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Harlem Speaks (excerpt)

Mercedes Ellington • May 19, 2005

ELLINGTON:  I don’t know if I have a crowning moment. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve been crowned. You know what I mean. It’s, like, ongoing. And my grandfather, people used to ask him, like, what was his favorite composition, and he would say, “The next one,” you know. So, I mean, as far as looking back, I had many, many points in my career that I cherish; and people in my career that I cherish very greatly. But there were peaks and valleys and ups and downs that you wouldn’t even believe. But I just remember some of the times— like when I was going to Julliard, the money was kinda tight, and I was a bus— I lived in I-House, International House, right around the corner from the Julliard at that time. And one of my good friends was a woman named Pina Bausch. And Pina is a very— a choreographer of note from Germany, and he has an incredible company. And Pina and I used to bus tables together. And Pina would teach me all the tricks. We’d not— neither of us had too much money. And when Pina worked behind the counter and was not busing, I would get a plate, get coffee, and she would give me a full plate of food, after I’d already checked out my coffee; and I would do the same thing for her. And then she would teach me about this horrible dessert that she made up: strawberry ice cream, sprinkled   sugar on top, and then lemon juice. (inaudible voices) And I— this was, like, you know, an incredible combination. (laughs) Whatever. But this was a Pina Bausch dessert. And there were all, you know, things that... I don’t know. I guess it’s the resiliency of dancers. You see dancers now, and you don’t know how old they are, you don’t know... Because, as I said before, they’re trained, the discipline is so great. Dancers, I think, can do anything. So it’s tough to say that I... I have so many plans, you know. I have— for instance, I have a not-for-profit organization called the Duke Ellington Center, which I would love to be, in some entity, somewhere, a— rehearsal halls, instrument rentals, and storage, and theater space for, you know, experimental theater. And then there’s a book that I’m going to write—I’m not writing it, actually—it’s a Duke Ellington book. Because I’m putting together all of his script. People have put together things of his music, but nobody’s ever written the stories of him. Like Pretty and the Wolf, and like A Drum Is A Woman, and The Green People and the Purple People. And The Green People and the Purple People is nowhere even recorded. The reason I got ahold of it is because I found a woman who did, actually, in Chicago, and she gave a copy to me. And so I’m going to do it with illustrations and— you know, it will be a nice picture book for people. And then I have several other things to do. I don’t know if I have enough time. (laughter) So I don’t have a crowning achievement yet, as far as I’m concerned.

WOMAN:  Oh, you don’t. Oh. (inaudible voices) the other question was, was Sophisticated Ladies the first time you worked with your grandfather?

ELLINGTON:   Well, with my father.

WOMAN:  Yeah, with your father, yeah.

ELLINGTON:  It was with the band, but with my father. Well, as I said, the Gleason show, the big band show was one of the times that I worked with the band. But as far as with the band itself, Sophisticated Ladies was it, yeah.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE:  Anybody else? Was that...?

WOMAN:  Yeah.

MCBRIDE:  Ok. Here ya go.

WOMAN:  From a black woman’s point of view, what is your message to younger women that are out there that are my age, not just necessarily about dancing, but what’s your message to black women in America?

ELLINGTON:  My message to black women in America, my message to everyone of color, children growing up: Learn your history. And pass it on. And be responsibility for that history, and know who you are. Not that you should lean on anybody, but there was a lotta stuff   happening that people know absolutely nothing about. Because it doesn’t get put... I mean, Loretta and I were commiserating about the current issue of Dance Magazine that came out, about so-called— there were interviews with people about what they think of black people in the classical ballet situation. No mention at all about this company that a white man put together—a man named Aubrey Hitchins, who was one of Pavlova’s partners, put together a company of black men, who toured Europe and did ballet. And nobody ever writes about this. Nobody knows about it. You know, nobody talks about this. Yes.

WOMAN:  Ok. Another question. What do you think the next documentary or film should be about, concerning women of color in Harlem? (laughter)

ELLINGTON:  The next documentary about women in Harlem should be about the people who are here in this room. There’s a lotta people in this room that comprise, you know, neighborhoods. Neighborhoods used to— when my— my grandma— we lived on the ground floor of 289 Convent Avenue. My grandmother...

WOMAN:  I go to school right there.

ELLINGTON:  ...would open— she’d be at that window looking for me to come home from school. And if I wasn’t, there was, like, a telegraph, (laughter) a human telegraph of people who watched me, because I didn’t come from 142nd Street, ’43rd Street straight down to Convent, I   came via Amsterdam Avenue and down, so I had time to talk to my girlfriends. And in that route, there were people looking out their windows to see that we behaved ourselves, and just exactly what we were doing. And I don’t care where you were, everybody knew exactly what you...

Madame French lived across the street from us. And this was the Haitian lady who was the numbers queen. And she— everybody was so afraid of her, because she had her altar with all her saints and everything, and her candles burning, you know. (inaudible voice) And this was, like, a forbidden spot. Especially for all the Catholics, you know, in the area; you should not even look at that building.

WOMAN:  There’s a church right on the corner. (they laugh)

ELLINGTON:  Yeah. But everybody went to her, because she was the numbers lady, you know, and… And those numbers, there’s a lotta stories about those numbers around (laughs) in neighborhood.  (inaudible voice) No, we’re not, because... There’s a nameless story—I won’t even mention anybody’s name, because it has to do with somebody who’s, you know, current. But there was one numbers runner, decided to run off with the receipts, and he disappeared. And they found him kinda cut up and chopped up in somebody’s boiler.

MCBRIDE:  Kinda, huh?

MAN:  Kinda chopped up.

MCBRIDE:  Kinda chopped up. (they laugh) Gee! You know, and I have a question for you. It’s actually more of a... I find, talking to musicians from older generations, that performing arts didn’t seem to be so compartmentalized as it is now. You know, you have the dancers here, you have the jazz musicians here, you have the R&B musicians here, you have the comedians over here, and there’s not really much of a camaraderie all across the board as it used to be. I love talking to people like Mr. Jimmy Heath and Roy Haynes, and they talk about, you know, they talk about guys like Red Foxx or Nipsey Russell just as much as they would talk about another musician. Or like, Buck and Bubbles, that you mentioned earlier, or whoever. And I remember one time I played a concert at Lincoln Center. They had a big tribute to all these great tap dancers. Jimmy Slyde was on the concert, and Chuck Green, and Bunny Briggs. And I remember after the show was over, I was sad! Because I remember thinking: Man, how come no young cats are, like, really into it, or are we not in touch with them? Can you comment on how there’s no— doesn’t seem to be the...

ELLINGTON:  Well, there— I think— everybody has their own idea about what happened. I think that there was a generation that came up, that “me generation,” that really ruined it for a lot of people. All they were thinking about was themselves. And it’s slowly regaining, that people are beginning to be a community again. And especially in the theater and in the entertainment, when you had this camaraderie backstage, when you had the theaters that produced variety shows,   where you would get all these people together under one roof—the comedians, the musicians, the dancers.

MCBRIDE:  Right.

ELLINGTON:  And you would all be— and so when you were waiting to do your next show, you went backstage and you’d talk and you would exchange stories. And there were great things that came out of that, you know? And collaborations and knowledge and just people creating things. And they would feed off of each other and have ideas. I mean, one thing... It’s mind boggling to me, to this day, that people don’t understand the relationship between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Now, we talked about this. That this was a collaboration of two men who completed each other’s sentences. It doesn’t happen today. It’s like everybody is so selfish. Many of the current composers, they don’t wanna have anything to do— they’re afraid of somebody’s gonna steal this or steal that, or they want all the money, or they want all the credit, you know. And actually, in those times, things were so bad that people had to help each other. You know, people were... I mean, the jazz world at that time, and the world in general, were not— they were not ready to accept a homosexual figure in their midst, such as a Billy Strayhorn. And so he had to have somebody to— as his anchor. And now, you know, it is acknowledged and everybody is fine with it, and everybody’s going and they’re giving him his due and acknowledging it, because we’ve come a long way. But at that time, there were so many reasons for people trying to make their way in whatever way they could. And a lot of it came with this camaraderie that happened backstage. The collaborations and people writing with people, and partnerships and things like that. And it doesn’t happen so much anymore.