Duke Ellington’s Melodies Carried His Message of Social Justice

Named for the great jazz musician, Duke Ellington Circle is a traffic circle located at the Northeast corner of Central Park at the foot of Fifth Avenue and of 110th Street. In 1997, a 25 feet (7.6 m) tall statue by sculptor Robert Graham, depicting the Muses — nine nude caryatids — supporting a grand piano and Duke Ellington on their heads[2] was erected in the middle of the shallow amphitheater composing the circle.

Named for the great jazz musician, Duke Ellington Circle is a traffic circle located at the Northeast corner of Central Park at the foot of Fifth Avenue and of 110th Street. In 1997, a 25 feet (7.6 m) tall statue by sculptor Robert Graham, depicting the Muses — nine nude caryatids — supporting a grand piano and Duke Ellington on their heads[2] was erected in the middle of the shallow amphitheater composing the circle.

By Michelle R. Scott, Associate Professor of History, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. First published on The Conversation

At a moment when there is a longstanding heated debate over how artists and pop culture figures should engage in social activism, the life and career of musical legend Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington offers a model of how to do it right.

Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. His tight-knit black middle-class family nurtured his racial pride and shielded him from many of the difficulties of segregation in the nation’s capital. Washington was home to a sizable black middle class, despite prevalent racism. That included the racial riots of 1919’s Red Summer, three months of bloody violence directed at black communities in cities from San Francisco to Chicago and Washington D.C.

Ellington’s development from a D.C. piano prodigy to the world’s elegant and sophisticated “Duke” is well documented. Yet a fusion of art and social activism also marked his more than 56-year career.

Ellington’s battle for social justice was personal. Films like the award-winning “Green Book” only hint at the costs of segregation for black performing artists during the 1950s and 60s.

Duke’s experiences reveal the reality.

Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra playing ‘The Mooche,’ 1928.

Cotton Club to Scottsboro Boys

Ellington first rose to fame at Harlem’s “whites only” Cotton Club in the 1920s. There, the only mingling of black and white happened on the piano keyboard itself, as black performers entered through back doors and could not interact with white customers.

Ellington quietly devoted his services to the NAACP and its racial equality activities in the 1930s. Whether it was demanding that black youth have equal entrance rights to segregated dance halls or holding benefit concerts for the Scottsboro Boys, nine black adolescents falsely imprisoned for rape in 1931, Ellington used his growing fame as a prominent band leader for a greater good.

In our literary and historical research on African American entertainment, Ellington’s ability to travel and perform across national boundaries stands out.

After success in Harlem’s night spots, Ellington composed, recorded and appeared in film shorts like 1935’s “Symphony in Black” as himself. He traveled the world with his orchestra, at first performing in the U.K. in the 1930s. Later, Ellington continued to perform on behalf of the U.S. State Department as a “jazz ambassador” in the 1960s and 70s. Audiences in such places as India, Syria, Turkey, Ethiopia and Zambia were given the opportunity to hear and dance to Ellington’s compositions.

However, not even international popularity ensured that hotels would host Ellington’s all-black ensemble during a tour in the U.K. in June 1933. Members scrambled to find boarding homes in London’s Bloomsburyneighborhood when mainstream hotels turned them away on account of their race.

Despite success, racism

Ellington’s 1932 “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing” was the soundtrack for the nation’s swing era of the 1930s and 40s. The tune stayed on the Billboard charts for six weeks in 1932 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.

But when Ellington traveled in the South, he still had to hire a private rail car to avoid crowded, poorly maintained “colored only” train seating, or hotels and restaurants that refused service to black Southerners.

A young man shares his recent audition experience on FB to attend the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington DC.  via Facebook

A young man shares his recent audition experience on FB to attend the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington DC. via Facebook

Ellington used his creative musical talents against racist beliefs that African Americans were inferior or unintelligent.

His diverse and wide-ranging catalog of music demanded the kind of serious attention and respect that had previously only been reserved for elite, white composers of classical music.

Songs such as “Black and Tan Fantasy” completely challenged what was then called “jungle music,” a negative term used to reference music inspired by the African diaspora. As a fusion of sacred and secular black culture, both the “Black and Tan Fantasy” composition and filmcombined the speaking traditions of black preachers with the humor and rhythms of black life.

Subtle style

Once the civil rights movement of the 1950s began to fight for racial equality through direct-action techniques like mass protests, boycotts and sit-ins, activists in the early 1950s criticized the older Ellington. His subtle activism style had focused on benefit concerts, and not “in the streets” protests.

But as the movement continued, Ellington included a non-segregation clause in his contracts and refused to play before segregated audiences by 1961. He maintained in an interview in the Baltimore Afro American newspaper that he had always been devoted to “the fight for first class citizenship.”

This was a devotion best seen in his music.

‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ melded sacred and secular black culture.

Ellington used his creative musical talents against racist beliefs that African Americans were inferior or unintelligent.

His diverse and wide-ranging catalog of music demanded the kind of serious attention and respect that had previously only been reserved for elite, white composers of classical music.

Songs such as “Black and Tan Fantasy” completely challenged what was then called “jungle music,” a negative term used to reference music inspired by the African diaspora. As a fusion of sacred and secular black culture, both the “Black and Tan Fantasy” composition and filmcombined the speaking traditions of black preachers with the humor and rhythms of black life.Modern black variety shows such as “Wild ‘N Out” and “In Living Color”share a lineage with Ellington’s major stage production of 1941, “Jump for Joy.”

“Jump for Joy” combined comedy skits and music into a revue that featured African American stars of the mid-20th century, including actress, singer and dancer Dorothy Dandridge and poet Langston Hughes.

Ellington claimed that his production “would take Uncle Tom out of the theater and say things that would make the audience think.”

He used his music to showcase black excellence as a resistance tactic against the negative stereotypes of African Americans made popular in American blackface minstrelsy.

Ellington also used “Jump for Joy” to call out those who borrowed from black music without any credit or financial compensation to its creators.

Melody’s other purpose

One of Ellington’s most powerful works is the orchestral piece “Black, Brown and Beige.”

This work shows his ability to infuse the blues into classical music and his commitment to tell the history of black America through song.

From the spirituals developed through the trials of slavery to the fight for civil rights and the modern rhythms of big band swing music, Ellington sought to tell a story about black life that was both beautiful and complex.

For Ellington, melody became message.

Duke Ellington Mural on U Street NW in Washington DC.

Duke Ellington Mural on U Street NW in Washington DC.

Ugbad Abdi Stars In 'A New Face, A New Story, A New Era' By Zoe Ghertner For i-D Magazine Summer 2019

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Jacket Alexander McQueen. Rollneck The Row. Tracksuit Bottoms Stylist’s Own. Tights WOLFORD. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop. Sunglasses Gentle Monster. Shoes Yuul Yie.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Jacket Alexander McQueen. Rollneck The Row. Tracksuit Bottoms Stylist’s Own. Tights WOLFORD. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop. Sunglasses Gentle Monster. Shoes Yuul Yie.

Rising model Ugbad Abdi is styled by Julia Sarr-Jamois in ‘A New Face, A New Story, A New Era’. Zoë Ghertner is in the studio, captuing casual, minimal sophistication with modern head gear as ‘A New Face, A New Story, A New Era’ for i-D Magazine #356 Summer 2019./ Makeup by Fara Homidi; set design by Spencer Vrooman

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Dress Christopher Kane. Trousers Kwaidan Editions. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop. Socks Falke. Shoes by FAR.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Dress Christopher Kane. Trousers Kwaidan Editions. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop. Socks Falke. Shoes by FAR.

Rising Somali model Ugbad Abdi is considered to be Fall 2019’s breakout star. She credits fellow-Muslim refugee model, Minneapolis-based Halima Aden as her inspo. “Before Halima, I just assumed there was no place for the hijab in the fashion industry,” Ugbad told i-D’s Jess Cole. “I have now realised that Muslim women can be anything we want to be.”

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner.Ugbad wears blazer Chanel. Hoodie stylist’s own. Headscarf Berwick St Cloth Shop.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner.Ugbad wears blazer Chanel. Hoodie stylist’s own. Headscarf Berwick St Cloth Shop.

Like i-D, AOC wants to be sure that we tell the positive side of immigration in America, an absolute must-do in the age of Trump and in advance of America’s 2020 presidential election. As a woman who left the Midwest for New York, I feel it’s critical that we ‘coastals’ emphasize the heart of our American Midwest and its identity that extends far beyond being known as “Trump country.”

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner.

i-D teaches us that Ugbad Abdi’s adopted home of Iowa is where we will find Cedar Rapids and the oldest Muslim community and the “quintessentially American story. In 1885 Muslims seeking religious freedom emigrated to the USA from Syria and Lebanon, and they settled in Cedar Rapids.

As a young woman living a couple hours away in Minnesota, home to Halima Aden, I did not know this fact about Muslim emigration until now. AOC has a long history of writing about the refugee models in depth, but it’s critical that the fashion industry raise its voice with stories like this one from i-D to 1) create truth around Trump’s constant lies about refugees generally and Muslims specifically and 2) to bridge unnecessary barriers between America’s midwesterners and the coastals. Writing about Americans’ support for refugees is our opportunity to celebrate the goodness that is found in Iowa, Minnesota and countless other heartland states in America.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Coat Balenciaga. Rollneck The Row. Tracksuit Bottoms Wardrobe NYC. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Coat Balenciaga. Rollneck The Row. Tracksuit Bottoms Wardrobe NYC. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop.

The same year that Donald Trump’s grandfather Friedrich Drumpf, abandoned obligatory service in Germany, choosing to sail to New York to join the American gold rush, the first Muslims formally emigrated to America. The BBC film on Netflix ‘Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President’ is excellent.

As i-D writes: “Aside from Native Americans, the stories of every single person in America began somewhere else. If it wasn’t for immigrants in search of new opportunities, there would be no America. Yet Friedrich’s grandson, Donald — the country’s current President — has taken any opportunity to scapegoat migrants, attempting to enact various travel bans on refugees from Muslim-majority countries like Somalia.”

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Coat and Rollneck The Row. Hoodie Los Angeles Apparel. Balaclava Noel Stewart.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Coat and Rollneck The Row. Hoodie Los Angeles Apparel. Balaclava Noel Stewart.

AOC also has a decade-long long history writing about the hijab and even burqas. I’ve never understood the issue with hijabs, having been raised Catholic in the company of habit-wearing nuns. By my own admission,

I have mixed feelings about burqas — especially in the workplace — but before AOC was forced to abandon comments over religious strife over Islam and also Planned Parenthood, we had amazing, positive dialogue between myself and burqa-wearing women. It went on for days with no censorship. This was also during 2009, when I was personally battling for women in Sudan, including saving one from being stoned to death.

When we bloggers raise our voices — especially notoriously apolitical fashion bloggers — we have major influence in places far away. So I love, love, love i-D for Ugbad’s interview and their steady voice on this entire subject of hijabs and Muslim women.

Fashion must take a stand for Muslim women.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Cape Valentino. Hoodie Wardrobe NYC. Tracksuit bottoms Gucci. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop. Sunglasses Gentle Monster. Socks Falke. Shoes Manolo Blahnik.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner. Cape Valentino. Hoodie Wardrobe NYC. Tracksuit bottoms Gucci. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop. Sunglasses Gentle Monster. Socks Falke. Shoes Manolo Blahnik.

Ugbad shares thoughts that reinforce what I learned from the burqa-wearing AOC readers.

“My mom is my biggest inspiration, and when I asked her why she wore the scarf, she said it made her feel modest and comfortable,” Ugbad says. “I related to that and the hijab now feels like it is a part of me. When I wear it, I feel good.” The hijab is, after all, more than just a physical scarf. Its broader meaning can be found in the belief that all Muslims should try to live every day diligently and modestly; shaping the way they act, think, and interact with others. But just as not all Muslim women wear the headscarf, the identity of any Muslim woman who does is not confined to it — and Ugbad wants conversations to move beyond the hijab. “I’m so lucky to have a voice, and I want to use it to challenge the stereotypes of Muslim women,” she says. “People need to get to know Muslim women as individuals.”

Also, defending the totality of Muslim women does not require us to remain silent on ideas we don’t embrace. AOC regularly writes on political commentary coming from the left that we don’t understand or disagree with. ~ Anne

Coat and Trousers Kwaidan Editions. Hoodie Wardrobe NYC. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop.

Coat and Trousers Kwaidan Editions. Hoodie Wardrobe NYC. Headscarf Berwick St. Cloth Shop.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner.

Ugbad Abdi by Zoe Ghertner.

More Ugbad Abdi

Zoe Ghertner Photographer Archives @ AOC

Ralph Lauren Polo Spotlights West Philadelphia Work to Ride Young Black Equestrians

The new Ralph Lauren Polo ad campaign has put a group of young people from West Philadelphia on the style and culture map.

The kids are part of Fairmount Park’s Work to Ride program, launched in 1994 and based out of the Chamounix Equestrian Center. The program gives underprivileged youth the opportunity to experience horsemanship, introducing communities of color to a predominantly whie, very privileged sport. Think our beloved Prince Harry and his friends.

"I'm still kind of bowled over that they actually took the plunge," Work to Ride Executive Director Lezlie Hiner said about the fashion giant's decision to run an ad campaign featuring her program.

On any given year, Work to Ride serves around 60 youths between the ages of 7 and 19, Hiner said. Ralph Lauren's campaign is a reflection of the program's mission. In reality Hiner is very modest, because her Work to Ride project is racking up an incomparable list of accomplishments by its young riders.

These achievements have put the West Philadelphia equestrian program on the international polo map. Forget fashion and style. This is a home-grown project about to spread some very big wings. Mark my words: young riders of color in impoverished American communities will be training at Work to Ride in the future.

The future of polo is about to get a new face, and you’re looking at it here and now. These young people play to win and have brought home gold.

"Before I got introduced to Work to Ride, I was just another black kid hanging out and going to school and just getting by," Daymar Rosser, Work to Ride alum and campaign model, said.

Rosser was introduced to Work to Ride at just 5 years old when his three older brothers stumbled upon the Chamounix stables while walking around Fairmount Park, he said. Hiner offered to teach them to ride if they'd work there, and horseback riding soon became a family affair.

"Work to Ride has brought many opportunities for myself and my family, and we're so grateful for it," Rosser said. 

Work to Ride places an emphasis not only on horseback riding, but also on discipline and scholastic achievement. To participate, youths must be enrolled in school and submit their report cards.

To that end, Ralph Lauren donated $100,000 to Work to Ride. Half of that money will go to the program's college scholarship fund and the other half to helping build an indoor riding ring, Hiner said.

Damar Rosser

Damar Rosser by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo, Work to Ride West Philadelphia.

Damar Rosser by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo, Work to Ride West Philadelphia.

At Work to Ride, Rosser became a two-time national interscholastic champion (once with his older brother Kareem) before getting invited by a former Work to Ride teammate to help start the Roger Williams University polo team in Bristol, Rhode Island. “We were trying to get the athletic department to believe us that we play polo,” he says with a laugh. “Because, obviously, they think, ‘These black kids playing polo? That’s not going to happen.’”

It happened in a big way: Rosser captained the team to the 2017 National Intercollegiate Championship in just the program’s second year. “I’m still feeling that feeling that we had that year,” says Rosser, who now splits time between an internship at a marketing agency in Philadelphia, getting invited to pro tournaments like the 20 Goal East Coast Open at Greenwich Polo Club, in Connecticut, and working as the barn manager at Work to Ride. “Because we started from nothing and no one believed in us, and we were motivated as a team to win and put our school on the map, each and every game we were just ready to play polo.”

He hopes that seeing people of color as the faces for such a prestigious brand, while simultaneously representing a predominantly white sport, will inspire young kids of color.

"I want then to believe they can achieve anything they want if they put their minds to it," Rosser said.

Shariah Harris

Shariah Harris by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo, Work to Ride West Philadelphia.

Shariah Harris by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo, Work to Ride West Philadelphia.

Shariah Harris was only age five, when her mom took a wrong wurn and ended up at the Work to Ride program’s West Philadelphia horse stable. Harris quickly tok to the horses, feeling fearless when she began playing polo.

It was no surprise then that after Postage Stamp Farm team owner Annabelle Garrett suffered a back injury before the prestigious Silver Cup tournament at the Greenwich Polo Club in 2017, she tapped Harris to take her spot on the team, making Harris the first-ever African American woman to play at the highest tier of US polo. “I just can’t stop thinking about it,” recounts Harris, who had been introduced to Garrett at a tournament in Argentina, but was still surprised when the call came in. “It was a big moment for me to be playing with and against the professionals that I’ve looked up to just coming into the sport,” she says. “I’ve always watched their games, but to be on the field playing with them was just mind-boggling for me.”

Now 21 and a junior at Cornell University, Harris is busy studying animal sciences and leading the women’s polo team to the National Intercollegiate semifinals, while also mentoring kids in the Work to Ride program. As for her big advice to young polo players? “Trust yourself and trust the horses,” she says. “It’s what I believe makes you a better player and rider—that fearless factor.”

Next year, her goal is to help the Cornell team win the biggest prizes. After graduation, Shariah plans to apply to the US Polo Association’s highly competitive Team USPA program, which mentors and trains young players and acts as a feeder program to professional polo. “Whenever I’m angry or frustrated, horses give me that extra comfort, ” she says. “I always feel at home when I’m playing.”

Kareem Rosser

Kareem Rosser by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo.

Kareem Rosser by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo.

Kareem Rosser is a highly decorated figure in intercollegiate polo. In 2011, when he captained the Work to Ride team (the first-ever Black/African American polo team) to the National Interscholastic Championship, he was named the Polo Training Foundation’s Polo Player of the Year. When he led Colorado State University to the National Intercollegiate Championship in 2015, he was also named the Intercollegiate Player of the Year. He was once even invited to play on Nacho Figueras’ famed BlackWatch team.

But Rosser is soft-spoken and still a little surprised that polo has taken him all around the world to places like Tianjin, China, and Kaduna, Nigeria. “A lot of polo players quote Winston Churchill, who said, ‘A polo handicap is your passport to the world,’” says Rosser. “And it really is. It’s such a global sport, and unique.”

Rosser credits Work to Ride with offering him the opportunity to develop not only as a world-class polo player but also as a person. “It allowed me to find who I truly am, and it provided alternatives that we normally wouldn’t have as kids growing up in West Philadelphia,” he says. “I think like most of the kids in our neighborhood, without Work to Ride, we would probably have fallen victim to drugs and crime.”

After graduating from CSU, Rosser returned to Philadelphia to take a job at a bank after meeting his boss, also an avid polo player. Rosser also uses his finance background ands global connections as the executive director of the fundraising arm Friends of Work to Ride. “I’m currently focused on launching a capital campaign and raising funds so that we can institutionalize and grow the program that we have and expand to serve more kids,” he says. “I feel like we can change more lives.”

Malachi Lyles

Malachi Lyles by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo.

Malachi Lyles by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo.

When Malachi Lyles was 11, his mother found Work to Ride online and enrolled him at the summer camp. Soon, he was hooked, but not without incident. “I remember my first or second lesson in the program, and my horse took off [at a gallop] with me, so that was a little scary,” he says. “They’re real big animals that you really don’t have much control over.”

Now, at age 18, Lyles is very comfortable around equines and is considered a rising polo star, garnering a handful of All-Star selections at tournaments over the past few years. His greatest polo achievement has been playing with two of the best players in the world. “We went down to Wellington [Florida] last April, and we got to play with Facundo Pieres and Adolfo Cambiaso,” he says. “That’s something that I’ve dreamed about, literally.”

Lyles, who was homeschooled growing up, teaches at that same summer camp he started out in, and he’s also a working model, signed to Fetch Models. “You could literally travel the whole world playing polo,” he says. “Same thing with modeling. I want to go overseas with it and see how that goes. I want to use these two vehicles to take me as far as I can.”

The worlds intersected for Lyles when Work to Ride became the face of the Ralph Lauren Polo spring campaign. “I’d written it down in my book where I write down my goals,” he says. “Back in June of last year, I wrote, ‘I will model for Ralph Lauren,’ and the next thing you know, it’s happening.”

ralph+lauren+work+to+ride+05092019.jpg