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Sometimes, it pays to be a rebel. When, after a decade of reasonably faithful observance of conventional behavior at Yale, I chose to deviate from established practice, my action led to a fascinating encounter with one of the true geniuses of modern American culture, Duke Ellington. Here is how it happened.
When I arrived as a professor at Yale in 1955, I discovered that one of my duties involved participation in a departmental nomination for receipt of an honorary degree at the upcoming Commencement. I took this responsibility seriously, and each year either proposed a nominee of my own or joined with other department members in supporting a candidate of their choice. For a full decade, I watched as our nominations went nowhere. This disappointment always occurred without explanation or indeed without any hint as to how and why our nominee had been found inadequate. Our frustration was compounded by the feeling that some of the successful nominations were inferior to our own. I, for one, resolved not to waste any more time on what appeared to be a sterile enterprise.
But in 1966, when I served as director of the division of the biological sciences, I decided to take advantage of my acquaintance with several members of the Brewster administration’s inner circle to pursue an independent course of action. As an amateur saxophonist and longtime jazz afficionado, I had developed a tremendous admiration for Duke Ellington’s compositions and their rendition by his nonpareil orchestra. Why not nominate the Duke for an honorary degree? No jazz personality had ever received such an award from Yale, and I thought that Ellington’s stature as a creative artist entitled him to such an honor. So I composed an appropriate statement and sent it on to my friend Ben Holden, then Secretary of the University, asking him to forward it to the relevant committee. But in my heart of hearts, I expected no greater success from this nomination than from the others I had made.
Imagine my surprise and joy when I received a phone call from Ben some months later. “Art,” he said, “you’ve done it!” “Done what?” was my rejoinder. “Your nomination of Duke Ellington for an honorary degree has been successful. And Kingman insists that you write the citation that he will read at Commencement. But keep everything secret until Commencement Day.” When I recovered from my shock, I agreed to do the write-up, deciding to construct a statement built around the titles of some of the Duke’s greatest creations. Here is what I came up with:
President Brewster read every word as I had written it.
The Duke’s given name is Edward Kennedy Ellington. Ben Holden told me that our irrepressible President could not resist playing with that name at the Corporation meeting when he announced the honorary degree recipients. His long pause after reading “Edward” and “Kennedy” caused considerable consternation when it created the impression among some Corporation members that a certain junior senator from Massachusetts was the recipient. Brewster’s final recitation of “Ellington” broke the tension amid considerable laughter.
When sending the Ellington citation to Ben Holden, I made him promise that I would be the Duke’s official guide and companion during his visit to the campus. But in 1967 when the Duke received his honorary degree, my son Bill was graduating from Cornell University, and the commencements were to be held on the same day, at virtually the same hour. There was no way that, as a father, I could miss my own son’s commencement. So I swallowed my disappointment and didn’t get to meet the Duke.
Some years later, based in part on the Duke’s new connection with Yale, Willie Ruff, an adjunct professor at the School of Music, convinced the administration to establish the Duke Ellington Fellowship. Under that program, we have been treated to outstanding concerts by Willie, his musical partner—pianist Dwike Mitchell—and outstanding young Yale and New Haven musicians. The Fellowship even brought famous musicians like Dizzy Gillespie to town to play pied piper for New Haven schoolchildren. (The Fellowship’s 30th Anniversary concert will take place on October 25.)
For me, the culmination of this adventure was a gala occasion at Woolsey Hall in October 1972 when outstanding jazz musicians were brought together to inaugurate the Fellowship. My wife and I were invited to a pre-concert dinner in the President’s room with the musicians. At the table, my neighbor shook my hand, smiled, and said: “My name is Smith.” He turned out to be Willie “The Lion” Smith, who pioneered the “stride” rhythmic bass piano style that became dominant amongst jazz pianists! After dinner, Smith lamented that he had failed to bring a big cigar, part of his traditional costume when playing, so I ventured out in the heavy rain to buy him one at George & Harry’s (now Naples) on Wall Street. And when he and the Duke played duets at facing grand pianos, that cigar was part of the Lion’s equipment. Also recipients of Ellington Medals that night were jazz pioneers Eubie Blake, Art Blakey, and Noble Sissle; drummers Max Roach, Sonny Greer, Joe Jones, and Kenny Clarke; trumpeters Sy Oliver, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Dizzy Gillespie, “Cootie” Williams, and Clark Terry; trombonist Ray Brown; bassists Milt Hinton, Charles Mingus, and “Slam” Stewart, saxophonists Benny Carter, Harry Carney, Russell Procope, and Sonny Stitt; pianist Mary Lou Williams; and singers Joe Williams and Odetta. All those saints came marching onto the same platform on the same night. It was probably the greatest aggregation of jazz talent assembled at any one time in history.
Afterwards, when we mingled with the musicians, my wife saw the Duke seated on a chair against the wall, for the moment free of admirers. She hastened up to him, introduced herself, and told him of my role in the awarding of his honorary degree in 1967. He smiled broadly, asked me to approach him, then rose, kissed me on both cheeks and recited his mantra: “I love you madly.” As we parted, he took our name and address and promised to add us to his annual Christmas card mailing list. Alas, he died before he could keep that promise, but the memory of my encounter with the Duke will stay with me forever.
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