills and graces. He eventually opened his own catering business, working events at the White House and other homes in Washington. "He spent and lived like a man who had money, and he raised his family as though he were a millionaire," Duke Ellington wrote in his autobiography, "Music Is My Mistress."

As a boy, the younger Ellington learned to affect the same overwrought language that his father used. It was a curious blend of Southern black eloquence coupled with an odd formality, thought to be the source of Ellington's signature "love you madly" closing at the end of his shows.

Although Duke showed no early aptitude for music--he told an interviewer late in life that if he'd had his way, he would have become an architect--his mother, Daisy Kennedy Ellington, enrolled him in piano lessons with a Mrs. Clinkscales. But he was so crazy about baseball that he quit after a few months and didn't touch music until his teen years, Bauer said, "when he discovered that girls were attracted to boys who could play the piano."

Our tour passed by the first office of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in True Reformers Hall at 12th and U streets. The four-story Italianate building, designed by black architect John Lankford, was the architectural showpiece for African Americans in the capital and a center for community activity for decades. Ellington played one of his first paid performances with his own band there in 1918.

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