Duke Ellington: My People

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 8th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  The episode is about Duke Ellington. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then.  This is perhaps especially the case with Ellington because of his dedication to his people and the Black experience in America.  The excerpts present about 6 to 8 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


Elegance radiated from Edward Kennedy Ellington from an early age, so though he had many nicknames—Cutie, Wucker, Dumpy—the one that stuck, naturally, was Duke.  Ellington, Elegance, Eloquence: in meaning and sound these words are virtually synonymous. He was also more concerned with voices than anyone in jazz history: the voices of individual instrumentalists, and the voices of his people.

He wrote over 2000 compositions, and his concern for instrumental voices led him to virtually double jazz’s tone palate and open up new ways to think about arranging and voicing jazz compositions.  As much as anyone, he brought jazz into the American mainstream, yet his devotion to his people and Black culture stands as one of the fiercest, proudest signals meaning as much, if not more, today than ever. As one critic put it, “…at times he and his orchestra developed and maintained almost singlehandedly a Black cultural tradition.”

The excerpt below highlights first his concern with those instrumental voices, then jumps to near the end of the full-length, original show to highlight Ellington himself speaking about the importance of his people in American history.  What’s left out are long sections of several important works which illustrate his growth as a composer and arranger.  I spend some time, for example, with the piece “Concerto for Cootie,” which is the basis for one of his jazz/pop hits “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me.”  That range from concerto to pop song symbolizes the range of his music.  Well in advance of the Swing Era, he and Irvin Mills wrote “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”  At the other end of the spectrum were those concertos, suites, and even sacred concerts which have played in churches and cathedrals all over the world.

The excerpt below ends with his suite My People: first his spoken introduction to Blacks in American history, then a meditative section, sung by Mahalia Jackson, which centers us on love and God. Near the end of his autobiography he conducts a mock interview with himself.  To the question, “Besides God what sustains you?” he answers “Not besides. How does one manage without God.”  It’s difficult not to engage in sainthood-like language.  Of course, he wasn’t one, but love for music, for his people, for God—these were the fonts of his prodigious musical output and influence.  Towards the end of his life as the honors piled up—including an honorary doctorate from Yale—Ellington said, “Fate has been kind to me. She doesn’t want me to be famous too young.”  In 1999 he was given a posthumous Pulitzer Special Prize for music.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching page of this site.

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Fats Waller: One Never Knows, Do One?

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the seventh show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then.  Show #7, on Fats Waller, is probably my favorite show. The excerpts present about 6 to 8 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


Show #7 on Thomas “Fats” Waller is probably my favorite show in my Voices and Freedoms radio series.  It contained, for one thing, our most dramatic transition: we echoed Fats shouting “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!!!” at the end of a raucous tune, then a beat of silence before his introspective playing of one of his most beautiful compositions, “Honey Suckle Rose.”  That transition was a metaphor for his life: fast, raucous, funny but also reflective and achingly beautiful.  He was one of the music’s greatest comic geniuses, and this side of him overshadowed—partly  because he encouraged it—his beautiful sense of form and melody and human longing.  I quote Martin Williams, the great jazz critic, saying that “only a complex person could hold life at arm’s length through such great comedy, but a musically gifted man like Waller could have done much more.”  At show’s end I say Fats Waller could have been the most important jazz composer and arranger since Jelly Roll Morton, but that honor would go to Duke Ellington, the subject of show #8.

This show on Fats also featured a special guest, pianist Joe Zawinul.  Born in Vienna, Austria, Zawinul came to prominence playing keyboards with one of Julian “Canonball” Adderley’s greatest groups, and writing one of the group’s—and jazz’s—most popular tunes, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” He went on to play with Miles Davis, and to be one of the founders of Fusion Jazz, both with Miles and his and Wayne Shorter’s group Weather Report. He was voted best electric keyboardist nearly 30 times in the famous Downbeat magazine poll. One of the places I caught him was at a piano workshop long ago in Berkeley, California. He was doing impressions of great jazz pianists—Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and others—but when it came to Fats Waller he said he couldn’t.  “I don’t think I can do Fats. That’s pretty hard. He was something else,” Zawinul said. “With Fats I get the feeling of so much entertainment. That’s when art is at its highest: when it’s also entertainment.”

Many times, though, art and entertainment didn’t blend as well as it did in Zawinul’s mind. There was a tension between the two that could tear at a performer’s sense of self. This show was another exploration of that tearing tension that manifested powerfully in Fats Waller’s case and would come to a head with the Be-Bop Generation.  That’s one reason I dedicated a whole show to Fats, besides the fact that I just flat out enjoyed both sides of him, the comic and the artist.

But Fats was important to the evolution of jazz for technical and musical reasons as well.  He was the epitome of the Stride Piano school, a school founded by James P. Johnson, his early mentor. Ragtime piano was extraordinarily popular, and very influential in the development of early jazz, but Ragtime was often rigid and mechanical, partly because it often stood at a far remove from the vocal qualities of the blues. Here again, I got to talk about the importance of voice to jazz.  In the 1920’s the vocal qualities of blues and Southern culture began influencing jazz more and more.  These shaped stride piano as well.  Ragtime’s rigidity broke down under the influence of voice.  The piano’s left hand became more propulsive, forward moving, while the right hand took on a more vocal linearity and subtlety.  The Stride Piano School brought up much of the elite in jazz piano: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, all up and through Thelonius Monk.  It’s also no accident that, as in the case of his close friend Louis Armstrong, Fats was also a great singer, and even more than Armstrong his vocal style was extraordinarily fluid, full of sudden shifts and breaks that still set standards for comic timing today.  What an act he had.  Yet he couldn’t control the shifts and breaks in his life as well as he could in his music. By his mid-30’s he was breaking down. His signature line—“One never knows, do one?”—applied to him ever more ironically. He never saw 40.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching page of this site.

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Whitewashing the Great Depression

“How the preeminent photographic record of the period eclipsed people of color and shaped the nation’s self-image.”

This is the subtitle of Sarah Boxer’s article “Whitewashing the Great Depression,” which appeared in The Atlantic, December 2020. Read the full article HERE.  (You may have to subscribe at least to the online Atlantic to read it all—which isn’t a bad thing to do anyway.)  The article is part report on three books: Svetlana Alpers’ Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch), Mary Jane Appel’s Russell Lee: A Photographer’s Life and Legacy), and Sarah Hermanson Meister’s Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures.  Evans, Lee, and Lange were among the most prominent photographers documenting The Great Depression while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and producing some of the most iconic American photos in the process.

Photo by Russell Lee, 1938

The article’s main message is this: If you look at the roughly 175,000 negatives in the FSA/Office of War Information file, you’ll see that these and a cadre of other talented photographers took plenty of pictures of people of color, but politics got in the way.  The main culprit, at least at first, was their boss, Roy Stryker.  But he’s described as a realist.  “And the reality was that Congress, which controlled the FSA’s funds, was dominated by Southern Democrats, who, as Appel writes in her Lee biographer, were ‘interested in preserving the racial status quo.'”  President Roosevelt feared the Southern Democrats, too, because without them his New Deal programs had little hope of surviving. So, among other things, he wouldn’t back an anti-lynching campaign for fear of losing that base.  “To tug at the Dixiecrats’ heartstrings,” Boxer writes, “Stryker realized that the photographs presented to them had to accentuate white suffering.”  At the time, roughly 90% of the country was white, so under-representing Blacks may have been an attempt at proportional representation. But no group was harder hit than Blacks.  While 25% of whites were unemployed, half of Black Americans were, and they made up more than half of the country’s tenant farmers who were, reports Boxer, “often forced out of work by white ones,” a pattern which held in the North where “whites called for African Americans to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work.”

Other media also skewed the collective portrait of the Depression’s victims.  Fortune magazine, for example, asked Walker Evans and James Agee for a “record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers,” and when Evans and Agee’s famous Let Us Now Praise Famous Men came out in 1941, pictures of Black Americans were left out.  It took nearly 20 years for some of them to be added back in the book’s second edition.  So Evans, Lange, Lee and many others often flouted orders that Stryker and others gave them.  Lee constantly focused on the downtrodden, giving equal attention to people of color, as did Lange, though FSA leadership instructed her to “focus attention on the plight of white victims” and “to avoid representing instances of interracial sociality.

Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1937

In sum, Boxer writes, “Although the photographers who worked for the FSA took many pictures of people of color—in the streets, in the fields, out of work—the Great Depression’s main victims, as Americans came to visualize them, were white. And this collective portrait has contributed to the misbegotten idea, still current, that the soul of America, the real American type, is rural and white.”  In this present day where many complain about “cancel culture,” it’s important to say that the point is not to cancel out the hardships white Americans endured but to tell a fuller story about what “the real American type” is.  The “real American type” is more complicated, full of color and difference, and realizing that makes more room for everyone—whites certainly included—to appreciate what we have endured together and to try not to make that endurance harder on others than it already is.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching page.

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The Neighbor Project’s 2022 Gala

SEPTEMBER 17, 2022:  A fun and inspirational evening celebrating the STARS who make our communities shine…

> UPDATE:  Sorry. As of Sept. 12th the gala is SOLD OUT!
You can still participate, however, by going to The Neighbor Project website and making a  donation or by clicking on the banner below and going straight to bidding on items in our Silent Auction.  Thanks to all!


Last year’s gala was so much fun The Neighbor Project is doing a reprise, not quite the same…but almost.  (Go Here for a highlight video of 2021’s gala.)

The Neighbor Project works to stabilize families by getting them out of debt, helping them save, and putting them on the road to home ownership.  Lack of fair home ownership opportunities is the number one contributing factor to our nation’s terrible racial wealth gap.*  The Neighbor Project also runs Illinois’ Financial Empowerment Center.

Born in 2018 out of a merger of Emmanuel House and the Joseph Corporation, The Neighbor Project also has roots in Bryan House, a living memorial to Bryan Emmanuel Guzman started by Rick and Desiree Guzman in 2007.  Bryan House served five refugee families following an earlier formula of debt relief, saving, and home ownership that still animates The Neighbor Project today. Bryan House became Emmanuel House, serving about 30 low- and moderate-income families, many of whom were not refugees.  Now, over four years after the 2018 merger, The Neighbor Project’s vision and programs have grown to serve thousands of families and individuals.  There’s no better place to catch the growth and vision of The Neighbor Project than executive director Rick Guzman’s talk delivered at the 2020 gala.

Come to the 2022 Gala and get to know The Neighbor Project—its staff, supporters, and programs—better.

The evening’s schedule:

  • 5:15-6:00 check in at The Neighbor Project Office, 32 S.Broadway, Aurora IL
  • 5:30- 7:30 Appetizers, beverages and hot-off-the-grill dinner @ The Music Venue 21 S. Broadway
  • 7:30-8 inspiration, raffle, and auctions
  • 8:30 back by popular demand: R & B star Gerald McClendon, The Soul Keeper!

* Read The Neighbor Project’s “History of U.S. Housing Policy and the Racial Wealth Gap,” also accessible on TNP’s website by clicking on the About tab.

Go to The Neighbor Project’s website and scroll down the landing page for an introductory video. And go to the main page of this site for The Neighbor Project, Emmanuel House, and Bryan House.

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