The Public School Where The Duke Lives On

Apr 29, 2014
Originally published on April 29, 2014 9:52 am

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Alright, we're nearing the end of Jazz Appreciation Month. If you didn't know that, you should. On this date in 1899, jazz great Duke Ellington was born here in Washington, D.C., in my neighborhood. This year, a public arts high school that bears his name is celebrating its own 40th birthday. It was founded the same year that Duke Ellington died.

And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says his legacy is very much alive among students there.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Duke Ellington didn't consider himself a jazz musician. He said he was a musician who played jazz. And what a musician he was. Pianist, bandleader, composer of more than a thousand 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."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOPHISTICATED .LADY")

STAMBERG: It may just be that Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington lives on most profoundly everyday at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts here in Washington. The goal of the high school 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.

DAVEY YARBOROUGH: We have a saying, if you have to be an artist, this is the place to be.

STAMBERG: Davey Yarborough has been the director of jazz studies at Ellington for 30 years.

YARBOROUGH: Everybody good?

STAMBERG: Last week, he was rehearsing his students for the school's big 40th anniversary celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YARBOROUGH: One, two, three, four. Mm-hmm.

STAMBERG: 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 classical music, dance, drama, 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.

ANGELA WHITTAKER: I knew if I went to this school, I would come out and I would be something extraordinary and help me like shape myself into something I really always wanted to be. And I didn't think that I could achieve that until Duke Ellington gave me hope that I actually could.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE")

WHITTAKER: (Singing) Darling, I guess, my mind's more at ease. But nevertheless, why stir up memories? Been invited on dates...

STAMBERG: The school's name itself inspires hope, and percussionist Kweku Sumbry says, great pride and responsibility.

KWEKU SUMBRY: So like every time we step out of this building, for any type of performance, any competition, like have to understand that we are representing not only ourselves and our family, but Duke Ellington - the name, you know - so that means a lot to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ ENSEMBLE DRUM RIFF INTO TRUMPET)

GERALDO MARSHALL: My name is Geraldo Marshall. I'm a junior. I play trumpet at Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington is probably the greatest composer ever. It's amazing that someone could get to such a high level. You know, 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.

(LAUGHTER)

YARBOROUGH: A one, two, three, four...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YARBOROUGH: Drums, little more to the bass. Listen to the bass. Stay with it. One...

STAMBERG: And tonight, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT ME WITH THE HOT NOTE AND WATCH ME BOUNCE")

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) Hit me with a hot note and watch me bounce.

STAMBERG: They'll come together in music and song. And wouldn't that just thrill the Duke.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT ME WITH THE HOT NOTE AND WATCH ME BOUNCE")

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) Oh, let us...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.