Duke Ellington was born into a remarkable community. From 1899, the year of his birth, until 1920, Washington, D.C., had the largest African American population of any U.S. city--nearly as large as the total population of Los Angeles at the time.
How important were the experiences of those early years in the development of Ellington's youthful talents? Clearly, very important, not simply in terms of the opportunities for creative expression, but also for the exposure to a community filled with intellectuals, artists and strong leaders, as well as established business and social institutions.
PBS' "Duke Ellington's Washington" links the legendary jazz master with the city of his origin in a fascinating overview of a vital era in African American history.
Interestingly, Washington's U Street played a role strikingly similar to that of Los Angeles' Central Avenue. Both were filled with black-owned businesses, both supported large hotels (the Dunbar in Los Angeles, the Whitelaw in Washington) and both were drawing points for major entertainers.
The documentary, produced by former New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith, positions Ellington within Washington, with commentary from pianist Billy Taylor, historians James O. Horton and Edward C. Smith and former residents.
But the Ellington material is primarily the drawing card for a depiction of the growth, blossoming, decline and eventual recovery of U Street. And the most engaging moments are often those in which elderly residents describe the significant roles once served by institutions such as the YMCA. Equally fascinating are the visual images of locations such as the Whitelaw Hotel, depicting its glory years, its deterioration into drug infestation and its current revival.
In the process, some illuminating information about Ellington is revealed: his mother's influence, the early emergence of a strong sense of self, the character qualities of discipline and ambition clearly related to the influence of the community.
Smith's effort to position Ellington in the documentary, however, occasionally places film clips in the wrong time frame (he obviously was hampered by the fact that Ellington's work was not highly visible until the latter half of the '20s). And, ultimately, it is the remarkable community that nourished the Ellington genius that is the real nucleus of "Duke Ellington's Washington."
* "Duke Ellington's Washington" airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV and on KVCR-TV.