Schmoosing with the Duke: A Memoir
by Marvin Martin
Note to the editor: While the incident described here actually took place, I must confess that considerable precious detail was lost from memory over the four plus decades that have passed. Even though I had aspirations to be a writer even back then, I foolishly did not write down some notes in the immediate days that followed the meeting. A tape that I made narrating the incident was apparently lost at Southern Illinois University. Still, I cherish what is left of my personal encounter with the Duke and, for whatever it is worth, that—at least—is preserved now through this memoir.
If someone would have asked the Duke before he died in 1974 who Marvin Martin was, he may have thought it was a curious name, but would have no memory of the person who bore that label. Yet I met Duke Ellington and spent two or three delectable hours with him in the summer of 1953. That tiny time space is unforgettable for me, even through I have never fully understood the rather odd circumstances through which that meeting came about. The reminiscence that follows is what remains in my memory of that 47-year old occurrence.
In those days I was just discovering the sophistication of the Near North Side. It was natural that I would gravitate there because of its lively jazz scene, and there was little of that back in my home neighborhood of Ravenswood, with its middle class mix of white and blue-collar workers. There was acceptable jazz at the Club Laurel for a short time, and nearby Argyle Street east of Broadway had some swinging clubs, which were just walking distance from the 1111 Club on Bryn Mawr, where George Brunis held forth. The Green Mill in those days settled for an all-girl trio behind the bar that played mostly pop tunes of the day.
Farther north there was the jazz mecca of Howard Street and farther south along Broadway there was the Club Aloha, where I heard Lucy Reed sing, but Near North there was a bounty of jazz joints including the Hi Note on Clark, where I heard Anita O’Day, and others including one on north State Street where I first heard Ira Sullivan.
Nearby was the Loop with a number of good Jazz hangouts (although the Brass Rail and the Band Box were already kaput). They included the famed Blue Note through which passed about every great jazz name of the day, the Duke, Count Basie, Slim Gaillard, Nat King Cole, Herbie Fields, the Sauter-Finnegan ensemble among them. And the south side was brimming with good jazz at the Sutherland Hotel, the Bee Hive, Jump Town, McKie’s, Club DeLisa and on and on.
I spent an inordinate amount of time at some of the local Near North bars known for their good jazz boxes. These included Figaro’s (on Oak east of State) and the Dunes (on Division east of State Parkway). The Dunes was where the odd circumstances I mentioned had their genesis.
The clientele did not necessarily constitute “my people,” with a few exceptions. Jazz aficionados they were not, except for one of the owners and he kept the box fairly pure, with occasional advice from me. So on nights after work or on a Sunday afternoon, I would pop in for a relaxing beer or two, engaging at times in conversation with some of the regulars camped on their barstools. One of these was a skinny-ish blonde whose name has left my memory, but who I had come to know somehow. She was not your typical Rush Street swinging chick. Kind of quiet and a little on the dowdy side, she tended not toward high fashion, and her medium length hair was not always perfectly coiffured.
But she was nice, laid back, and a little off beat, which is maybe why we gravitated to one another for casual conversation. I don’t remember (if I ever knew) what she did for a living, but she was not a high-powered corporate type. I would imagine that our conversation was rather limited, neither of us being broadly informed, and undoubtedly it turned eventually to music of the day, that being something casually acquainted people could talk about at a bar.
I was reasonably well-grounded in jazz by then, so naturally my chat went in that direction, although I knew I could not expect much reciprocation. Not that I was any Leonard Feather, mind you.
Duke Ellington was by then already my favorite. I had been going regularly to his concerts at the Civic Opera House from the time I was discharged from the army in 1946 and felt I knew his repertoire pretty well. This was the great Ellington band that boasted the talents of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Jimmy Hamilton, Sonny Greer, Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, Al Hibbler, and on and on. What a lucky so and so I was to have had the opportunity to hear this incredible ensemble.
So on this one Sunday afternoon when I stopped by the Dunes, the young blond lady happened to be there, and we struck up a conversation, which eventually turned to music. Of course I could not resist impressing her with my knowledge of the Duke (although I was not interested in her in that way), and she let me ramble on for a while before she finally interjected a comment that kind of jolted me.
“I know Duke Ellington,” she said.
I suppose my jaw dropped, but then I recovered and realized she must be putting me on.
“So you’re putting me on, right?”
“No, I’m not. I know him. He’s a friend.”
“How is he a friend?” I asked skeptically.
Okay, of all the people I knew, and not all were bar-type wastrels, this unassuming blonde was, it seemed, the least likely to be a friend of the Duke’s. She was not bright and witty, not gorgeous, not talented, not accomplished, did not, in other words, have any of the attributes that would seem a requirement for one to enter what one might imagine is the rare circle of Duke’s friendships. After all he was the DUKE, the quintessence of charm, sophistication, fashion, and wit. A brilliant musician, in fact the rarest of rare humans, a true genius. My friend, the blond at the bar, was not in his league. Not even close.
“I met him at a party,” she said, “and we became friends. When he comes into town we get in touch.”
Well, it just sounded like a bad case of name-dropping. She did not seem the type, but the Rush Street types were notorious (still are presumably) for their name-dropping, so she was suspect. She knew how impressed I was with the Duke, giving him an almost god-like status, and so she was just trying to impress me. But it couldn’t be true, could it now?
“Would you like to meet him?”
Okay, now you’re pushing it, I thought. “Sure,” I said, playing along. “He’s my idol.” (Knowing of course that this could not happen, even though I knew the Ellington orchestra would soon be in town.)
“I’ll call him when he comes into town,” she said. “We’ll make a date and you can come along. Maybe we can come to the Dunes for a drink.”
We parted agreeing that I would call her after the Duke got into town and she would arrange the meeting. Of course I never thought this would play out, but why not go along? What did I have to lose?
When the Duke arrived for his Chicago gig I dialed up my blond friend, expecting to hear some sort of excuse about how she was not able to make contact or the Duke’s agenda was full. I still dwelled on the improbability she could know an internationally famous artist well enough to call him on the phone without really knowing much about him or his music. Well, I suppose you could be a family friend or have some business connection, but she did not fit those categories either.
“It’s all set. We’re going to pick him up Saturday at one o'clock, and we will go to the Dunes for a drink.”
Now she couldn’t be making this up, right? This had to be real, didn’t it? “So he knew you, he remembered you,” I said, a doubtful edge to my tone.
"Oh sure. He said he knew it was me the minute he picked up the phone, because he said ‘a little golden halo floated out of the receiver and hovered on the ceiling.’”
She could not have made that up. This was real. I was going to meet the Duke.
That Saturday afternoon, my skepticism now replaced by possibly terminal jitters, I set out to pick up my blond friend who lived somewhere on LaSalle Street. At that time I was driving a 1950 navy blue Studebaker Champion. I would say the car had seen better days, but I don’t believe there had been any better days in the life of this vehicle. It was trouble from the day I drove it off the Cicero Avenue used-car lot owned by a friend of my father’s.
I washed it, I polished the chrome, I vacuumed the interior. It looked pretty good when I was done, but was it befitting the Duke? I had visions of him looking at my car and saying, “Why don’t we take a cab?”
I was nervous. I wasn’t used to meeting celebrities, let alone one whom I had seen perform many times and worshiped from afar. Naturally I was wearing my best summer suit, a white shirt, and my most expensive tie. My blond friend looked rather casually attired when I picked her up, as though nothing very big was coming down. She was just one anomaly after another.
The Duke was staying at the Sherman Hotel (now demolished, but then located on the corner of Clark and Randolph, and noted for its Panther Room, which featured top-level big bands.) When we got there I began looking for a parking place, the wisdom of which my friend questioned. But I was already an old hand at city parking, despite my youth, and I was, and still am, a cheapskate about parking. I found a spot a couple of blocks away and we walked into the Hotel and to the front desk. My friend asked the clerk to ring Duke Ellington and tell him we were here, he was expecting us. He eyed us with suspicion, but called anyway. When he hung up he gave us the room number and we proceeded to the elevator.
I couldn’t believe I was doing this. Walk into a hotel, say something to a desk clerk and go to see Duke Ellington. Could it be that easy?
We knocked on the door. It was opened by a white gentleman, rather portly, in a suit without the jacket, and very “New York” looking, like one of the Damon Runyon characters that hung out at Mindy’s. In the room were several other people I did not recognize as musicians. It turned out that they were not sidemen, but were associated with the band as managers, publicists, etc.
“The Duke is in the shower,” we were told. “He’ll be right out.”
Within a few minutes Duke Ellington appeared. I will never forget him entering the room wrapped in a thick, white terry cloth robe, with his head swathed in a huge white towel. He greeted my friend as someone he knew well and after a brief exchange she introduced me.
He was gracious and charming in greeting me and I got the feeling that it was simply his nature to be dignified and to respect whomever he met socially, no matter their situation in life. He made me feel very comfortable and put me immediately at ease. It didn’t matter that my friend and I were not people who had something professionally or otherwise to offer. For just being who we were was reason enough to for the Duke to show us the same courtesy he would accord his fellow artists.
Everything I had ever heard or read about the Duke suddenly fell into place. He functioned in an aura of class and you felt privileged to be enveloped by that aura.
The Duke announced that he had not had breakfast and would order it from room service. He apologized to us for the delay. Some one dialed room service and handed the phone to the Duke. He ordered his breakfast. “Orange juice, a bowl of shredded wheat with blueberries, strawberries, whole cream and whipped cream, and coffee.”
We were introduced to the other people in the room, none of whom seemed to have met my friend before. Just the Duke knew her. It seemed quite natural for all others in the room to just be there but not be joining the Duke for breakfast. In fact, there was some discussion of the performance coming up that night and business matters related to the band.
Soon the breakfast was wheeled into the room, and the Duke sat down and took to the meal with relish. First he put the berries on the shredded wheat, then poured the heavy cream over it, then topped off the concoction with a huge glob of whipped cream. He talked with us as he ate, while others in the room kept up a low background murmur. He showed a polite curiosity in me, asking where I was from (Chicago) and what I did (then an ad salesman), all of which he seemed to find interesting.
After breakfast he retired to his bedroom to get dressed. Within a half an hour he emerged, snappily attired in a sport coat, sport shirt, and slacks. We proceeded to the elevators with two of the Duke’s associates. I got the impression he always traveled with an entourage of some kind. Once in the lobby I excused myself, saying I would get the car and pick them up in front (on Clark Street).
My trip to the car and back to the hotel took only a few minutes (the Loop traffic was a lot more negotiable in 1953), and when I arrived they piled into my Studebaker. The Duke and his two associates sat in back, and my blond friend in front. My fear that the Duke would fall down laughing when he saw my car was quite unfounded. In fact the car was part of the conversation during the short trip, the Duke being aware of the car’s notable Raymond Lowey design.
The Duke enjoyed the scenery. He commented on the architecture and landscaping along LaSalle Street and eastward on Division. I was relieved that the car did not break down en route. I went directly to my usual parking place, which was in the alley just a few steps east of the Dunes. There was always the possibility I would get a ticket parking there, but then getting tickets was a normal part of existence on the Near North Side.
There was no pre-announcement of the Duke’s coming to the Dunes. I had mentioned the event to Howard, the part-owner and bartender, but he was discrete. So from the bright daylight and bustle of a Gold Coast Saturday afternoon we entered a dark, nearly empty bar. Howard was behind the quite small horseshoe-shaped bar and he reached across to shake hands with the Duke.
They had met and knew each other slightly, which I did not know before that moment, but which, nevertheless, did not surprise me.
We made our way along the narrow aisle between the row of barstools and the wall to the only table in the establishment, which was right next to the jukebox. I took the drink orders and stepped over to the bar to give Howard the order. Several of the group ordered gin and tonic, which was just getting popular then, at least in the Chicago area. I would have bought the round but Howard did not charge me for that or subsequent rounds. He was generous to a fault.
Before long, a patron approached the box and played several of the Duke’s tunes. I am sure this was not a coincidence. Some of the pieces were Duke standards, including “Jam with Sam,” but one piece was not. Duke listened curiously for a few moments, and then said, "Oh yeah, we made that up in the studio to finish up a record gig."
We chatted amicably for another hour or so and then the Duke had to leave to get ready for his performance that night. We said goodbye to Howard, piled into my Studebaker and took off into the late Saturday afternoon Rush Street traffic. When we got to the Sherman the doorman opened the door and the Duke and his associates got out. We shook hands and exchanged the proper amenities. The Duke gave my blond friend a friendly kiss and hug. They said goodbye with only a cursory reference to future get-togethers, and then he turned and disappeared into the milieu of the lobby.
I dropped my blond friend off and I don’t remember ever having contact with her after that.
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