The Independent Ear

Randy Weston’s Duke Ellington Connection

In my research phase of writing Randy Weston‘s as-told-to autobiography, African Rhythms, and in his playing, it was quite clear that he held a deep reverence for the grandmaster Duke Ellington. However it wasn’t until we were into our exhaustive interview process that I learned of the depth of his love for Ellington, and his subsequent relationship with Duke’s only sister Ruth. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14, titled Post-Morocco And The Ellington Collection that details those unique relationships.

My connection to Duke Ellington was equal parts musical and spiritual, long before I met the man himself. Duke was everything, going way, way back. Duke was always such a classy gentleman and his music was so powerful. Duke and Basie were alike in that those two giants were totally a part of the black community they never forgot their roots even though both achieved worldwide fame. I loved Duke’s music – Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Sonny Greer, Jimmy Blanton and all those masters he employed had a huge impact on me. When I first heard the Gnawa in Morocco and heard them play that guimbre I heard echoes of Jimmy Blanton’s bass and where that sound came from ancestrally. If I had to pick one giant of our music over all others I’d pick Duke Ellington because he was so complete and like Coleman Hawkins he stayed forever young; he recorded with artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane. He recorded with Max Roach and Charlie Mingus, so people like he and Hawk covered the whole spectrum of our music, they stayed young and always advanced.

In the 60s we used to give rent parties at my apartment on 13th Street to benefit the Afro American Musicians Society. One particular night we featured my good friend pianist Ray Bryant. Big Black and I cooked food all day long: ribs, stew, and all that stuff; we sold liquor and food at the party to raise money. On this occasion Reverend John Gensel, who started the jazz vespers at St. Peters and was an all-around jazz clergyman, brought Ruth Ellington, Duke’s sister, to the party. It was a really soulful party, people were all over the apartment, we jammed maybe 100-150 people in this apartment and everybody was having a ball. That’s when I met Ruth Ellington. I always laugh about it but she swore Big Black had spiked the food because she felt mighty high, even though she didn’t mess with any drugs at all.

Eventually Ruth and I got to be very close. Duke had given Ruth and his son Mercer beautiful homes on Riverside Drive and 106th St., but Ruth also had an apartment on 59th St. I went there once and played some piano for her and she got excited and said I was the next Duke; she used to tell me that all the time. Even after I moved to Morocco whenever I came back to New York I would visit Ruth; at one point she actually wanted to marry me, but I was afraid of marriage, I didn’t want to get married, no way, no how. She only wanted me to play solo piano and she was very critical of my recordings because I wouldn’t play much piano, I’d just feature the other musicians in my band. We even gave a big birthday party for my mother and father at Duke’s house.

Ruth always called Duke “Edward”, and one day while I was there she said “Edward’s got to hear you,” and she was intent on arranging that. Duke did a concert of his “Night Creature” with the New York Philharmonic, with his trio, and Ruth arranged for me to play the reception, myself and Peck Morrison on bass. After the concert they had the reception in a bar in Philharmonic Hall and we were playing at one end of the bar when up walked His Majesty, the Duke. He checked us out and gave me a great look, an approving look, a look as if to say ‘everything is OK.’

Later on Duke called Ruth one night while I was in the house and she said “you must hear Randy Weston.” So she played “Blue Moses” on the phone for Duke. At that time she was running Duke’s publishing company, Tempo Music. When I finally met Duke, we talked and he told me he wanted to start another publishing company with just my compositions and his compositions. I was blown away! So I put 20 of my compositions in his publishing company, Tempo Music. Duke had started a small recording company called Piano Records and he wanted to record Bobby Short, Earl Hines, Abdullah Ibrahim and myself. That wound up being the record date I did which was later sold to Arista Records, titled “Berkshire Blues.”

Sometime later I encouraged Ruth to set up a big concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to raise money for the seven West African countries of the Sahel Region because they were experiencing a terrible drought. The great dancer-choreographer Geoffrey Holder was the producer of the concert. We had the Symphony of the New World, we put together a big band with Melba Liston conducting, we had the Joffrey Ballet and we raised about $7,000, which was basically just symbolic, and presented it to the President of Mali. I must admit I had an ulterior motive in my relationship with Ruth and that was to encourage her to establish a house of African American culture and music. She had a friend who had the ideal house for this purpose up on the Hudson. We were kinda playing games with one another; she wanted to get married first, I wanted to get the house first.

Duke treated Ruth like a queen, and she was only surrounded by certain kinds of people, for me very bourgeois kind of people. I’m still basically a street dude and for awhile it was OK being around these people, but I got bored with that stuff, all that pretense. Once I talked her into having a party for Josephine Baker because recently the King of Morocco had given Josephine a large sum of money for a research project she was spearheading. At the same time I was trying to establish that dream cultural center in Morocco and I wanted to reach the king, which I thought I might be able to do through Josephine, thinking that perhaps this party might be a step towards that.

So we had this party at Ruth’s house the night after Josephine’s last appearance in New York, in the late 1970s. I hired Danny Mixon to play the piano so that I could co-host the party with Ruth and mingle freely among the guests, but my real motive was to connect with Josephine Baker. Unfortunately even though I met her I could never get to talk to her that night because throughout the evening she was surrounded by these ex-chorus girl friends of hers. It was almost like they were protecting Josephine.

Ruth had a big heart and we really became like family; my daughters Cheryl and Pamela, my father, we’d be at her house all the time. But she lived such a sheltered life and it seemed there were few people she could trust. She was a wonderful, wonderful person; very kind, very generous. We might have possibly married but she never wanted to go anywhere by herself, you always had to go with her, she was really sheltered. Whenever she would go out she had to be decked out, had to have her jewelry, her rings, had to wear her furs; she was an Ellington lady after all. She’d always feel better having a strong man by her side; eventually she married McHenry Boatwright.

Through Ruth I got to know a lot of the guys in the Ellington band. Reverend Gensel started the original jazz vespers services back when his church was on Broadway at 93rd St. I actually played the first jazz vespers and played Billy Strayhorn’s piano, which Billy had given to Gensel for his church. It was as a result of that connection that I wound up playing at Strayhorn’s funeral.

Ruth actually felt that I could be the next Ellington; she wanted me to take over the orchestra after the master passed in ‘74. But the orchestra was Mercer’s, and Ruth handled Duke’s compositions. There was always a kind of friction between her and Mercer because Duke had given Ruth everything. He was like a father to Ruth. You’d go to her house and in her bedroom there’d be maybe 25 different kinds of crosses, which Duke would send her from the road; silver crosses, gold crosses, wooden crosses, all kinds. She took care of business for Duke’s publishing company, Tempo. Our relationship was romantic, but for me it was more about the culture than about Ruth as a woman. During that time we also gave a benefit for my club in Tangier where we had 25 pianists play at the Ellington devotee Brooks Kerr’s mother’s house, an East Side townhouse. Ruth and I were very close and the core was Duke himself.

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Randy Weston African Rhythms, Chapter 1

In light of the September 1, 2018 passing on to ancestry of the great NEA Jazz Master pianist-composer-bandleader, and tireless seeker of the Spirits of Our Ancestors, RANDY WESTON, here for your reading pleasure – and to facilitate some catch-up on the part of those unfamiliar with Mr. Weston’s rich legacy – is Chapter 1, a sampler from the book African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston… Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins.

African Rhythms
The Autobiography of Randy Weston
Composed by Randy Weston
Arranged by Willard Jenkins

© Willard Jenkins


I come to be a story teller; I’m not a jazz musician, I’m really a storyteller in music, and I’ve had tremendous, unique experiences. My quest is always about considering these experiences together – in the spirit of our ancestors. Whether it’s when I hung out as a green piano player with one of my Brooklyn homies, the grandmaster drummer Max Roach , or the first time I played for the great Charlie “Yardbird” Parker; whether it was being in the black church on Sundays for that wonderful music that shaped me; whether it was playing in a little Army band during the war trying to dodge the bullets, or hanging with Thelonious Monk and being part of his vast sphere of influence… or being mesmerized by Sufi masters. I’m constantly assembling these forces to create a message, a message which comes directly through me passed down from the ancestors and ultimately the Creator.

In 2006 I passed the milestone of 80 years on the planet, so I’ve been on this path a long time. You know how life is… something that happened to you 30-40 years ago you don’t necessarily carry in your conscious mind, but it’s always there, buried in the deepest recesses of your mind, but influential nonetheless. Sometimes you can’t properly value what transpired at a particular time until many years later; then what I like to think of as your cultural memory kicks in. But the constant theme of my life that came directly from my mom & pop and our neighborhood in Brooklyn… was to fight for black people, for the liberation of our minds and spirits. Black people are in a constant struggle on this planet; we’re not completely respected for our enormous contributions, we are globally downtrodden and that must change. In order to change we must remember the greatness our ancestors, we must open up our creative minds, open that door that we’ve sealed as a result of slavery and being taken away from our Motherland. Additionally, we must celebrate our own diversity as a people because we are a very great people with unlimited spiritual resources.

I have always striven to be a part of that uplifting. I grew up in a truly vibrant time in the 20th century when such peerless giants as Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell, Sugar Ray Robinson, Langston Hughes, Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Hazel Scott, Jimmy Lunceford and other great black masters walked the earth; all very powerful, proud black men and women.

My very existence dictates that even before the importance of music in my life comes pride as a black man; even if I didn’t play music I’d still be fighting and striving for the black man. Music has been a way for me to convey that struggle; I’ve been blessed, gifted by the Creator with the power of music. But before the music comes tremendous black pride, coupled with anger at what racism has done to my people. That foundation of dignity and strength comes from growing up in a segregated, racist society; growing up alongside people who were considered a “minority.” I was endowed with the belief that ‘I know these so-called majority people are not better than me,’ so as a result we grew up spiritual but angry. I use the music as a way to unite our people. I use the music as a vehicle to say that we can develop a unique language and way of being that you cannot steal, because when we go back to our tradition you can’t steal the spirituality of African people. Africa is so deep that no matter how many times I return there I never fail to be educated and further immersed.

I’ve followed this path naturally. I don’t think it was a master plan in my head, but I think it stems from my father’s insistence and teachings that I am an African born and living in America; therefore I must take a broader examination of myself. I have to recognize that my ancestors did not begin with my grandfather or my great grandfather; my ancestors go all the way back to those remarkable people who built ancient civilizations. This music is my way of continuing the struggle of James Reese Europe, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Dr. King, Cheikh Anta Diop… all of our great men and women; my quest is to try and continue in their footsteps, to use my music to enrich our people.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, surrounded by revolutionary Panamanians, Jamaicans, and African Americans; people like Langston Hughes, and J.A. Rogers… we had our own institutions like the black-owned Paragon Bank inspired by the Marcus Garvey movement in Brooklyn… the list is endless. Out of that incredible Brooklyn environment comes Max Roach, Randy Weston… Our people were fighters and in the ensuing years we’ve acquired a soft underbelly that has made us extremely vulnerable. When people say to me ‘man, what you’re doing is fantastic,’ I say ‘man, you don’t know your history’. If you knew what our people were doing in the 20s… Ellington and all those people wrote powerful music about black people. And that’s what I’m trying to do: write and play music celebrating the spirits of our ancestors, music about the historic greatness of our people, music to uplift us all: black, brown, beige, red, yellow, white… God is the real musician. I’m an instrument and the piano is another instrument. Africa taught me that.

My dad, Frank Edward Weston, came from a Jamaican family that was descended from the Maroons, a fierce and legendary people who never surrendered to the English during colonization. The Maroons were ferocious fighters, they escaped the Spanish and preferred freedom in the Blue Mountains over bondage, and that spirit was deep in my dad’s blood, but he was actually born and grew up in Panama. My paternal grandmother, who I never knew, had a bakery near the Panama Canal. My dad and his cousin Frisco, the famous entertainer and bon vivant Frisco of Europe who I’ll get to later, grew up together as kids and they used to take the train across the canal all the time. According to dad, Frisco was forever the clown, always the actor, the singer, and the dancer… obviously a budding showman even as a child. On this train Frisco would dance and perform for the passenger’s amusement and my father and another young guy would come behind him and collect the money. My dad was a true West Indian man, through and through, he had a potent combination of Panama and Jamaica, Spanish and Caribbean.

Dad and Frisco left Panama as teenagers and my father spent the next seven years living in Cuba. Then he came up to Brooklyn where he eventually met my mother, Vivian Moore, a wise but unassuming woman who was from Meredithville, Virginia. They got together, eventually got married, and they produced me. I was born April 6, 1926 at Peck Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn. My dad used to claim I was just about the first black baby born in that hospital. Remember, segregation was real deep back then. My mother and father separated when I was just 3 years old, and I went to live with my dad, though my mother and I remained close and were often together. Eventually my dad remarried two more times, but my mother never did. You would think my parents separating would have been a traumatic experience for such a young kid, but to tell you the truth it really wasn’t. In retrospect their separation and eventual divorce was probably a good thing because my dad was such a powerhouse, such a thoroughly domineering man; he was a real strong, totally macho Caribbean brother. On the other hand, my mother was this quiet, demure southern sister from Virginia; a very peaceful, spiritual lady who never once asked me for anything in my entire life. Whatever I wanted to do she supported me 100%. I don’t want to suggest that my father was physically abusive towards mom, but he was a powerful and all-consuming presence. Luckily my mother and father always loved each other in such a way that they never said a disparaging word about each other, at least not around me. That was a relief because they had such thoroughly different personalities.

My mother was a very small woman who was very tender, but at the same time she was quite strong and independent in her own sweet way. She was a domestic worker. When I wrote “African Lady” for my 1960 suite “Uhuru Afrika” she was my inspiration, she and all those strong sisters like her who had to toil and scrub folks’ floors to make that measly $15 a week, and they would never complain, never beg; such dignity I can’t even begin to describe. Mom was always kinda laid back, but she had a great sense of humor. She and my sister always had me cracking up. I found out later, from my sister, that mom used to go dancing at the Savoy Ballroom when she was young, but that part of my mother I never knew, she never talked about that.

My dad was about 6’2”, which in those days was really tall. I guess my eventual 6’7” would have been circus material back then! He was a clean shaven, handsome, dignified man, always dressed sharp and sort of a ladies man. My dad raised me from the time I was 3 years old, and my sister Gladys lived with my mother. I would go and stay with mom and Gladys every weekend, at my father’s insistence. My dad and I lived at several locations in Brooklyn, mainly in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area. Our first place was on Albany Avenue, where my mother, father and sister were living when I was born. Then we moved to Pacific Avenue, and then after that we moved over to Putnam Avenue. My mother, who always lived in Brooklyn too after they split, lived on Decatur Street, on Eastern Parkway near Prospect Place for awhile, and her last home was on Empire Avenue. Every weekend I’d be with my mother and my sister, and they’d have me in church every Sunday; that was the law! That church experience proved very important to my music later in life.

My dad loved to cook, and I think one of the reasons I’m so big is because he was such a wonderful cook. Between my dads’ African-Caribbean style cooking, and my mother’s down-home Virginia cooking, I was blessed with great food. Man, we were economically poor but we never felt that, we lived like kings & queens. My dad always had his women, a variety of different ladies, but no matter whatever woman he was seeing or married, the first thing he insisted upon is that they had better take good care of his only son! He spoiled me like you would not believe; spoiled me with love, not with material things, so I wasn’t corrupted in that way. I never had a whole lot of clothes; I would get one new suit a year, at Easter, that was it… and I’d better keep that suit looking good for the rest of the year. If I ever got a hole in my sneakers, I’d put paper in those sneakers ‘till time to get a new pair, and that might not be for awhile. We once, thank goodness only temporarily, lived in an apartment with no steam heat and no hot water; we’d have to heat the water on the stove. And remember, I’m not talking about Mississippi or Georgia; I’m talking about winter time up north in Brooklyn, New York!

But we were so culturally rich and had so much love, so much discipline… Like all kids we didn’t appreciate it at the time, but getting older we sure recognized the beauty of all that love and discipline. My dad was a very political guy, always reading the newspaper and various books, always quick to share his opinions on things. There was a spiritual side of him that he never talked about, but you could sure sense it. People from the Caribbean islands have this deep connection to Africa and sometimes they tell their children who grew up in the U.S. about that, but they don’t always tell you everything. My dad was like that. As a result there was a mystery and magic about this man, to the point that during the time he was dying in the hospital from cancer, at age 87, I went to see him and he told me something incredible; this was after I had traveled a bit as a musician. He said ‘you go all around the world talking about freedom.’ I said ‘yes sir, that comes from you and your teachings.’ He said ‘well, since you talk about freedom so much, I want my freedom, get me the hell outta this hospital!’ I laughed, but he also told me something else, he said ‘you are protected.’ I never really probed him for what he meant by that, but when I look at my life, I have been protected, by some spirit; by some ancestor that has guided me to the right people, to the right places. I’ve fallen down and been able to right myself, so obviously what he meant by protection was a combination of these things.

Dad always preached about being independent, he always emphasized how black people should strive to own their own businesses, work for themselves, be independent of the white man. That’s why he appreciated Marcus Garvey’s black empowerment movement so much because that’s what Dad stood for. Dad was a very proud man. Like I said, he was always very sharply dressed and cut an impressive figure. He used to drive his Cadillac wearing beaver hats and spats. Guys were sharp in his day; they knew how to dress, not like so many guys today. But when he’d get in that car, you’d better beware! Dad loved to drive fast; he’d put the pedal to the metal and bam, he was gone. One day while driving in his Cadillac he actually hit this white pedestrian crossing the street and as he described the scene to me later, this guy flew way up in the air on impact. They had to call an ambulance and take this poor guy to the hospital, he was messed up. So my father ran home, went into the kitchen and made a big pot of soup, then he went down to the hospital and took this guy some homemade soup! Nowadays he’d be sued for everything he owned. What are you gonna do with a man like that?

He loved to cook and he loved children. Every child in that community was his child. If he saw a kid getting out of line, he’d grab them in a minute and say ‘straighten up’… and the kids all listened. And every kid in the neighborhood was like his kid. He didn’t care whether you were black, Italian or Irish, if he saw you doing something wrong he would grab you in a minute and straighten you out. He was very straight ahead, the kind of person who would speak whatever was on his mind; whatever he was thinking he’d tell you to your face. That’s the way we grew up. He was all those things. But in essence he gave me Africa; he gave me music… so he gave me everything.

My mother was kinda small in stature, with short dark hair; I remember she had unusually long arms. She was one of those very quiet, unassuming, modest, Sunday go-to-meetin’ kinda sisters; just a quiet southern sister from Virginia. After mom and dad broke up, during the week I would stay with my father, but I had to go stay with my mother and sister every weekend, my father would make sure of that. After mom and dad separated I never saw her with another man the rest of her life. I didn’t really appreciate how great she was until after she died. She was a church lady through and through; worked hard every day, but she was very independent and very sweet-natured. She wasn’t nearly the disciplinarian my father was, so I always looked forward to staying with her those weekends, that was freedom!

My sister Gladys was wonderful. During school days she was my body guard. She’s five years older than me and in those days we had some pretty tough people out there in our neighborhood, which was a predominantly black neighborhood of African Americans and African Caribbean people, with a few folks straight from the African continent. My sister protected me, she would whip somebody’s butt in a minute; you better not mess with her little brother! Sometimes I’d get in trouble and I’d call her. I’d tell people, ‘you mess with me, I’ll get my sister on you’, and the cats would back off. My sister used to tell me how our mother would discipline her, but I never really saw that side of mom. That’s when I realized how strong my mother was.

My mother may have been a staunch church lady, but my dad never went to church because he didn’t trust certain ministers. He felt like all they were doing was jiving, conning, and ripping off black people. He thought some of them were nothing but fried chicken eating frauds that saved the best for themselves and threw the bones to their congregation. Unfortunately this was true sometimes. But my mother was always devoted to the church, she gave me that wonderful spirituality, and despite his personal objections to those ministers, my dad saw the value in it and really wanted me to go to church, so there was no conflict there. My mother worked everyday, doing domestic work, taking care of folk’s children, washing, cleaning, that kinda thing. She was a real queen in every sense of the word, never complained for a moment.

I got a lot of my spirituality from dad as well. Though he had no use for those ministers and didn’t go to church, he would always read the bible and quote the scriptures. My dad came up in that period in time when black people were really active in the struggle for freedom and independence, so he was very aggressive in making sure I had pride in my people. He made sure I knew about Paul Robeson, all the great black artists, and that I knew who our illustrious leaders were; he always made real sure of that. Dad was always in tune with the news and the sports pages.

As a kid I was very shy despite my size; in many ways I was insecure because my dad was such a powerhouse, so fast, so formidable, and he wanted me to be likewise. But it just wasn’t in me. I was very nervous growing up because Dad was such a strong presence. He was forever trying to challenge and quiz me on various things. He’d say “how much is 145 times 10, or he would put a clock in front of me when I was 10 years old or so and if I didn’t have the right answer as quickly as he wanted it, he would whoop me. I got a whole lotta whippings, so I grew up very, very insecure because I wasn’t fast or a quick learner like he was. My father was a very physical man; he’d kick my butt, either with his hands, or it could be a belt, a club, could be anything. At the time that was just how it was, very typical of how kids were raised in my neighborhood. That’s particularly how those Caribbean people were, they didn’t spare the rod. I may have felt abused and nowadays they’d probably call it that, but at the time they didn’t call it abuse, they just thought of it as proper parenting. One time he whooped me so bad I got dramatic and stuck my head outta the window screaming for the police, the fire department, my buddies, the neighbors… just about ANYBODY who might help me! “Somebody please come rescue me!” But everybody’s parents did it! So we didn’t call it abuse back then that was just the way it was. All the guys I grew up with were later very grateful for that kind of upbringing because the streets were really tough in those days and it was so easy for us kids to get outta line. But despite that rather harsh discipline, at the same time he gave me love, so it was kind of paradoxical.

We really didn’t have much in the way of material goods growing up. I used to tell my own children, “we grew up with no TV; no hot water… that kinda lack didn’t just happen in the South.” No matter what our financial situation was my daddy could take the smallest, most insignificant piece of meat and make a delicious feast out of it. So I really didn’t care if I didn’t have a lot of things, we made do with what little we had, it was all we knew. We had so much love in our family that we didn’t really care about material things.

Bed-Stuy, as its known, was a really vibrant community at the time, with a wonderful mix of black people from the South, from the Caribbean, and even a few from Africa. There were many Jewish-owned stores in the area, and there were a few Italians and Irish in the neighborhood. You had the black folks in one area, the Irish in another, the Italians in their area, the Germans in their space and the Jews had their own separate blocks. Sometimes when we’d come in contact with each other in school there would be fights between ethnic groups. We had our gangs in the community, though not as violent as gang life today, and these ethnic gangs would control certain territory. If you stumbled into the wrong territory you might get your butt kicked, or at the very least be run outta there unless you knew somebody. But one thing we all pretty much had in common at least among black folks was music; and back then there was lots of opportunity to learn music in school. Plus there was music coming out of every window and musicians living all over the neighborhood. There were several ballrooms in the area, including the Sonia Ballroom, and there would be big band rehearsals there at 11:00 a.m. or 12:00 noon. There were also lots of blues groups playing at various bars in Brooklyn, which at that time in the 30s and 40s had way more bars and clubs than Manhattan.

By the time I got to high school I was only beginning to immerse myself in all this music. My interests were mainly like any normal kid at that age, playing ball, going to the movies, that kind of thing. We’d go to school and study during the week and if we stayed out of trouble our parents would allow us to go to the movies every Saturday, for about 25 cents we would stay all afternoon. At first I would always have to go to the movies with my sister Gladys because I was too young to go by myself. When I went to the movies with Gladys she would bring a pot of greens and a fork with her. When we got inside the theatre, I’d split from her and go sit with my boys. She’d sit there by herself and eat those aromatic greens with that fork, but nobody better not say nothin’ to her!

After my parents broke up, my dad ended up marrying two more times. He had girlfriends in between wives and no matter who they were he insisted they all had to take good care of me. Our house was always open and my dad’s friends from Jamaica, Barbados, and other island people would come over and play cards. He was so exceptionally generous with his friends and even with total strangers, I’ve never known anybody else like him in that respect. If he saw somebody out in the street down on their luck, they could be unkempt with raggedy clothes, needin’ a bath or whatever. He’d bring them into our apartment, draw them a hot bath, and give them a suit of clothes. Granted, sometimes they would rip him off, steal his watch or something, but he’d just shrug it off and say ‘it’s OK, don’t make no difference to me, you give and you get back.” That’s the kind of person he was.

Unfortunately my dad’s two other marriages didn’t last. One wife was a woman from North Carolina named Cherry, she was really beautiful. Being from the old school, what my Dad would do is get in his big Buick and drive down South to meet women, which is how he met Cherry. Somehow he figured that women from the South made better wives. Unfortunately Cherry died prematurely. Another woman he married was an actress and singer named Clarisse. She had a talent agency on 125th Street in Harlem. My dad wanted both me and Clarisse to work with him in his restaurant business. But she wasn’t into that kind of work; she wanted to be with show folks, so they broke up. Neither of those marriages lasted very long. There was one woman who stuck around him for awhile, but they never got married. Her name was Mildred Pettigrew. She was from Virginia and man could she ever cook! At my dad’s restaurant, which I’ll get into later, he would do the Caribbean-style cooking and she would take care of the Southern-style cooking. Dad would insist that all of these women take care of me. If they didn’t take care of me, they were in trouble with him!

As far as my extended family goes, I never saw my grandparents on either my mother or my father’s side. I had one uncle on my father’s side, but he was very quiet, very shy. He was one of those henpecked husbands, which my father couldn’t stand and he was always angry with him because of it. My cousin June Masters, on my father’s side, ran a bed & breakfast in Jamaica. Her mother was a pharmacist who came from Jamaica; June and I have stayed in touch through the years. My cousin Frisco, on my father’s side, was the most powerful relative of all. His given name was Joselyn Bingham. He and my father grew up together and left Panama around the same time. Frisco was an all-around entertainer, kinda like an earlier Sammy Davis Jr.-type.

After Frisco and my father left Panama, Frisco eventually migrated to San Francisco and performed there, which is where he got his name. Frisco later took work on a freighter and traveled to China and other foreign ports; he learned to speak six or seven languages along the way. He eventually wound up in London, where he owned the very first black nightclub in town. Later he owned the first bebop club in Paris. Frisco was very popular and eventually was decorated by the French. He knew everybody from Louis Armstrong and Joe Louis to Bricktop and Kwame Nkrumah. I found out just a couple of years ago that he was in the first talking film in England, singing two songs. A director from the Italian television network RAI once told me that Frisco was the first man to bring jazz to Italy; so he was a real black entertainment pioneer in Europe, in league with people like Josephine Baker and Bricktop, but not as celebrated. I still have his 1927 Selmer saxophone, a classical drum that he brought from Italy, and some photographs of him. This guy was incredible!
Finding Frisco

Allow me to jump ahead a bit here. I finally met Frisco when he was about 83 or 84 years old, in 1968. At the time I met Frisco I was very good friends with a woman named Suzanne Cloutier, who played opposite Orson Welles in Othello. She was married to the actor Peter Ustinov. I met Suzanne in Paris but ironically we later discovered that we went to the same doctor in New York. Suzanne and Peter were going through some marital changes when we met. She had met Frisco and become very close to him. When I met Frisco his son was managing a little club in Paris called the Living Room. Back during the Second World War my father and Frisco corresponded with each other through letters. My father would occasionally send him food, cigarettes, chocolates, things they couldn’t get in England because of the blitz. There was a lot of rationing going on at the time. Then somehow they lost contact with each other after the war.

The first time I went to Paris, in 1968, my father said “why don’t you see if you can find Frisco, I’ve lost contact with him. I know he’s in Paris, he ended up marrying a French woman and they live in a big villa right outside Paris.” Suzanne had asked me to bring her some vitamins from this doctor we shared in New York. She had a villa in Paris and she invited me to stay there when I visited, with her and her two children. Suzanne was tight friends with an Iranian woman who worked as an advance travel person for the Shah of Iran. One night this Iranian woman was over at Suzanne’s place and I said “let’s go hear some jazz, at a club called the Living Room,” not knowing at the time that Frisco’s son managed this nightclub. I had been there before on this trip and had sat in with the house band. On this particular night a musician named Art Williams invited me to sit in. So I’m playing the piano and the spirit was good that night. It was so good that the actress Ava Gardner, who was in the club that evening with some friends came up to me after the set to tell me how much she loved my playing. She kissed my hand and that was quite a thrill because of all the Hollywood actresses of that time, she was my favorite.

After the set Suzanne asked the pianist Art Williams about Frisco. Art said “Frisco’s son owns this place.” Overhearing that I jumped up, and Art said “yeah, in fact there’s his son right over there.” I ran over to Frisco’s son, introduced myself, and asked him if his father was still alive, which he was. I told him about my father and said “aw man, I really want to see Frisco.” His son said he’d arrange it, to come back the following night and he’d have his father there. So the next night I went back and there’s Frisco, as always quite dapper and debonair, with a fresh carnation in his lapel, a real distinguished looking gent with jet black complexion and silver gray hair. I got so excited I called my father in New York immediately and said “Pop, I’ve found him, I’ve found Frisco!” I put dad on the phone and these two cousins, who hadn’t talked in years, were thrilled to speak with each other!

Later I brought my father over to Paris and Maurice Culoz, the jazz critic, and his wife Vonette took us all to dinner with Frisco. These two cousins argued all night long! Frisco was one of the most famous men in Europe; he had nightclubs, the royalty all knew him. When the American ambassador to France, Ambassador Bolling, retired later that year, they had a reception for him at the embassy. Suzanne, Frisco and I went to the reception together and everybody was grabbing Frisco all night long. He was the most famous relative in the family.

Enterprising Dad
My dad always believed in business, in being self-reliant, so he eventually opened a barber shop on Pacific Street and Kingston Avenue in 1940. Since he was Panamanian and spoke fluent Spanish, a lot of the barbers he hired were guys who had just arrived from Puerto Rico and Cuba, guys who really knew how to cut hair beautifully. We lived right across the street from the barber shop. I remember when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor the Americans were so shook up they panicked, and since they needed all the workers they could get for the war effort for the first time they allowed blacks to work in the defense plants. They stepped up production and building of armaments to fight Japan. Before that all black folks were allowed to do was sweep floors and be servants, they weren’t even allowed to drive a truck; and I’m talking about New York, not Mississippi or Georgia. All of a sudden all of dad’s barbers left and went to work in the defense plants where they could make some steady money.

When they left the barbershop my father felt he had no choice; he put on a barber coat and tried cutting hair himself. He was messin’ up folks’ heads royally until he finally learned to do it right. He must have messed up about 25 heads! I used to laugh because the customers would look at their haircuts in the mirror after he’d messed them up, and before they could even start complaining my dad would say “what are you talking about, you got a great haircut, and you look good man!” He was so strong that they dare not talk back. He did that until he really learned how to cut hair. As a teenager he’d have me helping out in the shop; that was back in the days of conkolene, the chemical they used to process black men’s hair. So I used to conk the young guy’s hair and sometimes I’d forget to put the Vaseline on them and their heads would be burnin’ from that harsh chemical. It was a wild scene in that shop; before they split the Puerto Rican barbers were drinking the hair tonic to get a buzz, and everybody was taking and playing numbers to get by.

Numbers, or what they called back then the policy game, was illegal, so sometimes the police would be sitting out in front of the barbershop in their squad cars watching to see who was doing what, who was going in and coming out. Guys were collecting numbers outta the barbershop. One day my dad was cutting somebody’s hair, and I’m in the shop shining shoes. These two detectives are sitting outside the shop in a plain car. My dad had apparently had enough of this surveillance, so he starts fussing, “what them guys doing out there… watching this shop like that.” At one point he put down his scissors and comb, strode across the street and confronted these two detectives, cussing them out the whole time. I couldn’t believe it, but the detectives actually drove off! I never saw my dad fight physically, but his voice was so powerful, his voice alone was enough to shake folks up. So I guess those detectives got an earful!

After that, during the Second World War, dad opened up a restaurant called Trios because he loved to cook. It was the kind of place they called a luncheonette back then, which also sold newspapers, candy, cigarettes, and things like that. Guys would come in sometime and ask to buy some cigarette papers. Boy oh boy, why’d they do that!? He knew they wanted the papers to roll some marijuana. He’d lay into them; “whatcha’ wanna do that for… you smokin’ that shit!” But everybody in the neighborhood loved him. He treated everybody’s child like they were his child, and he was hospitable to a fault. Even as an adult I might call him and say “Pop, I’m with so and so, his wife and daughter, and we’re hungry.” He’d say “come on over,” Even up until he was 84 years old he’d get out of bed, go downstairs and cook: fish, chicken, bake biscuits, pie, everything… Then he’d feed you and while you’re eating he’d be watching you, trying to figure out what kind of person you are. After your stomach was full, that’s when he’d pounce. He might say “so, you’re a” – asking about whatever profession you were – “what about so and so.” That was my dad, a real character.

© Willard Jenkins

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Wisdom from a Master

A few years ago when I served as coordinator of the former NEA Jazz Masters on Tour program, which through the National Endowment for the Arts was an Arts Midwest operated fee support program which partially funded presenting organizations to present NEA Jazz Masters, one of the real revelations of the work was conducting several site visits on the subsequent funded projects; and that was in part because it enabled me the opportunity to interact with the Master in question, including conducting interviews. One such trip took me to Ft. Lauderdale, FL to visit a short residency by the great drum master, the now-ancestor Chico Hamilton. Chico had for many years taught at the New School so he was guaranteed to drop some wisdom on students during the masterclass that was a part of his visit to Ft. Lauderdale. If you ever saw Chico perform you remember certain specificities of his set-up, particularly how he set his cymbals lower than most drummers – a set-up he attributed to his desire for economy of motion. We spoke at Chico’s hotel room following his masterclass, where he discussed a drummer’s responsibilities and overall rhythm section concerns. There’s plenty of wisdom here, certainly for drummers!
Chico Hamilton
10/10/06 Fort Lauderdale, FL
NEA Jazz Masters on Tour

How did you begin your masterclass today?
By being smart [laughs]. I generally start off with the most important thing, which #1 is time. Unfortunately you find that most young musicians – particularly the beginners – have no idea of the life of a note; in other words how long a whole note is, how short a quarter note is, or how long a half note or a dotted half note is. Also the most important thing is being able to concentrate, which is not easy for anybody. Teaching them how to count – its amazing the amount of musicians that don’t know how to count time; most young players would say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4; etc. and don’t know how many bars that is. But if you say 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, etc. amazingly they don’t know how to count that way, so I teach them how to count that way. I also teach them what a whole note sounds and feels like. After teaching them that I show them that everything that goes down has to come up; so if you’re dealing with a downbeat, when you raise your hand to come up that’s on the ‘and’ – 1-and-2-and-3-and-4, and you can use that when you count 8th notes. Where the concentration exercise comes in is I ask them to clap their hands – say like for instance on the 3rd beat of the 13th bar I want you to clap your hands. When we start the count everyone has a silent count to keep time to themselves. And man you’ll find that by bar 10 they’re all off in different places! They lose their concentration. Little things like that; things like that will carry them a long way. We also place emphasis on not being a sloppy player. For instance, when the conductor or the leader comes up with the downbeat you’ve gotta hit, you don’t put the horn up to your mouth, you come up ready; being late you’ll never get work as an ensemble musician, nobody’s going to hire you. Being late like that you become a sloppy player and it’s a hard habit to get out of, very hard. I just try to teach the basics and a foundation, very easy to understand, all you have to do is apply it.

These were middle school and high school students. Do you bring the same knowledge to college students?
Strangely enough they need the same thing. The college students, what that’s all about is money – if you can afford it, you’re in school [laughs]. Unfortunately the school didn’t start off like that, but that’s the way its ending up [the New School]. I’ll tell you something else I was very impressed with: they [Ft. Lauderdale students] were all very mannerly, there were no really smart asses.

Were there many drummers at your Masterclass today?
I guess there were maybe a half-dozen or so. There must have been about 35-40 kids.

What specific things do you teach the drummers at that stage in their development?
Keeping time. In that case there were at least 30 musicians working with one drummer. The drummer has to let them know that he’s keeping the time, he has to take charge, you have to be strong enough to lay down a beat and strong enough for them to listen to you as opposed to them getting carried away. The drummer is the timekeeper.

Where does the bass player figure in that whole equation?
Very interesting question… If the drummer is weak the bass player is going to kick his ass, that’s the bottom line – he’s going to run him over and every thing they do they’re gonna be at war, in every hook-up. The way the instructor had set the band up, was just the opposite of the way I set up. He set up with the bass in the elbow of the piano. I set the bass up on the drummer’s high hat or sock cymbal, therefore they can hook up. As long as they hook up the rhythm section will happen.

So when you set the bass player up the way you like to set them up – alongside the high hat – its easier for them to hook-up rhythmically?
Yep. Its actually the correct way, but unfortunately a lot of bandleaders don’t understand that. Basie knew it… that’s the reason they swung all the time.

Why do you think band directors set them up that way to begin with?
Because most bandleaders don’t understand that the bottom line to what their sound is going to be like is the rhythm section. If they’re a horn player they think it’s the horns; they have no idea that it’s the rhythm section that’s going to make them sound [good], going to make them swing, going to make them play. The average bandleader doesn’t understand that if he’s a horn player.

Who matures more quickly among young students, the horn players or the rhythm section players?
I would say the rhythm section, because they have to listen to all that bullshit that the horns are playing [laughs] – ‘scuse my French. A horn player – his ego is going to play all the notes in the world that don’t mean nothing. The average horn player will play everything he knows in 8 bars… that’s it. As a rhythm player you’ve gotta sit there and keep time for that shit, and it becomes boring as hell. That’s why you have to devise ways of making it interesting. Like I told these kids, if you have any problems keeping the time then hum to yourselves, sing out loud; that way you’ll know that the tempo is there, the time is there. Forget what the soloists are playing because all they’re doing is something they don’t even know; they figure the more notes they play the better it is. They don’t know that the less they play the hipper it is.

You’ve had a lot of good horn players in your bands…
I’ve had quite a few…. I’ve had a lot of good players period in my orchestra; I don’t have a band I have an orchestra.

What have you done to school them when they come into your orchestra?
I start off playing to their weakness. Those horn players didn’t become the horn players they became until they were in my orchestra. By the time they left my orchestra they were ready.

Why do you refer to it as an orchestra rather than a band?
What an orchestra means to me is musical. A band could be a brass band, a cigar band, a rubber band, etc. I’m old fashioned; an orchestra suggests a melodic structure.

I’ve always felt that singers often don’t get the respect they may deserve from instrumentalists because there is a sense on the part of the instrumentalists that learning to sing is not as difficult as learning to play an instrument.
The bottom line – what you’re saying is true – but most singers can’t keep time, they have no idea what keeping time is. So subsequently a horn player doesn’t want to be bothered with them if they can’t come in at the right time. The bottom line to all of this is rhythmic, there’s no such thing as new music, it’s totally impossible to have new music; we’re still dealing in a 12-tone system, 12 notes. Somewhere along the line somebody has played those notes before. The only thing that can possibly be different is the rhythmic articulation that makes the difference. The ones who excel in a melodic structure, these are the players that we like. Miles Davis was a sound, Cannonball, Trane… these people were sounds, they played the whole works. So when the average singer or player says ‘we’ve got some brand new music’; that’s nothing but stone, cold bullshit, but writers go for it.

What is your impression of the NEA Jazz Masters program?
#1 I think it should continue. #2 I think it should continue with the right people, people who know how to teach. There are a lot of good players but they can’t teach.

In an age where so many jazz artists don’t seem to talk to their audience much you are quite communicative with your audiences during your performances. What are your thoughts about the artist’s need to talk to their audience?
The reason I talk to the audience is because I play a lot of original music. Like when I acknowledge the fact that we’re playing something you’ve never heard before and you don’t know whether we’re playing it right or wrong, that’s the humor part of it but it’s a fact. The audience listens for it and says ‘OK, I haven’t heard this before but I like the melody, I like the rhythm… as opposed to just playing and not saying anything. When you go to a session to catch a group and nobody talks, you ask the people who have listened as they come out of the joint wherever it is ‘what did they sound like’? They’ll say ‘I don’t know’ because they didn’t tell me nothing.

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2019 NEA Jazz Masters controversy

It seems from some of the vitriol I’ve read on various FB post threads that there is no small amount of controversy, and in some cases heavy-duty angst, over the announcement of the 2019 class of NEA Jazz Masters. Predictably about 100% of the questions and at times angry responses are relative to Stanley Crouch’s designation as a NEAJM, with nothing but deserved hosannas for Bob Dorough, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Maria Schneider. Do not consider this post in any way a Stanley Crouch apology or defense mechanism of any kind. In Stanley’s case much of the angry response is self-inflicted wounds of the karmic variety relative to some of his – at the very least – editorial pronouncements over the years about various issues and elements of the jazz community, including his often mean-spirited assessments of certain musicians’ artistic output.
However I did want to clarify a bit certain misconceptions in some of the vitriolic responses to Crouch’s NEAJM honorific. Full disclosure: For several years I served as coordinator of the NEA Jazz Masters on Tour performance funding program administered by my friends at Arts Midwest, where I formerly served as director of their Jazz Program. Some FB posters have questioned how in their estimation a “failed drummer” like Stanley Crouch becomes elevated as a NEA Jazz Master. And yes, Crouch WAS a far less than masterful drummer at one point in his career, back in his Tin Palace days.
What I want to clarify is that Stanley Crouch was not named a NEA Jazz Master on the strength of his dubious drum skills, but as 2019 recipient of the A.B. Spellman award for jazz advocacy. That particular award component of the annual NEAJM designees was developed back when Dana Gioia was chairman of the Endowment, as a means of recognizing those who have made significant contributions to the music OFF the bandstand. Whether you agree that Crouch is a worthy recipient of the A.B. Spellman award is immaterial to this post; I simply wanted to clarify that Stanley is not being honored as a musician or otherwise for his musicianship, but as what the NEA’s panel that made those decisions saw as his contributions to the art form as an advocate, in their determination.

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Davey Yarborough enters DB Jazz Education Hall of Fame

Davey Yarborough
Duke Ellington School for the Arts

Davey Yarborough, saxophonist and dedicated jazz educator, was fittingly inducted into the DownBeat Magazine Jazz Education Hall of Fame this year. Davey has made an indelible mark on music education primarily through his exceptional tenure at Washington’s Duke Ellington School for the Arts, but also through his tireless efforts on behalf of the community jazz education program Washington Jazz Arts Institute which he and his vocalist wife Esther Williams have steadfastly established and built. The following is the complete interview I conducted with Davey at Ellington that was published in part in the June, 2018 issue of DownBeat in commemoration of his H.O.F. induction.

Talk about the Ellington School’s unique relationship to the DC Public Schools.
Davey Yarborough: What it’s actually called is a hybrid program, where we have the obligation to ensure that the kids coming here have the full compliment of high school academic education; on top of that we have a full arts development program as well, so we’re called dual curriculum. We have several disciplines: instrumental music, vocal music, literary media, dance, visual arts… we have the only museum studies major in the nation, and we have theater.

How does a student enter Ellington?
We have an audition process, but again we’re a unique school, we’re even a unique arts school because the majority of arts schools application process is highly affected by the academic prowess of the students. This school is purely motivated to the development of artists, so we have the task also of – if they are not academically sound when they come in, that we will remediate them because we are a college prep school.

We have been successful historically, and I’ve been here as a band director since 1986; I came in as an attendance counselor in 1984, but my tenure here has witnessed the consistent graduation rate being in the 90s and up.

What you said initially suggests that if a student is prolific in one of those arts disciplines, but has issues academically, the school is willing to uplift the academic side?
I guess the caveat is where they may not even be proficient in their art field, their interview dictates – in terms of the aptitude and the attitude.

Where and under whom did you study jazz?
[Laughs] You need a book! My first exposure actually came from my family, not as artists but as listeners. My parents had a good record collection (he grew up in DC; parents from North Carolina]. The listening bug hit me hard when we would go away in the summer. I have an aunt who had a record player and records in her room. So when she would leave for school I’d go in her room and listen to her records.

She came back and caught me one day and said she didn’t want me to mess up her records but she saw that I liked them so much. So RCA put out the first stereophonic album, and it was called “Sounds in Space,” and on this record was every genre you could think of, it was a sampler. She gave me that record – which I still have today – and I wore it out and it’s hanging in the inspiration room in my house, along with the other things that inspired me to do what I’m doing. She gave me that record and said ‘you can play my record player anytime you want, and here’s your own record.’ I played that record until it turned white! It had orchestra, Dakota Staton, classical, pop… the various mediums.

At school they used to take us to Constitution Hall on field trips every couple of months to watch the National Symphony rehearse, so I got to hear Benjamin Britten’s listening guide to orchestra and found that very fascinating because I got a chance to really hear them talk about the various instruments. That got my ear. So by the third grade I knew that I wanted to be an artist.

My family wasn’t necessarily gung ho about my pursuing a career as a musician, as with most parents, and I don’t fault them for that because they wanted what they thought was the best for me. But if you stick to your guns you can prove whatever it is you are dreaming to be.

Where did you go to college?
Federal City College, UDC, and Howard.

Did you study with [the late trombonist] Calvin Jones at Federal City College?
Yeah, that’s my man. But before him, Bobby Felder brought what was called the Entertainment Package, the first big band I had ever seen perform. I was seriously fascinated and at the end of the performance he said “if are there any seniors who are interested in going to college, come up and talk.”

I had a pretty good ear, I wore out a lot of records, and I started out on clarinet. But when I got to high school my clarinet sorta disappeared – long story. My father said “well, I bought one instrument, but you’re gonna buy the next one.” So I worked at Arby’s for $1.10 an hour all summer and at the end of the summer I had $400, but the saxophone that I wanted [points to it in his band room] cost $425! So my dad loaned me $25. And I still have that saxophone, an alto; it’s like the baby. Later I was sort of forced to buy a tenor sax. I got into a R&B band called The Delusion, and recorded with a group called The Lovations, a record called “I Can’t Forget About You,” we had a vocal and an instrumental version. So I was big time, I was in high school and I was recording, but I couldn’t read a lick [laughs].”

When I got a scholarship from Federal City College without having to sight read, it was cool. They said “play something for me,” then they said “yeah, we’ll get you in.” So I got in and ran into Dr. Arthur C. Dawkins for my saxophone lessons. He put some pieces of music in front of me and that was the end of it for me [laughs]! But he said, “you’re in, and you’re in on scholarship” because my grades were good. “But you got grades, but you’ve got one semester to prove to me that you’re gonna be able to step up.”

A senior named James Palmore took me under his wing, and when I wasn’t taking lessons from Dawkins I was playing duets with [Palmore], who was very instrumental in helping me learn to read. He was doing John Coltrane transcriptions and all kinda stuff. At the end of that first semester he told me that, “the good news is you can maintain your scholarship and you can keep going, but we don’t have a saxophone major, so you’re now a flute major… go get one!

So I went to the pawn shop and found an Armstrong closed hole flute for $90 and that was my flute for three years. When I got ready to graduate, Dawkins said “you’ve gotta get yourself a real instrument, because if you’re going to play with anyone they’re going to expect you to play on a quality instrument.” He had a William Haynes flute and he was getting ready to unload because he had ordered another flute. I paid way under the value but I paid $3500 for that flute, in payments. He still wants that flute back [laughs], but I still have it, so I went from there.

I got my associates degree from Federal City and then it became UDC and I was convinced by Bobby Felder, because I got my associates degree and I figured I had satisfied my parents, went to college, and I wanted to get out on the road and play, I thought I was done with school. Bobby pulled me into his office and said “you tell me what you can do with an associates degree that you couldn’t already do with a high school diploma. You’re halfway through a Bachelor’s degree and with that all kinds of other doors will open for you. You’re on scholarship, on the dean’s list…” So of course I couldn’t answer the question so I thought ‘two more years.’

Right after that he said “what are you going to major in?” I said Performance, of course. He said “we don’t have a performance major, but we do have an education degree.” When I was in high school, Jessie Adams my band director pulled me aside one day when I was cuttin’ up and said “one of these days you’re going to be sitting here dealing with students just like you” [laughs]. And at that point I said “oh no, I will not teach.” I went from that point on all the way up to that conversation with Bobby I said I don’t want to teach. He said “hold up, just because you got an education degree doesn’t mean that you have to teach, it’s a bachelor’s degree, you can get a bachelor’s in basket weaving if you want.”

The bottom line is that was the standard up to that point. So he said “just get the degree, you love music, you’re playing, just go on and get the degree and you can do anything that you want to do.” Boy, he conned me good! So I took a practicum at Jefferson Junior High under Winston Hall, a piano player and a good band director. I did the practicum – just going in and observing a band director – he gave me a couple of flutes and gave me three or four little flute players and he said “you work with them, and that’s your teaching, and of course you watch how I deal with the band and how I deal with the rest of the kids,” and he would grade me on that.

So I’m working with these kids, and you’ve gotta work with them individually, and I turned my back on one and I heard this loud BAM, and I turned back around and a flute was sorta bent over the chair. I said “what happened?” The student said “I don’t know.” I said “come on man…” He said “I couldn’t do what you were telling me and I just got mad.” About a month later this guy comes in grinning from ear to ear. He had had a breakthrough and seeing that face, hearing that kid go from prune faced to the happiest kid in the world… that got me good! That’s where I decided that it was ok to teach.

What was your first teaching position?
That’s where Calvin Jones comes in. I was in a summer youth employment program under Mayor Barry and my first job was emptying trashcans at the government print office and I still have nightmares about that. Lillian Hough and Yvette Holt had a program over at Bacchus [sp?], an arts program – dance, and Calvin Jones was the band director for that program. When I got there for this summer job they put me with Calvin Jones. He took me on the first day to a couple of the elementary schools to pick up instruments. While we were picking up the instruments he had AM radio on in his car and I’m listening to big band jazz. He started telling me about the artists. He was a trombone, piano, and bass player and all of this was having a serious impact on me. At the time he was teaching at Cardozo High School.

He left Cardozo and came to UDC and that’s when he became the jazz band director. When I was there he had a septet, a sextet, and the big band and I played in all three. I have a history with pawn shops, I used to build stereo systems from components at the pawn shop and sell them to my friends. One day I was in the pawn shop and there was a soprano sax there and it was gorgeous to me, so a stereo I had just built paid $110 for that saxophone.

So I brought it to school and Calvin got excited! He started writing soprano sax parts for the big band; by that time I was playing lead alto. He liked the combination of soprano and trumpet so he started writing for the sextet. Judith Korey is the one that taught me music theory. She gave me a key to her office so that when she left I could go in and use the piano and practice. So I would stay there until it was time to go to the nightclub where I was working. So I would get there at 8:00am, go to class and study theory, then I would go to her office and practice until time to go to the nightclub; back then I played with a lot of different people. There was a place called Moore’s Love and Peace, which was probably my first real steady job. I had met [wife] Esther [Williams] by then. Dawkins sent me on one of his gigs as a sub, we played the gig together, we exchanged numbers afterwards. She said, “yeah, if we need another saxophone player we’ll call.” By then she was touring with her first record.

A couple of weeks later she calls me and she’s playing with Charlie Hampton, doing a gig at the church, and she said, “we need a saxophone player,” so I went there. Then about three or four months later she called and said “Charlie is getting ready to get rid of his saxophone player and I suggested you, he remembered you,” and so I got that gig. We ended up playing at that club for about eleven years!

What was your first teaching position?
Ernest Dyson taught jazz history and business of music courses at Federal City College and he worked at the Washington Community School of Music over in Northeast DC in a church and he offered me a job teaching flute there. So I walked into Dawkins office all proud and said “hey Doc, I got a job teaching music!” He said “you can’t have that job, because what’s gonna happen is you’re going to start earning that steady money and the next thing you know you’ll drop out, you’ll never get your degree, and it’s too early for you to leave [college], you’ve got enough to do just getting through college.” He went to Ernest and said “don’t give him this job.”

When I graduated with my associates degree Ernest called me back and said “do you still want that job?” So that was my first teaching job and I really enjoyed doing that, I was just a private flute teacher. In ’78 when I graduated UDC I was engaged to Esther and after my senior recital I announced that I was engaged. Bobby and Doc they all knew Esther, but they looked at me like “you’re gonna get married now? Before, you were talking about how you wanted to go out on the road, and now you’re going to come straight out of college and get married, don’t you understand what that’s about?” I said, “yeah, I do – and I did.” Once I let the cat out of the bag I don’t think there was a professor in the building that didn’t call me in and say “why are you going to get married as soon as you graduate?” But I did, and my first job after I graduated was at Wilson High School as a Drivers’ Education instructor. I got hired here at Ellington in May of ’78 for September, because I did my student teaching here under Wallace Clark and Mickey Bass.

Wallace and Antoine Roney were here then, but you couldn’t study jazz during the school day, you had to do it after school. Mickey would come down two days a week after school and teach the kids who were interested in jazz. [stopped @ 30 mins in] [Not that it was forbidden, just not yet established.] So I was offered the band director’s job, but that year the government cut teacher’s salaries, so I got fired before I got a chance to work. So I went over to Wilson HS and taught Driver’s Ed because there was a trombone player there who was teaching Driver’s Ed and one of the Driver’s Ed teachers had fallen and was on disability, so it was a temporary job.

The band director at Wilson was elderly and about ready to retire, so they said come on over here for about a year or so and he’ll probably retire so you can slip into his job. He didn’t leave [laughs]. And also the Driver’s Ed program had some financial problems and I ended up getting Rifed from that, so I sold pianos at Jordan Kitts in Columbia, MD for a year. I came back and got a job at Carter G. Woodson Junior High. Robert Sands had retired. On my first day the principle told me about him, said he had a 300-piece marching band, etc., but I wasn’t about marching bands… but it was a job.

So I went by Robert’s house and he said “look, I’m a saxophone player, don’t let this teaching thing stop you from playing.” And I said “right,” not really understanding what he was saying, but then I realized that because you are putting your energy into these young people and there’s only a certain amount of time in a day, I could see how that could happen, but I never gave up playing. Dawkins had got me into playing in theater productions, so I was doing some of the theater jobs, and then I was still doing the nightclub thing. I did Woodson for a year and decided at that point that I didn’t need this. When they handed me my evaluation – outstanding evaluation – I handed them my letter of resignation.

A saxophone position came up at UDC, so I went over there part time. Then I started thinking if you do music round the clock guys burn out. So I took a job as an attendance counselor at the School Without Walls, and I did that for almost two years. I had taught Floretta McKenzie’s daughter driver’s education at Wilson and she started following me; she knew I played and she would show up places where I was playing. One day she walked into the building here at Ellington, walked up to the principle, Maurice Eldridge – who had seen me playing with Joe Williams and Bobby Blue Bland at Fort Dupont, John Malachi was in that band. So Maurice is onstage giving Joe Williams an award, he looks down in the pit and says “what are you doing here?”

So just about a month later, Floretta McKenzie said she wanted me to run the music program at McKinley HS. Maurice said “he’s here [at Ellington] and if he’s going to go back into music education, I want him here because I need another saxophone teacher.’ I had been here for awhile and I knew some of the faculty members and students, so I picked Ellington.

What month and year did you start at Ellington?
March of 1984 as the attendance counselor, and then in September of ’86 I became the band director.

When you started teaching at Ellington, what did you teach?
Saxophone, and they allowed me to start the big band. They put me in a small room – one third the size of this current band room – and it had steps and some chairs in there, and a couple of music stands. But where’s the equipment? And I was also told by a faculty member that if you teach some classes make sure you them before 3:00 because these students aren’t going to stay until 5:00, even though they’re supposed to. Another teacher said “well, the equipment was here, but it sorta walked out.” So there was no band equipment there. So come my first class, I had my drummers play air drums… I said you set up and act like this is your snare drum, your floor tom… and I got some music and I had a little keyboard that was there, and the horn players had their horns, so we just did what we did to get started. Lo and behold one day the door opens and a CNN camera walked in the room and they’re filming this and asking “where’s the drumset?” I said, “we don’t have any,” and just as I was explaining this to them, Maurice Elders the principle walked in and they turned the cameras around to him, and a little while later I had a couple of drumsets. I don’t even know if he knew whether the equipment was there or not, but after that I got some equipment.

Then Joe Williams, Wynton Marsalis donated, they were the first contributors, and I went around Georgetown asking for whatever types of donations I could get for the equipment that I really needed, and that was the first waive of equipment. Wynton gave me $5,000 and Joe gave the same amount and that got us off the ground. From then I learned how to write grants, because I was writing letters to airlines… anybody that I thought would donate. I got enough to do what I needed from that point on.

What sense of Duke Ellington’s music have you given your students here?
First it was imparted to me. I was working with Keter Betts, because of Dawkins, I worked with Bill Harris’ band, Rick Henderson’s band, all these things were Dawkins and Bobby Felder connecting me. I ended up with Bill Harris at Wolftrap and that’s where he introduced me to Sarah Vaughan, Keter Betts… Bill took me to the concert and there were other musicians that he introduced me to. Keter asked me to come play with his band and I played with that band for about five years. I met Roland Hanna playing with Keter. When I got the Ellington job, Keter called and wanted me to come by his house. So I went over, sat in the kitchen, and he started asking me about Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and I was already shocked that I got the job because a whole lot of veteran band directors wanted that job, and he could see that there was a little bit of tension behind that.

So Keter said “what do you know about Duke?” I told him the little I knew – and it was a little – and he said “well that’s not enough because your job now is to enlighten those kids at that school, especially the ones that are playing.” So he went down to his basement and he pulled out a book called “Ellingtonia” and he started showing me all of the songs, the writing, the photography… everything – to the point of overload. I said to myself ‘how am I going to deal with this?’ That’s when Keter volunteered to come to Ellington before school. We had a program called Paying Your Dues that I ended up getting a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts to do. I brought in Steve Novosel… whatever artists that I could find I would give them a little stipend to come at 7am and teach the kids who wanted to learn jazz. John Malachi would come in; as a matter of fact the week he passed he came and did a rehearsal and a workshop.

The program Paying Your Dues allowed me to take the kids to the East Coast Jazz Festival (Ronnie Wells’ predecessor to Paul & Karmen Carr’s current Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival), and we’d do fundraising that enabled us to get to France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and some of the other tours we did; grantwriting and fundraising enabled us to take the band out.

What’s been your ensemble focus here at Ellington?
Everything that I can! Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell came here, which demonstrated to the students the duo form, that you don’t have to play big band music all the time… jazz is jazz, I don’t care what instrument it’s played on. One of the things I had to do with the student body here is say, come out of that tunnel people have you in; if you hear [jazz] and you like it, you can do anything.

Currently I have my 7:15-8:15am class for kids who come in who don’t get into the jazz orchestra, or don’t get into my in-curricular combo. And I’m still teaching saxophone as well. Right now I’ve got about 8 of those students, and then 6th period Monday-Tuesday-Thursday I have a 5-piece combo and we work on anything from Go Bop – to ease them into bebop I would take bebop tunes and I brought John Buchannan here once and he was one of the founders of go-go an we went to Federal City College together. So I wanted them to get the true Washington art form of go-go, which they had been listening to, but I wanted them to see the evolution of that and make sure they had the genuine stuff.

We would take tunes like “Yardbird Suite” or “All Blues,” which we took out of three and put it in four, and put it into the go-go beat. They even have what they call “Take the Metro”, which uses “Take the A Train.” They have a medley where they come out of “Nica’s Dream” and go into a go-go groove and do “Take the A Train.” So we have that, but we also visit the Herbie Hancocks, who whenever the genres change he adapts, just like Miles did. The idea is we want to produce artists. So I teach just as much of the European classical repertoire for my saxophonists. As the saxophone teacher I want them to understand that Charlie Parker liked Brahms. There are a whole bunch of artists that take from the other genres to put into jazz. The beauty of jazz is that you are allowed to do that, so that’s what I do with the kids. I try to make sure they’re exposed to everything. I took them to a concert once where Snarky Puppy partnered with the National Symphony to let them see that whatever is out there, you can do.

What awards has your ensemble won?
[Laughs and points out several shelves chock full of trophies.] We were the first high school jazz orchestra at Montreux [‘90], the year they reenacted the Miles Davis/Gil Evans works with Miles, and Wallace spelled Miles –when Miles would stop playing, Wallace would get up and start playing. We’ve been to North Sea Jazz Festival, been down to the Bahamas for their festival three times… so I’ve taken them wherever I could take them.

How have those experiences enriched your students’ experience with music?
It’s always good for them to see and interact with the top talent. But I think the greatest experiences… I took the kids to Marciac Jazz Festival and their high school level in France is called college, but we took the kids over to one of the colleges and despite language barriers they all got together like they had been buddies for all their lives, and watched them interact and exchange, and see what their peers are doing in another area… I always felt that was their greatest inspiration; that combination of dealing with their peers and then also going to see Wynton, Roy Hargrove, Toots Thielemanns… Taking young people and having them interact with their peers, as well as the giants, I think is the best inspiration you’re gonna get. When they came back from those trips they’d be ready to play, ready to compete, and they excelled. They’d learned what practice was all about, their ears were tuned to what… my favorite statement generally comes in the 11th grade when a kid comes to me and says “Mr. Yarborough, it seems like the more I practice, the worse I sound.” And I say “yeah, your ear just caught up to your abilities [laughs].”

Who have been some of your more prominent students to graduate from your Ellington program?
Wallace Roney and Antoine Roney were already here before me, but I taught Antoine, but I was in Wallace’s band, he was already playing professionally. Mickey Bass really straightened them out; even when they went to Berklee they called him and said “they’re not showing us anything here.” Eric Allen and Clarence Seay were here at the same time. Since I’ve been here are Chuck Royal, Marc Cary – he was already doing it when I got here, he was just waiting to be discovered – and then the barrage of artistry – the Ben Williams, Eric Wheeler, Corcoran Holt, Ameen Saleem, Daniel Moore (the music director for Showtime at the Apollo), Clifton Williams (who won a competition while he was at Berklee to write the theme for Showtime at the Apollo), Brian Settles, Jessica Settles, Amy Bormet (founder of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival), Elijah Easton

How did you get so much bass talent, further emphasizing the great DC bass tradition?
Some of those kids had been exposed – Ameen had never played jazz and I put him in D minor to work out a walk and that was how he started. In the 11th grade his father came in here with him and said “my son says he’s memorized this book” – it was the Real Book – and I said “yeah, he has.” I took the book, opened it up, closed it and had him play whatever was on a particular page. It definitely wasn’t just me because I’d have Keter come here, or whatever artistry I had been in contact with in DC.

Right now my focus is to develop a directory of artistry I’ve [interacted with here], including Butch Warren, Quinton Warren… anybody I knew that was playing I invited here to play for the kids, or took the kids to go see them. I didn’t have a budget until I started getting grants… A lot of these guys just came here because I asked them to come – Stanley Cowell… I realize now how long I’ve been here.

This award comes at a precipitous time for you as you prepare to retire. What are going to be your primary pursuits post-retirement?
My retirement is going to be from DCPS (after 40 years). When this school officially became the hybrid that it is, the principle back then told me he knew I’d retire someday, and that if I did they would just hire me back through the non-profit side. I do have so much of this place wrapped up in me; this was a dream… So I will probably come back here part-time, but I’m actually using the retirement to continue building my next project – which is the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, which will celebrate 20 years this year. We have operated for 20 years without a full-time employee and its been fairly successful; we average anywhere from 35-50 kids during the summer when we have a 4-week program, six hours a day, four days a week at People’s Congregational United Church of Christ, the church my wife and I attend gave us space to operate. We’re looking for a permanent space and we have some ideas. But that’s where I’m needed. We’re also about teaching life skills, rounding out individuals with a focus on music development utilizing the jazz genre. We haven’t been able to expand to the rank beginner because I don’t have the staff, but we work with kids anywhere from eleven to age 24.

The mission is to provide a support system for any Washingtonian or DMV resident the opportunity to be supported from the time that they know they want to be an artist, through retirement. The concept is that once you are given these lessons then you are obliged to give back, in terms of the artistic and life skills development you’ve gotten. That’s why say through retirement because eventually I would like to have my middle school kids actually coaching the elementary school level, high school mentoring middle school, 11th and 12th graders mentoring 9th and 10th graders, college kids mentoring 11th and 12th graders, professionals mentoring college students.

Sonny Stitt, Frank Wess, Art Dawkins, Calvin Jones… those were my mentors and that’s where the whole concept came from. Eventually that program that I was in with Calvin Jones really is what gave us that concept; I just want to make it formal, and I also want to have it in all four quadrants of the city, I don’t to have just one location. I want a repertory band, a senior citizens group… I’ve run into lot of seniors who say “yeah, I played before I had a family to take care of, and I’d like to get back.” The knowledge they an impart… that’s straight from the horse’s mouth to the next generation!

Here’s Davey Yarborough and Esther Williams from their recent DC JazzFest performance on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage:

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