Commentary Magazine


The Duke and the Reds

In 1969, Duke Ellington celebrated his 70th birthday at the White House, where President Nixon threw a star-studded party and presented him with a Medal of Freedom. Only four years earlier, the greatest jazz composer of the 20th century had been passed over for a special Pulitzer Prize in recognition of his musical achievements. Hence the significance of the party, which was seen not merely as a tribute to Ellington but to jazz itself. As Ralph Ellison put it, “That which our institutions dedicated to the recognition of artistic achievement have been too prejudiced, negligent, or concerned with European models and styles to do is finally being done by presidents.”

Cynics took it for granted that Nixon’s purposes were purely political. If, on the other hand, they had had access to Ellington’s FBI file, it might have puzzled them that so prominent an opponent of Soviet Communism had chosen to honor an artist who appeared to have once had close ties to the American Communist Party. The file, opened in 1953, showed that throughout the 1930s and 40s, Ellington regularly performed for or sponsored such well-known Communist-front groups as the Artists’ Front to Win the War and the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.

By the time that the contents of Ellington’s file became known, such associations were seen in a different light than they had been at the height of the McCarthy era. Many expressed outrage that the file existed at all, while others concluded that it revealed Ellington, who had previously been seen as essentially apolitical, to have been a “committed” left-wing artist.

Sure is jumpin’: Ellington’s revu-sical program.

Sure is jumpin’: Ellington’s revu-sical program.

But few who commented on the file had any actual knowledge of Ellington’s own political sympathies, much less any historical perspective on his wartime associations. It was not widely known, nor is it now, that he was in fact both a lifelong Republican and a passionate anti-Communist—albeit one who in the early 40s had collaborated with some of Hollywood’s leading Communists and fellow travelers, and whose 1943 Carnegie Hall debut was a benefit for a group that was secretly controlled by the Communist Party.

The story of Ellington’s tangled relationship with the American left begins in 1941, when his band was temporarily based in Hollywood. Ellington had long aspired to write a Broadway musical, and in July of that year Jump for Joy: A Sun-Tanned
Revu-sical
, his first full-length stage show, opened at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles. Jump for Joy was an all-black revue whose goal, he said, was “to give an American audience entertainment without compromising the dignity of the Negro people.”

The sparkplug for Jump for Joy was Sid Kuller, a second-string Hollywood gagman who was also a jazz buff and invited Ellington to hold weekend jam sessions at his house. One night Kuller came home late from the studio, arriving in the middle of a particularly inspired number. “Hey, this joint sure is jumpin’!” he said. “Jumpin’ for joy,” Ellington replied. Kuller then suggested that they should collaborate on a stage revue called Jump for Joy and raised $20,000 on the spot from the Hollywood personages who were present.

One of them was John Garfield, the one-time stage actor who had become a Hollywood star. In due course Garfield became one of the principal investors and de facto producers of Jump for Joy.

For the next half-century, Kuller would repeat this pleasant tale to interviewers—but the backstory of Jump for Joy was far more complicated than he ever let on. Years later, he casually referred to the show’s backers as “the leftist Hollywood crowd.” He spoke more truly than most jazz historians know. Kuller had previously worked on Meet the People, a 1940 Broadway revue cut from the same political cloth as Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock and Harold Rome’s Pins and Needles (both 1937), the most commercially successful of the many left-wing musical revues and straight plays that grew out of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project.

Both shows figure prominently in the history of the Popular Front, the “anti-fascist” alliance through which agents of the Soviet Union sought to infiltrate and co-opt liberal groups in America and Europe in order to manipulate (among other things) public opinion by fostering the emergence of a “progressive,” Communist-friendly middlebrow culture. The plays of Lillian Hellman, the Western-themed ballet scores of Aaron Copland, the pro-labor shows of Blitzstein and Rome—all were in their varying ways exercises in Popular Front–style cultural populism, and the makers of Jump for Joy proposed to follow in their footsteps.

The success of Pins and Needles inspired a group of Hollywood-based writers, among them Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Langston Hughes, and Ira Gershwin, to launch the Hollywood Theatre Alliance, whose purpose was to mount similar shows in Los Angeles. Kuller approached Ellington, who had already been involved in preliminary discussions with the group, about writing the score to such a show, and Ellington and the HTA then joined forces to start a parallel group called the American Revue Theatre, under whose auspices Jump for Joy was produced.

It was no secret that the HTA, like other such organizations in Los Angeles and New York, was full of Communists—including Hammett and Hellman—and the House Un-American Activities Committee would later describe it as a “Communist-front organization.” True or not, many of the members of “the leftist Hollywood crowd” who took part in the creation of Jump for Joy were card-carrying Communists and fellow travelers (like Garfield) whose goal was to advance the agenda of the Popular Front by creating a black counterpart of Pins and Needles.

_____________ 

How widely was this understood? The local black press was either ignorant of the Communist tint of the show’s creative team or preferred to downplay it. And while the Popular Front had long taken an interest in black jazz, there is no reason to suppose that Ellington was aware of its activities in anything more than the most general way. It is well within the realm of probability that he did not fully grasp the extent to which the HTA was Communist-dominated.

In his only known statement on the subject, made in a 1971 interview, Ellington said that his “social[ly] conscious” friends in Hollywood included “a lot of those intellectuals—some of them were labeled Communists.” It is true, too, that he was also peripherally involved in other Popular Front undertakings. He endorsed, for instance, the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt to a fourth term in a strident full-page New York Times ad placed by the Independent Voters’ Committee of the Arts and Sciences, a Popular Front group specifically organized to win the support of liberal celebrities. His fellow signers included Marian Anderson, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Carl Sandburg, and Orson Welles.

But all those who knew Ellington well agreed, then and later, that he was not in any way a political animal. To be sure, he regularly performed at NAACP benefits, but the civil-rights movement was the only cause in which he took any lasting interest. “I’ve never been interested in politics in my whole life, and don’t pretend to know anything about international affairs,” he wrote in 1950. In private, according to his son Mercer, Ellington “believed that Communists worked ceaselessly to overthrow the power of the United States.”

It is possible, of course, that Ellington’s later anti-Communist statements were made in order to cover his tracks. Like many other blacks, he appreciated the Communist Party’s stance against racism, and his sentiments were widely shared in Harlem. As early as 1933, the future Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., had proclaimed that “the day will come when being called a Communist will be the highest honor that can be paid an individual and that day is coming soon.” Ellington himself would actively back the candidacy of Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., who ran for New York’s City Council on the Communist ticket in 1943.

But Ellington, like most blacks of his generation, was also a longtime Republican for whom the party of FDR was the party of southern segregation, and in any case, his FBI file shows that the bureau took no more than a cursory interest in him. The 35-page file, opened in 1953, consists exclusively of responses to background checks by other government agencies, all of which recycle the same list of associations with known and alleged Communist fronts, most of which promoted civil rights and Soviet war relief. Perhaps J. Edgar Hoover thought otherwise, but nothing in the file indicates that he was anything other than what he said he was, a black artist of liberal inclination who, like most liberal artists of the 30s and 40s, knew his share of Communists.

_____________ 

It is no surprise, then, that he was willing to collaborate with a group of hard-left Hollywood artists and writers “whose sympathies fitted into my scene and scheme” to create a pro-black musical. For Ellington, the point of the association was that he wholeheartedly approved of the overall concept of Jump for Joy, which he described as “an all-Negro show with a social-significance theme.?.?.?.?Everything, every setting, every note of music, every lyric, meant something. 

All the sketches had a message for the world.”

Unfortunately, their message failed to reach the world, for the reviews of Jump for Joy were sharply mixed and the show closed in September after 11 weeks and 101 performances. It never reached Broadway, nor has it received a successful commercial revival anywhere else.

Ellington believed, as did most of his collaborators, that Jump for Joy was ahead of its time. Not surprisingly, it has come to be taken as an article of theatrical faith that the show was a critical and commercial failure not through any fault of its own but because white audiences were unprepared to embrace a musical that presented blacks not as shiftless, grinning halfwits but as real people.

That may well be true, but there is also reason to think that the critics were at least partly right. Judging by what survives of the songs and sketches, it appears that Jump for Joy was both musically lackluster and lyrically heavy-handed. The latter conclusion will surprise no one familiar with The Cradle Will Rock and Pins and Needles. For all Ellington’s determination to “say everything we wanted to say without saying it,” as he put it in a 1967 interview, his collaborators were even more determined to pound home their anti-racist message by any means necessary.

On occasion the results are witty enough, as in “Sun-Tanned Tenth of the Nation,” the opening number: “The punch that should be present in a colored show alas is?/?Disinfected with Magnolia and dripping with Molasses;?/?In other words: we’re shown to you thru Stephen Foster’s glasses.”

Considerably less deft, however, is the title song, whose lyrics celebrated the death of Uncle Tom: “Don’t you grieve, little Eve,?/?All the hounds, I do believe,?/?Have been killed, ain’t you thrilled,?/?Jump for joy.” Worse still is the ham-fisted “I’ve Got a Passport from Georgia,” which tells of the singer’s longing to flee the south for a place where “the cravat’s a correct tie,?/?Where you wear no Dixie Necktie,?/?Where the signs read, ‘OUT TO LUNCH,’ not, ‘OUT TO LYNCH.’?”

It goes without saying that such sentiments were very much to the point in 1941. But good intentions and good art are not the same thing, and the incongruity in tone between Ellington’s hip score and the sandwich-board oratory of his collaborators may well have had something to do with the show’s failure to thrive.

_____________ 

After the closing of Jump for Joy, Ellington pulled away from his Popular Front associates, with one prominent exception. In 1943 he made his Carnegie Hall debut with a concert program that featured the premiere of his most ambitious work, a 45-minute suite called Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the American Negro. Numerous sources report that the concert was a benefit for “Russian war relief,” but it actually raised funds for Russian War Relief, Inc., a group later identified as a Communist front, albeit one so carefully camouflaged that it was long regarded, by Ellington among many others, as a legitimate operation.

From then on Ellington kept a low political profile and lowered it still further after the Daily Worker falsely claimed in 1950 that he had signed the Stockholm Peace Petition, a Communist-organized undertaking to outlaw nuclear war. He sent a sharply worded telegram of denial to the paper at once, following it up with an article called “No Red Songs for Me” that was published in the New Leader, a prominent liberal anti-Communist journal, in which he declared that “[t]he only ‘Communism’ I know is that of Jesus Christ.”

Absurd as the controversy sounds today, it was serious business to be accused of Communist sympathies in 1950, all the more so because of Ellington’s earlier political associations. Yet the vociferousness of his response was more than a matter of mere prudence. “You know why he was anti-Communist?” Mercer Ellington later told an interviewer. “Because he was so religious, and anything that downed religion had to be wrong. Aside from that, he liked the idea of one day becoming rich.”

On top of all that, Ellington believed that jazz and freedom were consubstantial, so much so that he recorded public-service announcements for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which beamed his music via shortwave to Communist countries where it was a crime to listen to jazz: “When people behind the Iron Curtain tune to Radio Free Europe for a jazz program, they are getting two things at once: the music they want to hear and a little exercise in individual freedom.”

So it was that, two decades later, one of America’s greatest and most beloved artists, his Communist ties long since forgotten, came to be honored at the White House by a Republican president whose Communist-hunting campaigns had originally been responsible for putting him in the national limelight. Like so many American artists and intellectuals, Ellington had briefly been ensnared by the smooth deceptions of the Popular Front, but unlike far too many of them, he saw through Communism and broke decisively with the far left. Unsophisticated though his political views may have been, Duke Ellington knew better than to trust the good intentions of the Soviet Union—and his commonsense instincts served him right.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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