(Laris Karklis/The Washington…)
The elegance and sophistication of musical genius Edward “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington, where the musician grew up, was influenced by the music of the last century — ragtime, church and classical — before he began writing music and forming his first dance bands while still in high school. February marks a sort of homecoming as Ellington is the subject of a month-long festival at Music Center at Strathmore. (You’ll find a schedule below.)
Before he moved to New York in 1923 and the fame that recordings and widespread touring would bring, he was a mainstay on the lively “Black Broadway” of the District’s U Street NW, playing its plentiful dance halls, grand theaters and smoky after-hours clubs.
Like much of the Shaw neighborhoods where he grew up, which stood decaying in a 30-year blight after the riots of 1968, many of the houses where he lived are still standing (though none is open to the public), as are many of the theaters and clubs where he played. And some, from the Lincoln Theatre on one end of U Street to the Howard Theatre on the other, are being renovated to their Ellington-era heyday.
It makes for a rewarding self-directed walking tour for fans of American music at a time when his talent continues to be celebrated.
1 2129 Ward Pl. NW
James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington were living with her parents when they had their son Edward Kennedy Ellington, who would be known to the world as Duke, on April 29, 1899. There’s nothing left of the home on the street that was then known as Ida Place. There’s a post office building there now.
2 420 Elm St. NW
One of a series of homes his parents rented, circa 1906, near Howard University in LeDroit Park.
3 1805 13th St. NW
Beginning a seven-year stay on the street, the Ellington home from 1910 to 1914, like all of the places where the musician lived in the city, is a private residence, though there is a historical sign out front.
4 1816 13th St. NW
There was a little more room as the Ellington family moved just up the block. Still, there’s no historical marker in front of the private home to denote the fact that he lived here about the time he started writing music, from 1915 to 1917.
5 1955 Third St. NW
The first home for Ellington and his new wife, Edna Thompson Ellington, in 1918.
6 1206 T St. NW
Ellington and his young family – his son, Mercer, was born in March 1919 — rented a room here. The townhouse sold for more than $1 million in 2010.
7 2728 Sherman Ave. NW
The modest rowhouse, the only property Ellington purchased in the District, was on busy Sherman Avenue in Columbia Heights. It was also the contact address on the business card for his first band, Duke’s Serenaders, a group that played “Irresistible Jass.” After standing neglected for years, it became the office for the National Partnership for Community Leadership and sports a plaque noting its musical legacy.
8 The Howard Theatre,
620 T St. NW
Built in 1910, it began as the center of black culture locally and nationally. The largest venue in the world to serve those of African descent when it opened, it had its struggles over the years, closing after the 1929 stock market crash, only to reopen in 1931 with a weeklong engagement by its own favorite son, Duke Ellington. Decaying for decades, it’s in the midst of a huge renovation, and a spring reopening is still planned.
9 The Lincoln Theatre,
1215 U St. NW
Another cornerstone to the U Street corridor, it opened in 1922 as a silent movie house and vaudeville site for the city’s African Americans before turning into a luxury movie house in the late ’20s with a ballroom in the basement, the Lincoln Colonnades, one of the many dance halls Ellington’s popular band played. Closed and deteriorating, its renovation came in 1994, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities took over operations last month.
10 Frank Holliday’s Poolroom, 624 T St. NW
Right next to the Howard Theatre, it’s where young Ellington would listen to the piano players beginning at the age of 14 and eventually play there himself. Most recently the Cafe Mawonaj, it’s now part of the renovated complex of buildings alongside the Howard.
11 The Poodle Dog Cafe, 2000 block of Georgia Avenue NW
One of many clubs across the country to borrow the name of the New Orleans original, it was also a place where young Ellington worked at the soda counter, inspiring his first original composition, “Poodle Dog Rag,” later known as the “Soda Fountain Rag.”
12 True Reformer Hall,
1200 U St. NW
A local African American landmark, it’s where Ellington played his first public performance in one of the second-floor ballrooms. Still standing, it’s the headquarters of the Public Welfare Foundation. The Ellington mural there, by G. Byron Peck, gazes down at the nearby U St./Cardozo Metro stop.
13 The Whitelaw Hotel,
1839 13th St. NW