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Duke Ellington’s melodies carried his message of social justice

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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.

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 Bloomsbury neighborhood 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.

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Ellington and band members playing baseball in front of the ‘colored’ only Astor Motel while touring in Florida in 1955.Library of Congress/Charlotte Brooks photographer

Northern or western engagements in the 1930s and 1940s often proved no better. While there were no “white only” signs on the doors of these hotels or restaurants, establishments enforced segregation by telling black customers to enter through back doors or purchase their meals to go.

Bassist Milt Hinton recalled that Ellington and fellow band leader Count Basie often stayed at black-owned boarding houses rather than risk being thrown out or ignored.

White band managers attempted to protect the black bands they managed from these racist practices, but this still did not prevent Ellington from being denied service in a Salt Lake City hotel’s cafe in the 1940s.

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.

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 film combined 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.

Duke Ellington, Paramount Theater, New York, 1946. Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb photographer
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.

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Social Justice

Consumer Group Wins First Round in Lawsuit Against Ben & Jerry’s

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A federal judge has ruled against Ben & Jerry’s and allowed a lawsuit alleging that the company doesn’t live up to its environmentally friendly messaging to move forward.

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) filed suit in Washington in July arguing that the Vermont-based ice cream maker misled consumers to think its product is more environmental friendly than it really is, in violation of consumer protection laws. On Monday, Judge Neal Kravitz foiled Ben & Jerry’s efforts to get the case dismissed.

The OCA argued that while Ben & Jerry’s frames itself as an environmental leader, in reality, the company’s products include ingredients sourced from inhumane dairy farms and include traces of glyphosate, a herbicide.

Ben & Jerry’s, which is owned by Unilever, had argued that no reasonable customer would conclude that the company’s advertising about “happy cows” meant that none of the cows lived on ordinary farms.

Kravitz found that the allegations raised by the association were “sufficient to advance a plausible claim that consumers would be misled by Ben & Jerry’s labeling and marketing regarding the sourcing of its ingredients.”

“A reasonable consumer could plausibly interpret Ben & Jerry’s labeling and marketing as affirmatively (and inaccurately) communicating that the company’s ice cream products are sourced exclusively from Caring Dairies and/or other humane source,” he wrote.

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Social Justice

‘Everyday People Like It When We Fight for Everyday People’

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“I inherently reject the paternalistic idea that some subjects are too complex for everyday people to engage. If we present compelling, solid info plus commonsense arguments, we can win,” the New York congresswoman wrote on Twitter

“I inherently reject the paternalistic idea that some subjects are too complex for everyday people to engage. If we present compelling, solid info plus commonsense arguments, we can win,” the New York congresswoman wrote on Twitter

Bolstering Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) recent remark that “everyday people like it when we fight for everyday people,” a new analysis of social media data published on Sunday found that the freshman congresswoman received more Twitter engagement over the past month than any other Democrat in Congress—and it wasn’t even close.

According to numbers from CrowdTangle compiled by Axios, Ocasio-Cortez, who was sworn in less than two weeks ago, had 11.8 million total interactions on Twitter—retweets plus likes—between Dec. 11 and Jan. 11. The congressional Democrat with the second most Twitter interactions was Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), with 4.6 million.

“I inherently reject the paternalistic idea that some subjects are too complex for everyday people to engage,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Monday, explaining her messaging approach that has, in just a few months, driven previously obscure or marginalized solutions like the Green New Deal and a 70 percent top marginal tax rate into mainstream political discourse.

“When I meet everyday people, they are eager to learn more, ask great questions, and embrace nuance,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “If we present compelling, solid info plus commonsense arguments, we can win.”

Based on CrowdTangle’s figures, below is a Twitter engagement ranking among the congressional Democrats included in the new analysis, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former President Barack Obama, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). For Harris, Sanders, and Warren, the figure is the combined number of interactions on their personal and official accounts.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.): 11.8 million
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.): 4.6 million
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): 2.6 million
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): 2.6 million
  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): 2.4 million
  • Beto O’Rourke: 1.8 million
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): 1.4 million 

In addition to far surpassing her Democratic colleagues in Twitter engagement, Ocasio-Cortez is also receiving dramatically more social media interaction than America’s largest corporate media outlets.

As Neal Rothschild of Axios put it, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is absolutely dominating the national conversation on Twitter, generating more interactions than the five biggest news organizations combined over the last 30 days.”

Bolstering Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) recent remark that “everyday people like it when we fight for everyday people,” a new analysis of social media data published on Sunday found that the freshman congresswoman received more Twitter engagement over the past month than any other Democrat in Congress—and it wasn’t even close.

According to numbers from CrowdTangle compiled by Axios, Ocasio-Cortez, who was sworn in less than two weeks ago, had 11.8 million total interactions on Twitter—retweets plus likes—between Dec. 11 and Jan. 11. The congressional Democrat with the second most Twitter interactions was Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), with 4.6 million.

“I inherently reject the paternalistic idea that some subjects are too complex for everyday people to engage,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Monday, explaining her messaging approach that has, in just a few months, driven previously obscure or marginalized solutions like the Green New Deal and a 70 percent top marginal tax rate into mainstream political discourse.

“When I meet everyday people, they are eager to learn more, ask great questions, and embrace nuance,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “If we present compelling, solid info plus commonsense arguments, we can win.

Since Ocasio-Cortez burst onto the political scene last year with her astonishing primary upset of powerful Wall Street-friendly Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) last June, much analysis has been devoted to discovering why she has garnered such widespread appeal in such a short period of time.

While corporate Democrats have expressed confusion—and, in some cases, alarm—about the freshman congresswoman’s popularity, Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs argued on Monday that Ocasio-Cortez’s appeal lies in her straightforward and unabashed presentation of bold solutions that the public craves.

“She bluntly sticks up for progressive values, rather than timidly using conservative premises. She’s not always perfectly polished, but I feel as if she’s on my side and won’t back down, which is something millennial leftists really need right now,” Robinson wrote.

Lamenting the frequency with which politicians campaign on bold promises only to quickly backpedal once they take office, Robinson noted that Ocasio-Cortez “has been an inspiring exception to this. She made it clear that her loyalties weren’t with the Democratic leadership but with the protesters occupying the offices of the Democratic leadership.”

“My desperate, pleading hope is that instead of succumbing to the inevitable pressure from Congressional peers—moderate your rhetoric, ‘get serious,’ don’t criticize the party—she doubles down and keeps kicking ass,” Robinson concluded. “She’s already showing how we can successfully change the conversation: The Green New Deal, like Medicare for All, has gone from marginal to mainstream within a matter of months.”


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Social Justice

We Can’t Tackle the Migrant Crisis Without Fighting Climate Change

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Many Americans have rightfully been outraged at the inhumane conditions of migrant families detained at the border. Refugees have been packed tight into cages that don’t leave them room to lie down, denied basic amenities like showers and toothbrushes, and separated from their children.

Meanwhile, there was a record heatwave that gripped most of the United States. At face value, these issues may seem entirely unrelated. The reality is the crisis at the border is deeply connected to the climate crisis.

What the world’s scientists warned us about 30 years ago is emerging before our eyes. In Central America, prolonged and escalating droughts have choked the water supply and turned crops to dust. Famine, thirst, poverty and crime is creating a generation of climate refugees who uproot from their homes and loved ones. These refugees come to the United States, seeking refuge, stability and dignity.

Instead, they face guns, dogs and jails at our border. Make no mistake, this is what American climate policy looks like in the age of President Trump.

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