`I needed another kind of harmony'
Please see the essay on the opposite page for reference to the following ``prophetic'' excerpt from The Christian Science Monitor of Dec. 13, 1930. HIS name is Edward Kennedy Ellington. Too heavy and somber a name for a dance-band conductor to tote about with him. But that has been taken care of. Somewhere along the road people began to call him ``Duke'' and the name has stuck. I shouldn't wonder if it is connected somehow with what is quite apparently Ellington's great gift for understanding and his capacity for a very simple kind of friendliness. You would know he had those gifts if you watched him come into the Harlem restaurant whence he bro adcasts late at night. People take quite appreciable pleasure when he comes in. They smile, and pat their hands together, and say among themselves, ``And now we shall hear something.''
Yes, his father played, and his mother played. ``Played with music,'' Duke Ellington says, and you perceive that he has made a very subtle distinction indeed. They played, evidently, so that the playing, lacking the hard brilliance of technically experienced players, stuck in the boy's thought and helped him.
``When I was very young I took piano.'' An immemorial phrase, to conjure the picture of a child led protestingly to a piano and told there to school himself in an art. ``But I couldn't get interested. Not in Czerny and the little things of Bach. Still, I drifted back into it; I played `stomps' when I was 14. Then a pianist in Washington, Oliver Perry, very kindly took an interest in me when he chanced somewhere to hear me. He had a dance band and since he could get more work if he had more men, he broke
me in to a sort of apprenticeship. It didn't cost him much and it was an advantage to me too. I was drawing and painting some, and I got a scholarship somehow for more instruction in art; but somewhere, inside of me, something said that was not the thing for me either. So I stayed with Perry.
``Then there was a man named Grant. Henry Grant. He was supervisor of music in the Washington schools. He said he would teach me harmony. I had a kind of harmony inside me, which is part of my race, but I needed the kind of harmony which has no race at all but is universal. So you see, from both those men I received, freely and generously, more than I could ever have paid for. I repaid them as I could; by playing for Mr. Perry, and by learning all I could from Mr. Grant.
``But then I came across a stumbling block. I really couldn't play very well the things white people played. So I decided that, since I must play, I should have to write something I could play myself. I suppose that is the beginning of my compositions. When you are doing things they don't seem milestones to you, but I guess having to write some things I myself could play properly was a milestone for me.''
Ellington had a certain conscience about the scholarship in those early fine arts days. ``I did all I could, though I knew I couldn't make a career of it. I studied hard at illustration, modeling, and wood carving. Well, it is something to put away in your knowledge, that sort of thing.''
The war [World War I] came and in Washington there were parties for charity and war chests. A man named Thomas practically controlled the music for the parties and Ellington went to work for him. But, he said ingenuously, ``We seemed to have a little trouble about money, so I just took some men, and what music I had managed to get together and, by a lot of us looking over the few sheets of music and picking out the orchestration rather as we went along, we made the music do until we had earned enough mo ney to buy some more music and get together some more instruments. And, if you will believe it, we began to make money.''
Something was said about Ellington's own ``Mood in Indigo'' [long since called ``Mood Indigo'']. I got him to play it for me. I had heard it just once before, on the radio. It had seemed to me, of its kind, a sort of thing just a little too pungently lovely to be quite sure you've actually heard it.
``But it is very simple,'' he said, when he had finished playing it. ``It is just one of those very simple little things that you throw together. Of course, the arrangement makes it. But it really isn't anything; the melody isn't. It's funny, I threw that together, and it has caught on. I've worked desperately over things, and then they haven't come out at all. Isn't it queer, not to have anything for a great deal of work, and something for no work at all?''
Yes, I suppose the ``Mood in Indigo'' is simple. Very simple indeed if you know how to do it.
``I am just getting a chance to work out some of my own ideas of Negro music. I stick to that. We as a race have a good deal to pay our way with in a white world. The tragedy is that so few records have been kept of the Negro music of the past. It has to be pieced together so slowly. But it pleases me to have a chance to work at it.''