Even before jazz came into its own, D.C. was a hub of black music, with clubs along U Street drawing racially diverse crowds in a city that was otherwise segregated. As jazz developed and artists from and traveling through the District made their mark in the field, the city struggled through the years leading up to and after the Civil Rights movement. We consider the city’s deep connections to some jazz greats, its complex racial history, and where the legacy of performers past is reflected today.


  • Maurice Jackson Professor of History, Georgetown University; author of "Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism" (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press)
  • Blair Ruble Vice President for Programs, Wilson Center; author, "Washington's U Street: A Biography"


  • 13:28:09

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAt the turn of the 20th century, Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote that the District of Columbia was a place where the breeziness of the west meets the refinement of the east, the warmth and grace of the south and the cultural and fine reserve of the north. And in the course of the decades that followed, it was a place where the blues met gospel and ragtime met big brassy march music. As these genres coalesced into something new, jazz, an art form that one of its most famous sons Thelonious Monk called Freedom.

  • 13:28:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDID.C., especially the U Street corridor, became a hotbed for musicians. And its clubs or one of the few places in town you might find integrated crowds, though some found the city more stifling than others. Here to tell you what we can learn about the city from the music and vice versa is Blair Ruble. He is the vice-president of the Wilson Center and author of "Washington's U Street: A Biography" -- co-author I should say -- oh no, author of "Washington's U Street: A Biography." Thank you very much for joining us.

  • 13:29:05

    MR. BLAIR RUBLEThank you.

  • 13:29:06

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is my friend Maurice Jackson. He's a professor of history and African American studies and performing arts and jazz at Georgetown University. He also chairs the D.C. Commission on African Affairs. Maurice, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:20

    MR. MAURICE JACKSONGreat to be here, Kojo.

  • 13:29:21

    NNAMDITogether Maurice and Blair edited the current edition of Washington History magazine from the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. devoted to the city's jazz history. And that's what we'll be talking about today. You can call us at 800-433-8850 if you'd like to join the conversation. Blair, during and immediately after the Civil War, what made Washington, D.C. in general and the stretches along 7th Street and U in particular inviting to African Americans in a way that other regions and cities may not have been?

  • 13:29:51

    RUBLEWell, right after the Civil War, Washington had more opportunities for African Americans than other cities, prior to the end of reconstruction, prior to the end of Jim Crow. It was one of the few cities in which African American males could vote. There were economic opportunities. The city had grown greatly during the civil war and it was -- it's located in an area that had high African American population.

  • 13:30:19

    RUBLEWhen Washington was founded, Virginia and Maryland had more slaves than any other states in the union at that time. And there was still a large African American population nearby, so it was accessible. And 7th Street was where poor people would take the boat to Washington and land at the dock in southwest and start walking up 7th Street until they found a place to be. So it was the entry point to the city.

  • 13:30:44

    NNAMDIMaurice, despite the strong African American communities and educational opportunities here, a lot of young black artists in the early 1900s left for Harlem. Why?

  • 13:30:56

    JACKSONWell, you know, I listened to your show yesterday with the author of "Dream City" and I heard the mayor called in. And he said, D.C. and he said it was a sleepy southern town. Well, it was a very sleepy southern town at the turn of the century. It was full of racism, a black coast, things like that. And musicians couldn't play. For example, I just saw yesterday Joe Wilder had died at 92. And the New York Times mentioned it. The Washington Post didn't.

  • 13:31:22

    JACKSONWhen he came in 1950, he had played with the musical review in New York. But when he came to Washington he couldn't play because the orchestra was integrated. And so you take that back to the turn of the century. The black coast, the riots come -- in 1919 the race riots come. And so it's not a very good place. But it's better than Alabama.

  • 13:31:43


  • 13:31:44

    JACKSONSo some people come and they go to New York.

  • 13:31:46

    NNAMDI...Langston Hughes also says of Harlem at the time as being a place where people are not so ostentatiously proud of themselves and where ones family background is not much of a concern. I'd like to play a little cut from Huddie Ledbetter here, The Bourgeois Blues by Lead Belly.

  • 13:32:51

    NNAMDIWhen I met Maurice a long time ago, we were both just understanding what bourgeois mean. Was Washington a bourgeois town in those days, Maurice?

  • 13:32:59

    JACKSONWell, you know, interestingly enough, he's speaking about white but he's also speaking about blacks. Ledbetter came here at the invitation of Alan Lomax. And Alan Lomax was a man who was a great sale promoter, but he was also a man who promoted folk music. So he went and brought Ledbetter who'd been in Parchman prison, brought him up here and they were going to record at the Library of Congress.

  • 13:33:16

    JACKSONSo he put him up -- he was going to put him up in his apartment. And the whites said, oh no you won't. And so what could they do? So he went up to the Pitts (sp?) Motor Hotel or Lincoln or somewhere and Ledbetter stayed there. And so Ledbetter wrote that song about it, about this bourgeois experience. But he was also speaking about the class lines, the distinct class lines that existed within the black community.

  • 13:33:37

    NNAMDIThis is what Langston Hughes also seemed to be talking about. Blair, you know that all the parts of the city seemed to be a true melting pot. There were lots of tensions running through these communities. Just how complicated were the various racial and ethnic dynamics at play in the city at the turn of the 20th century? And where do we see that reflected in the music?

  • 13:33:56

    RUBLEWell, I think we see the tensions reflected in the music in where different groups could play and who the audiences were. And how there were different kinds of music on 7th Street, on U Street. And there was a kind of rough and tumble atmosphere on 7th Street. It was -- on the one hand it was a melting pot. There were large numbers of Jewish merchants. There were Italian merchants. There were Greek merchants on 7th Street.

  • 13:34:26

    RUBLEAnd if you talked to individual African Americans, they remember 7th Street as a place where they knew the local store owner. But it was also a place where a lot of people felt the stores were ripping them off. And the bigger problem is institutional. And it goes back to why people were going to New York. At the end of the day, the structure of life in Washington enforced segregation. So even though people might have lived next to one another, and 7th Street is a place where everybody came and went, there wasn't always a lot of personal contact.

  • 13:35:00

    NNAMDIMaurice, but even musicians who left the city took the influence of their time here with them. How did a youth in Washington, D.C. shape the career of one James Reese Europe?

  • 13:35:12

    JACKSONThank you. You know, James Reese Europe comes from Alabama. And he comes to you and he has a wonderful experience. Now imagine this. In his high school band is Sterling Brown.

  • 13:35:22

    NNAMDIWow, the great poet.

  • 13:35:23

    JACKSONCharles Jew (sp?), the great (unintelligible), Judge William Hastie, James ReeseEurope and Rayford Logan, the great Howard University historian. So he grows up there around them. Now he lives at 308 B Street Southeast. Who lives up the street? John Philip Sousa, bum-bum-bum, the great march musician. So he's hearing that and he's going there.

  • 13:35:45

    JACKSONNow his father dies when he's in high school. He goes to New York to make it big. And then of course he goes to Europe and...

  • 13:35:53

    NNAMDI...in World War I.

  • 13:35:53

    JACKSON...World War I...

  • 13:35:54

    NNAMDIServes in World War I, as a number of musicians did. How did that experience further shape American jazz musicians? And what role did it have in introducing the continent to this new sound?

  • 13:36:05

    JACKSONWell, he went there and he was a member of the 369th regiment called the (word?) Purdue or the (word?) in French and the Germans called them the Harlem Hellfighters. He goes there and he meets soldiers from Iraq, from Mali, from Senegal, who are in the French colonial armies. But they treat them with dignity. They treat them with -- and he (word?). And then one day they're playing this song and they're playing, playing, playing. And the French are looking like they're crazy. And then the French realizes it's the (word?). And they start going -- and jazz has hit France there and just never left.

  • 13:36:36

    JACKSONHe wins the croix de guerre which is the highest medal that you can win in France. He comes back here and he's just another negro and is treated very badly. So he goes back to New York. In New York he gets a hero's welcome marching up and down Harlem. Sadly to say he was killed sometime after by a deranged band member. But by then he had introduced the music there and he had brought this march music, this band music, the compilation of jazz and others, had a great influence in that sense.

  • 13:37:05

    NNAMDILet's give a listen to a portion of the Castle House Rag by James Reese Europe and see what we hear.

  • 13:37:50

    NNAMDIIt's amazing. I both hear ragtime and John Philip Sousa.

  • 13:37:53

    JACKSONWell, you hear that -- now this is for Dabney (sp?) who organized this. And he's from D.C. and this is Vernon and Irene Castle who were the white dancer and so he's their musical director. You hear the French surreal, you hear ragtime and you hear jazz and march music.

  • 13:38:10

    NNAMDIAll of the influences. You each write about the institutions in this city that both influenced the early shaping of the sound of jazz and the institutions that continue to support performers today. How do these places make the district, in a way, unique, Blair Ruble?

  • 13:38:29

    RUBLEI think there's a very active D.C. jazz scene that is alive. And I think it's important to remember that the music is alive. And it's because of some of the universities here. UDC has a very good jazz program. Howard does. It also has to do with the military bands which bring great musicians into town. And they filter into the community. But also the Duke Ellington schools turn out a lot of really find musicians, some of whom are now moving on to the international stage. And they all play around town.

  • 13:39:02

    RUBLEAnd one of the -- I think one of the features of the contemporary jazz community is that it is a community. And if you go down to Westminster Church in Southwest on Friday nights you realize the musicians and everybody, the fans of the music, all come together and they support one another and they interact with one another. It's a very lively community. And I think it's that institution structure that has made that possible.

  • 13:39:27

    NNAMDIAnd when you first come here you may not realize that you have a long interview with the music producer Bill Brower in this book. And he's from Cincinnati. He talks about when he first came here...

  • 13:39:38

    JACKSONHe's from Dayton.

  • 13:39:38

    NNAMDIHe's from Dayton, I'm sorry. Tom Porter's from Cincinnati. When he first came here he met Tom Porter who was then the head of the Antioch Graduate School here and later a program director at WPFW. Tom Porter's who introduced me to jazz here in Washington, D.C. I knew you came here in the early '70s, Maurice. How did that work for you?

  • 13:39:55

    JACKSONWell, of course Tom was the dean at the Antioch Graduate School. And I had dropped out of (word?) and so I ended up going to Antioch and finished. And two of the first people I met were Bill and Tom. Tom had been from Cincinnati. He had been in the Navy. So he had all that great experience. When I came to Washington, so you meet people like that. But if I could digress…

  • 13:40:13

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 13:40:13

    JACKSON…for just one minute. You know, it's as much about places like this as it's about places that blacks weren't allowed to go and the resistance. And this is the 75th anniversary of Marion Anderson's concert. And that had a tremendous influence, because people like Marion Anderson came in at first and could not perform. Here is the greatest diva of metro soprano in the world. And she could not perform at Constitution Hall. Now, listen, if Constitution Hall…

  • 13:40:39


  • 13:40:39

    JACKSON1939. The Constitution Hall, blacks could sit in the galley, but couldn't perform. In the National Theater they could perform, but not sit in the galley. So this had a tremendous influence. The same year Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit." And she comes here and sings to the Club Bali. So it's just as much about…

  • 13:40:54

    NNAMDIAnd they thought there would be a riot.

  • 13:40:55

    JACKSONThey thought there'd be a riot. And, in fact, the NAACP was very upset because they didn't want to give her the (unintelligible) on metal because she was singing that satanic music, but it was the music of the African Americans. So it's about…

  • 13:41:07

    NNAMDIWell, I want to hear both clips from 1939. First we'll go back to Marion Anderson not being able to sing at Constitution Hall and singing instead at the Lincoln Memorial.

  • 13:41:59

    NNAMDINow, as Maurice Jackson pointed out, that was in 1939, when she was not able to sing there. Imagine the feeling of African Americans in the city at that time. So when Billie Holiday does "Strange Fruit," where does she do that?

  • 13:42:13

    JACKSONWell, first she does it Cafe Society in New York. And it's a big hit. And then she comes down to the Club Bali, here in Washington. And Billie Holiday would -- she was very good at picking local musicians. A lot of musicians did that in the old days. They would bring -- pick up -- and she would pick up the local musicians here and then she would have them there. And she sang it there. And then she went to Baltimore, her hometown, singing it. But the song really had meaning in New York. "Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the limbs, blood on the root."

  • 13:42:38

    NNAMDIHere's Billie Holiday.

  • 13:43:23

    NNAMDIAnd you could see why the NAACP and others would be concerned. Blair, there was also the Howard Theater, but it was hardly alone along the U Street corridor during the area's heyday in the 1920s. But you note that its management made it stand out from others like it. What was significant about who was running that theater and just how important was it and its competitors in creating a vibrant jazz scene here?

  • 13:43:48

    RUBLEWell, Maurice already talked about how African Americans could perform at the National Theater, but couldn't be in the audience. And the reality is that African Americans couldn't go to any of the entertainment sites downtown. So the Howard is important for several reasons. One, it had African American management. It was owned by whites, but they turned over the decisions about the promotions to African Americans who knew the community. And it became really embedded in the community in a way in which is very difficult to understand today.

  • 13:44:21

    RUBLEIf you talk to African Americans in Washington who are over the age of 45 or 50, they all have a Howard Theater story to tell, where they would hang out. A lot of musicians who grew up here and then go on and go to New York and L.A. and other places, first got their taste of music at the Howard Theater. It was really part of the community. And I think that's one of the special aspects of life in Washington. There were other theaters and clubs all along there. And of course, Maurice will, I'm sure, talk about Ahmet Ertegun, the son of the Turkish ambassador.

  • 13:44:55

    NNAMDIOh, yeah, we're going to get to that shortly.

  • 13:44:57

    RUBLEWell, and the Howard Theater was where he discovered jazz.

  • 13:45:00

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Blair Ruble and Maurice Jackson, together, edited the current edition of Washington History Magazine from the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. It's devoted to the city's jazz history. We'll be talking with them both when we come back. You can still call us, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:47:04

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about D.C.'s jazz history. Maurice Jackson is a professor of history and African American studies and performing arts in jazz at Georgetown University. He also chairs the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs. And Blair Ruble is the vice-president of the Wilson Center and author of "Washington's U Street: A Biography." Together they edited the current edition of Washington History Magazine from the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., devoted to the city's jazz history.

  • 13:47:35

    NNAMDIMaurice, reading the stories of musicians you profile, you come to realize just how big a role they had in helping to desegregate the city's public spaces. Was it their visibility as performers that was key to that or did other factors make them such influential advocates?

  • 13:47:53

    JACKSONWell, it is that. But, you know, jazz in itself is not black, it's not white. It's a mixture of those. And this was one place where musicians of all races and creeds could come together. Musicians would come to Washington and they'd look up the Washington musicians. And white musicians came, too. And they didn't, like, want to play in segregated venues. And so they created their own.

  • 13:48:16

    NNAMDIPerhaps the city's favorite jazz son, Duke Ellington, was influenced pretty deeply by history. After we hear a portion of his jazz symphony, "Black, Brown and Beige," I'd like to hear both of your takes of what we're hearing in terms of the story that this music tells.

  • 13:49:54

    NNAMDIDuke Ellington introduced this at Carnegie Hall. It's probably his longest and most ambitious composition. Talk about that.

  • 13:50:01

    JACKSONWell, this is "Black, Brown and Beige," and within it is "The West Indian Suite." This was dedicated in 1941, Performed the first time at Carnegie Hall for Russian War relief. And when he first performed it, Eleanor Roosevelt was there. Frank Sinatra was there. The great Stokowski was there. Many others. And they raised $7,000. The Americans and the Russians were fighting together against the Nazis. The Russians were starving.

  • 13:50:27

    JACKSONNow, this tune he wrote, dedicated to Henri Christophe. Henri Christophe was the boot black, but he was one of the founders of modern Haiti, had been a boot black at the Battle of Savannah. And so Duke Ellington -- now Duke Ellington says in his "Music is My Mistress," that he had read 700 books in his library. And they were chosen for him, with him, by the great historian Rayford Logan who had written about Haiti. So Duke Ellington is a man who studies history and uses that to write these great suites.

  • 13:50:56

    NNAMDIWhat do you hear, Blair Ruble?

  • 13:50:58

    RUBLEWell, this is -- Ellington is a child of Washington in many, many ways. And obviously he goes off to New York and there's the elegant polish of New York. You can hear it in that, but, you know, he grew up in a pretty bourgeois family and yet he goes off and he really thrives in pool halls and music places around 7th Street.

  • 13:51:20

    NNAMDITo hear him tell it, he was coddled from birth.

  • 13:51:22

    RUBLERight, right. So here's…

  • 13:51:24

    NNAMDICoddled and spoiled.

  • 13:51:25

    RUBLEAnd this gets to an important point. Why is 7th Street important? Why is African American music important? It is the sound of what this country became. And one of the places -- not the only place, but one of the places where this happens is 7th Street. And Ellington is an impressionable young guy growing up. He opens a print shop near the Howard Theater. And he comes out of this coddled background and there's this vibrant music. Why do whites go to 7th Street? Because the music was better. It had more energy to it. And that's an important part of the story, I think.

  • 13:52:00

    NNAMDIIn an only Washington, D.C. kind of story, two sons of the Turkish ambassador to the U.S., started sneaking out to listen to jazz in various clubs during the 1930's. What drew -- what brought them out and what lasting contributions to the world of music did they ultimately make, Maurice?

  • 13:52:19

    JACKSONWell, thank you. The two brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. Their father was Munir Ertegun, who was the second ambassador representing the Ataturk regime after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. And the father had been ambassador in England. They come to Washington. They had heard Ella Fitzgerald at the Palladium, in New York. They come to Washington and one of the first things they speak about -- they listen to the radio in 1939 and they hear both, Billie Holiday and Marion Anderson.

  • 13:52:45

    JACKSONThey talk about the effect that has on them. So they're sneaking out every night, going to -- and they have the chauffeur at the embassy, Cleo Pane (sp?), takes them all around. The father doesn't like it that they're hanging out at night. So he says bring these musicians to the Turkish embassy, which is right on Massachusetts Avenue. So musicians start coming, Cootie Williams, Duke Ellington, Leslie Ann (sp?), all of them coming.

  • 13:53:03

    JACKSONAnd so this white senator -- we don't know the name. I imagine it was John Stennis or someone like, it said, "Man, Ambassador, I've seen black people coming out," you know what he said, "I've seen black people coming out the front door of the embassy. We don't have that in Washington." So the ambassador says -- and if you know a biblical verse -- and they are Muslims, of course -- the bible verse, "In my father's house there are many matches. If it were not so I would not have told you."

  • 13:53:25

    JACKSONAnd so he tells him the Muslim version. "This is my house. And now, sir, if you want to come through the backdoor, you may. But in my house everyone comes through the front." And they had these great concerts and musicians would come. Some years ago I was somewhere with Lonnie Bunch, the head of Museum of African American Art.

  • 13:53:42

    NNAMDIHistory of the Smithsonian.

  • 13:53:42

    JACKSONAnd he swears -- at the Smithsonian. He swears that his mother told him when he came to Howard in 1968, "If there's another one of those riots, you go to the Turkish embassy, they'll protect you." But the Turkish embassy, they had…

  • 13:53:51

    NNAMDISo the word had spread around the country that this was a…

  • 13:53:54

    JACKSONThe word had spread.

  • 13:53:54

    NNAMDI…place that was protective.

  • 13:53:55

    JACKSONAnd it lasted for 40 years. So these musicians, so they went out and started producing the music themselves. And (unintelligible) 7th Street they go to (unintelligible) Waxie Maxie and they started buying records. Now, what they decide to do is have their own concerts. And in the early '40s they have one at the Jewish Community Center on 16th and Q. Now, imagine this, two Muslim guys bring in black music to a Jewish establishment. Now, that is something that we probably need today.

  • 13:54:26

    NNAMDIThey formed Atlantic Records, didn't they?

  • 13:54:28

    RUBLEThat's right. They go on and they started their own record company. And they're really important in the history of 20th century music. And it all started because they had -- the embassy had a chauffeur who knew the music scene in Washington.

  • 13:54:43

    NNAMDIAnd we're running out of time. And I have a final question, but in order to introduce it I have to introduce something that we put together here by two of Washington's more famous artists. We have both Duke Ellington and Chuck Brown, "If It Don't Mean a Thing."

  • 13:55:53

    NNAMDIWhich brings me to two separate, but obviously connected questions. What place do you see jazz happening in the city today? And what influence do you see it having on new music or other forms like go-go or hip-hop?

  • 13:56:05

    JACKSONYou know, the other day I heard Kanye West. And has this -- I pronounce it wrong -- Ice or something like that. And he has a song on it, "Blood on The Roots." Now, where's he get this from? Now, I know nothing about Kanye West, but I know where he got it from. So he -- evidently he's listening to some music. And this is the experience. And that's why I title my piece, "Great Black Music," because it incorporates everything, the blues, the jazz and that's obvious that Chuck Brown is paying tribute to the greatest of Washington musicians, Duke Ellington.

  • 13:56:35

    NNAMDIAnd, of course, Chuck Brown was shining shoes outside of the Howard Theater and managed to get a tip from some guy named Louis Armstrong.

  • 13:56:42

    RUBLEThat's right. And he thought, "Gee, if I get a tip like this it must be pretty good to be a musician." And it all started. But the other part of this -- and I think this is the contemporary story -- is the influence of hip-hop and go-go on local jazz. And the musicians go back and forth. And this is -- the important thing is this is a live music form. And you go around town and you hear the musicians.

  • 13:57:04

    RUBLEThey're really dedicated to the music. And they're bringing all these influences together. It's not as if we're talking about, you know, Washington had a great jazz era and it died. It's alive. It's alive by these cross-pollinations.

  • 13:57:15

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Catherine, who said, "Between the D.C. Archives and Jazz, this is about as good a show as it gets and put a smile on my face. Thank you. And I do wonder how they got that Victrola into the studio. Those suckers are heavy." Well, you should know that if you listen to the tracks that we played from today's show you can find the track list up on our website soon. And that will be at kojoshow.org. And of course you can find out a lot more in the current edition of Washington History Magazine from the History Society of Washington, D.C., devoted to the city's jazz history.

  • 13:57:48

    NNAMDIIt is co-written by Maurice Jackson and Blair Ruble. Maurice Jackson's professor of history and African American studies and performing arts and jazz at Georgetown University. He also chairs the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs. Maurice, always a pleasure.

  • 13:58:01

    JACKSONThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:58:02

    NNAMDIAnd Blair Ruble is the vice president at the Wilson Center and author of "Washington's U Street: A Biography." Blair, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:09

    RUBLEThank you.

  • 13:58:09

    NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows