by Thomas C. Fleming
In 1930, when my job as a cook for the Southern
Pacific first brought me into Chicago, I bought a
newspaper in the depot as usual, and discovered that
Duke Ellington was appearing on the stage of the
Oriental Theater downtown. The Oriental was one of a
chain of movie and stage show houses that one found
through the Middle West.
We in the West had been listening to Ellington's
broadcasts about three nights a week from the Cotton
Club in Harlem, where he gained an international
reputation. Ted Husing, a famous announcer for CBS,
announced the shows from the club. He was white; no
black person had yet been allowed to break into
broadcasting. The show included dancers, vocalists
and the band.
So I decided, this I must see. The landlady gave me
directions for the streetcar downtown. I sat through
three shows at the Oriental, where I listened to the
music and watched the contortions of Earl "Snake
Hips" Tucker, who was a part of the act, along with
vocalist Ivie Anderson, who had just joined the
I first heard about Ellington in the late 1920s from
a friend of mine, Wilton Johnson, a saxophonist who
had played with Lionel Hampton's band. He said
Ellington was the best he had ever heard. I listened
to one of his records and I liked it. After that, I
bought only his records. There was a new release
every month. He was not only a great composer, but
the head of the greatest jazz band that has ever
Ellington first played Oakland around 1931,
performing for whites only at Sweet's Ballroom. The
next night, the band played for blacks at the
Oakland Auditorium. This was before Bill Sweet,
owner and operator of the ballroom, decided he would
have a two-night session for entertainers who came
to Oakland, based on racial lines. The first night
would be for whites only, and the second night for
Sweet's was the mecca for jazz devotees in Oakland.
Ellington came back every year for about a decade,
until the early 1940s, then not quite so often
during the war years. After the war, he never came
to Oakland again, because he would always play
across the bay in San Francisco.
I went to hear him on his first visit to Oakland,
and after the show, I was introduced to him by a man
I knew named Tex Allen. Then every time Ellington
came after that, I'd go up and talk to him. I called
him maestro. And he was always very gracious; he met
people very easily. The Duke was a sharp dresser.
That's how he got his nickname, from the other
students when he was at high school in Washington.
I talked to just about everybody in the band --
Barney Bigard, the great clarinetist; Johnny Hodges,
Harry Carney, Cootie Williams, who did all that
growl stuff on the trumpet; and later Ben Webster,
the tenor saxophonist.
Ellington was a star already. He'd made a couple of
films in Hollywood before he ever visited Oakland.
The Cotton Club had the biggest and best floor show
in all the United States, and Ellington was the one
who put it on the map, starting in 1927. It was
filled up with white people every night.
He was such a big hit there that they put him in the
Ziegfeld Follies; he was doubling in both places.
That's how much they thought of him in New York. And
the rest of the nation followed suit. Because
whatever New York did in those days, everybody else
wanted to do it.
The next time Ellington came through Oakland, about
a year later, he had his father with him, and I got
to meet him. He called his father Uncle Ed, and so
did everybody in the band. The old man seemed all
excited, and didn't know what to make of it. He was
retired then, but in his younger life, he had worked
for the Department of the Navy as a draftsman. And
whenever the White House needed an extra butler,
they would call him to work there.
I guess Ellington wanted his father to see the United States, which I thought was wonderful. He remained close to his family all of his life. After he became successful, he moved them from Washington, D.C., where he was born, to New York -- his mother, father and his younger sister Ruth.
Everybody thought he was best; I don't care what
their color was. One thing that made him great was
that the men stayed with him longer than they did
with any other bands. It seemed that everyone wanted
to play with Ellington, because he was unique. His
compositions and arrangements were so unusual, and
he let the guys in his band express themselves
freely; he encouraged what he saw, because he had
the greatest bunch of soloists of any band. And he
paid better salaries than anybody else.
The leading musicians were handled by booking
agencies that dealt only with well-known clubs. Most
of the black clubs weren't known outside of the
black neighborhoods. Most of the nightclubs where
Duke played were segregated like the Cotton Club; blacks weren't admitted as customers.
I don't think that bothered Duke very much, because
that's the way it was all over the United States
then. He played music as a career, to earn a living.
It was always the white promoters that brought him
in town. So what could he do? He wanted to work. And
I don't think the audience thought about it. They
wanted to hear this man, that's all.
That was true for all the top black musicians of the
time -- Louie Armstrong, Count Basie, Jimmy
Lunceford, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine and others.
Most of the places where they played were clubs
operated for and by white people. That's where money
Copyright 1998 by Thomas C. Fleming. At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African-American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3 including postage. Send mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org