Fate’s being kind to me. It doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.
— Duke Ellington
A paycheck. A nadir. Hired as accompaniment
for sequined swimmers in an amphitheater in Queens.
To keep the band working. A footnote.
I was born at Newport in ’56, Ellington was fond
of saying. Born again, to be fair, ushered
by Paul Gonsalves’s twenty-seven-chorus solo
and a white woman’s dance. Born aloft a tritone,
tethered to the breath of the thirty-six-year-old’s
tenor sax.Though just months earlier,
Sir Duke was made to descend to the speckled stage
of the Aquacade, in the heart of Queens. For six weeks,
Ellington and his orchestra—minus Gonsalves
and Willie Cook, minus Rick Henderson, Dave Black,
and Britt Woodman, each replaced by members
of the Local 802—played medleys behind a forty-foot
screen of water. “Mood Indigo” bleeding into “Solitude,”
“The Mooche” giving over to “Perdido,”
then “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a rose to the stitching
of Bed-Stuy to Harlem, to black modernity.
Picture it: the nearly all-white crowd, working men
and wives, their sons and daughters, cheering
every lift and gasping at the fireworks filling
the night sky. 1955. A boy shifts in his seat.
His eyes dart from the divers to the dancing waves
pink as cotton candy. His mind wanders.
And Ellington, tired and aloof, pushes his way
through an old arrangement of “Sophisticated
Lady.” He won’t return for a second set, excused
while another conductor leads the band
augmented by strings. To hell with it,
Ellington mutters, lighting another cigarette
in his dressing room, Newport still an undiscovered country.
America’s Debussy, alone, unaccustomed,
wiping the sweat from his forehead with an embroidered
handkerchief, four miles and four years
from the East Elmhurst home of Malcolm X.
Here are the relics of our future. Here is the future
of us all, the new face of a nation. In thirty years,
a museum guide tells us, students today, their children
will be the first generation raised in the US,
we nod our approval, his smile blooming,
where white is no longer the majority, as it hasn’t been
here in Queens since the nineties.
The dancing woman was Elaine Anderson,
a thirty-three-year-old socialite,her image printed
on the back jacket of the Columbia LP—
The gal who launched 7,000 cheers. Whose father
was made rich by a shipwreck. Ellington’s Helen
in a cocktail dress, platinum-blond bringer
of glad news, who danced in ecstasy
as the cameras turned away from the stage to find her.
They tell me I saved the night for the Ellington band.
It’s how you look at it, she said, her memory
held like a clutch. The glass was half-filled—I caused it.