Compose Yourself | Harper's Magazine
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From Easily Slip into Another World, which will be published this month by Knopf.

Toward the end of July 1971, I go to see Duke Ellington with his orchestra. This is at the High Chaparral, the big ballroom where I perform with the Dells, near 77th Street and Stony Island on the South Shore. There are hundreds of people in the crowd; it’s a lavish affair. I know my way around the place, so I slip backstage during intermission, hoping to be able to say something to him—just introduce myself and tell him how much I appreciate his music. But I go back there and there are all these people swarming around, men in tuxedos and high-society women in gowns studded with diamond brooches.

Ellington is holding court as only he can, talking to two or three fans at once. “Oh, yes, my dear, it’s been so long—when was the last time, in Paris? . . . And how is Horace doing these days? Is he still thriving in Antibes? . . . You enjoyed The Goutelas Suite? Yes, Mr. Gonsalves is indeed in fine fettle this evening. I’m so deeply honored that you appreciated our efforts. . . ”

I stand there for a minute watching him work the crowd. I can’t get within ten feet. Oh well, I think. I get it. He’s surrounded by money. It’s obvious that I’m not supposed to be in the middle of this scrum, all these refined people in their fancy clothes brazenly shoving one another to get a word in with the Great Man . . . The crowd ebbs and flows and then the current shifts and I find myself propelled a little closer.

I don’t even realize that he’s noticed me. But all of a sudden he reaches out and grabs me and pulls me next to him. He’s got his arm tightly around my waist, like he’s about to drag me onto the dance floor for a waltz. I think, What the hell is this? But he’s got me, and he’s still talking to all of these people, not missing a beat in the multiple simultaneous conversations he’s having. He doesn’t look at me, he just keeps chatting in that debonair way of his. “Ah, yes, the weather in Newport was lovely; we just played there two weeks ago . . .”

Finally he looks over at me, still clutching me by the waist. I lean back, away from him, stunned by his attention and a little petrified too.

“So,” he says, “what do we do?”

Just like that. I gape at him, astonished to encounter the royal we. I have no idea how to introduce myself. Ellington looks away and continues a conversation with someone else in the crowd.

The only thing I know immediately is that I’m not going to tell him I’m a composer. I’m certainly not going to say that. So when he turns back to me, I say, “Um, I play woodwinds.”

My answer serves only to annoy him. “I know that,” he says. I think to myself, How could you possibly know that I play saxophone?

He looks me in the eye. “And what else?” And then he looks away again, still talking to people around us, still holding me close.

After a few more exchanges he turns back to me. He’s waiting for an answer and I’m in his thrall. I confess, “Well, I write music sometimes.”

“Oh!” Ellington exclaims with mock surprise, hugging me tighter. “We write music sometimes, do we?”

I don’t know what to say.

He’s got me and he’s talking, and he’s moving and dragging me with him, and the crowd is pressing in around us. Somehow he maneuvers us toward his dressing-room door, smooth-talking the aristocrats all the while. Then in a single motion he enters the dressing room and pulls me inside with him. The door closes and we’re alone.

Word was Duke always kept a piano in his dressing room when he was on the road. As we spin in through the door, he’s pulling me backward into the room, and before I even realize what’s happening he turns me around and sits me down at the bench. Finally he releases his grip on my waist and takes a step back to sit down on a couch behind me. Leisurely, he takes out a cigarillo and lights it and takes a hard look at me.

“So. Let’s hear some of our music, shall we?”

I’m sitting there looking over my shoulder at him, wondering how he flipped me down in front of the piano.

I’m so starstruck that I can’t play a C-major scale to save my life. I’m paralyzed. It does occur to me to play him something I’d been working on around then, a piece called “Melin,” after my son. But I can’t even lift my hands up to the keyboard.

Duke cracks up. But I can tell he’s not making fun of me. He gets it. He can see that I’m made nervous by who he is. He rises from the couch and puts a hand on my shoulder. “I know,” he says, smiling. “I understand. You can stay, right?”

Of course I’m planning to stay for the second half.

“Yeah, I’m staying.”

“Let’s go back out,” he says. “It’s time.”

He takes me out and gets me a spot where I can watch the band from the wings. And when he gets ready to hit, he checks to see if I’m still there. I’m standing right to the side of Harry Carney—I place myself there deliberately, to get a peek at what he’s doing on the baritone. That’s when Ellington looks over at me with a gleam in his eye and counts off the band.

“We write music sometimes, do we?” I’m standing there, listening to them launch into the Togo Brava Suite, and it occurs to me that maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that I froze. Maybe it’s lucky I was starstruck. Look what happened to Billy Strayhorn: he was a beast, a genius, he was beyond category, and he got swept up into Ellington’s world. What if Duke had made me an offer to work with him as an arranger? I have a feeling that if he’d heard the music I was working on, he might well have. And I wouldn’t have been able to say no.

I’m glad that didn’t happen, I tell myself—I’m glad I didn’t even have to run that risk. I love him madly, but I can’t go work for Duke Ellington. I want to lead my own band and play my own music. I need to work for me.