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Callaloo 24.4 (2001) 1127-1134
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fromFrom The Briarpatch File
Memos For A Memoir
Me and Old Duke
Back in 1927, when I was eleven years old and in the fifth grade at Mobile County Training School on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama, some twenty-plus years before Kenneth Burke's notion of art as basic equipment for living became a fundamental element in my concept of the pragmatic function of aesthetic statement, I was already trying to project myself as the storybook heroic me that I wanted to be by doing a syncopated sporty limp-walk to the patent leather avenue beat of Duke Ellington's then very current "Birmingham Breakdown."
There were also highly stylized facial expressions, gestures, postures, and other choreographic movements that went with "Mood Indigo," "Black and Tan Fantasy," and "Creole Love Call," all of which were also elements in the texture of the troposphere of that part of my preteen childhood. But "Birmingham Breakdown" (along with old Jelly Roll Morton's "Kansas City Stomp," and Fletcher Henderson's "Stampede") functioned as my personal soundtrack some years before Vitaphone movies came into being.
In junior high school there was Ellington's recording of "Diga Diga Doo," a novelty vocal that some of my classmates and I sometimes used as a cute little takeoff jive ditty on Talladega College, which, along with Morehouse College in Atlanta and Fisk University in Nashville, was a choice liberal arts college, scholarship grants to which we as honor students were already competing with each other for upon graduation. The Ellington swagger perennial from that period was "Rockin' in Rhythm."
Along with the advanced courses and grade point average competition of senior high school, plus all of the ritual challenges of full-fledged adolescence, which, by the way, included cosmopolitan standards of sartorial elegance set by the latest fashions in Esquire, a new men's magazine, came "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," and "Delta Serenade." Although "Stormy Weather," "Cocktails for Two," and "(Everybody's) Truckin" were not Ellington compositions, it was Ellington's arrangements and recordings that established them as radio hits and stash-swagger-fare for hip cats.
When "Caravan" came out I was in college, and that was also the year that T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) published Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which eventually led me to Charles Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta and to Sir Richard Burton's Personal [End Page 1127] Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Madinah & Meccah. The dance step that used to go with "Caravan" and other ballroom exotica was the camel walk, which for a while was right out there with "Truckin"' and was no less intricate than the Suzy Q. Then came "I Let a Song Go out of My Heart," with an instrumental version that was no less popular than the lyric.
I was also in college when "Echoes of Harlem" came out, and along with "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" it has come to represent an aesthetic statement that was more in line with my evolving sensibility and artistic aspiration than anything I had come across in The New Negro, Alain Locke's anthology of the so-called Harlem Renaissance.
The world I graduated into from college in 1939 was that of Count Basie's "Doggin' Around" and "Blue and Sentimental." But in 1940 came Ellington's "Cotton Tail," a musical stylization of the elegantly nimble rabbit in the briarpatch, which for me was to become the musical equivalent of a representative literary anecdote. For example, the blues as such may be approached as the ever nimble rabbit copes with the jam-session-like challenges of the briarpatch. Hence the name Scooter for the protagonist of Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, The Seven League Boots, and the book now in progress.
When I came to New York the first time, "Echoes of Harlem," "Uptown Downbeat," "I'm Slapping Seventh Avenue with the Sole of My Shoe," "Harlem Airshaft," and the then new "Take the A Train" had as much to...