Duke Ellington didn’t consider himself a jazz musician.
He said he was a musician who played jazz. And what a musician: pianist, bandleader, composer of more than 1,000 songs including standards like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Satin Doll” and “Sophisticated Lady.”
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born on this date 115 years ago in Washington, D.C. And it may just be that Ellington lives on most profoundly, every day, at a public arts high school that bears his name. The goal of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts is to give a free arts education to very talented students in the D.C. area — young people who might never have the benefit of private lessons. The school celebrated its own 40th birthday last weekend.
“We have a saying: If you have to be an artist, this is the place to be,” says Davey Yarborough, director of jazz studies at Ellington for 30 years.
Most of the students at Ellington are African-American. They had to pass rigorous auditions and interviews to get in — to study not just jazz, but also classical music, dance, drama and visual arts, along with a full academic program. The graduation rate is 99 percent, and 98 percent go to college, some on full scholarships.
Senior Angela Whittaker is going to the Berklee College of Music in Boston next year.
“I knew if I went to this school, I’ll come out and be something incredible … and help me shape myself into something I’ve always wanted to be,” Whittaker says. “And I didn’t think I could achieve that. Duke Ellington gave me hope that I actually could.”
The school’s name itself inspires hope — and, percussionist Kweku Sumbry says, great pride and responsibility.
“Every time we step out of this building, any performance, any competition, we are representing not only ourselves and our family, but Duke Ellington, so that means a lot to me,” Sumbry says.
Trumpeter Geraldo Marshall is a junior at Ellington.
“Duke Ellington is probably the greatest composer ever,” Marshall says. “It’s amazing that someone could get to such a high level. We have big shoes to fill, we have expectations, things that are expected of us. The only way we can get there is through the help of people like Mr. Yarborough and our teachers. Because they guide us down that path. And you actually have to listen to your teachers.” He laughs.
Tuesday night, as they do on this date every year, students and faculty at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., will celebrate the great musician’s birthday. They’ll come together in music and song — which would surely please the Duke.