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Duke Ellington, Robert R. Church, and the Beale Street Auditorium

Robert Odell, Jr., is the senior video editor for the Take Me Back to Beale project, a 100-year chronicle of Beale Street History.

Duke Ellington's career launched in the 1940s. His concert tours included the Beale Street Auditorium, built in 1899 by Robert Reed Church, Sr. (the first Black millionaire in Memphis, Tennessee).

Duke Ellington's career launched in the 1940s. His concert tours included the Beale Street Auditorium, built in 1899 by Robert Reed Church, Sr. (the first Black millionaire in Memphis, Tennessee).

Destined for Musical Greatness

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899—which happens to be the same year that the Beale Street Auditorium was built.

Duke was known to call music his mistress. Looking at his early life, it is easy to see why he made that statement.

Duke was reared by two talented, musical parents: James Edward Ellington and Daisy (Kennedy) Ellington. Both of Duke's parents were pianists; Daisy played parlor songs, and James played operatic music.

How Duke Earned His Nickname

At the age of seven, the young Ellington started studying piano with Marietta Clinkscales and earned the nickname "Duke."

The story goes that Ellington's mother, Daisy, surrounded her son with dignified women so he could learn manners and elegance. His childhood friends noticed his proper charm and etiquette, and his good friend Edgar McEntree gave him the nickname of "Duke."

Speaking of his friend Edgar, Duke said; "I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke."

Duke Ellington in the Hurricane Club in New York (May 1943)

Duke Ellington in the Hurricane Club in New York (May 1943)

Hits From the 1940s

Duke's fame rose to great heights in the 1940s, when he composed a plethora of great works, including:

  • "Concerto for Cootie"
  • "Cotton Tail"
  • "Ko-Ko"
  • "It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing"
  • "Sophisticated Lady"
  • "Prelude to a Kiss"
  • "Solitude"
  • "Satin Doll"

Duke Ellington's career launched in the 1940s. His concert tours included the Beale Street Auditorium, built in 1899 by Robert Reed Church, Sr., the first Black millionaire in Memphis, Tennessee.

Duke used talented female vocalists like this one singing "Satin Doll" at Beale Street in the 1940s.

Duke used talented female vocalists like this one singing "Satin Doll" at Beale Street in the 1940s.

One of the many stops that Duke made on his concert tours in the 1940s was the Beale Street Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee.

The docudrama Take Me Back to Beale (Book II) reenacts the performance of Duke at this world-famous venue.

In the movie we see a segregated audience enjoying the sultry jazz movement of "Satin Doll," one of Duke's masterpieces.

Read More From Spinditty

Duke Ellington on Beale Street Reenacted

Duke Ellington acted in many movies, often scoring music for them, as well. The actor in the right photograph is portraying the legendary composer in the docudrama Take Me Back to Beale (Book II).

Duke Ellington acted in many movies, often scoring music for them, as well. The actor in the right photograph is portraying the legendary composer in the docudrama Take Me Back to Beale (Book II).

The Beale Street Auditorium

The Beale Street Auditorium was:

  • Built in 1899 by Robert Reed Church, Sr. (the first Black millionaire in Memphis).
  • Cost between $50,000 and $80,000 to build.
  • Originally called "Church's Park and Auditorium."
  • Renamed in the 1940s as Beale Avenue Auditorium, later to be commonly called the Beale Street auditorium.
  • Located on a site of over six acres on Beale Street near Fourth and Turley.
  • Able to seat 2,200 people.
The Beale Street Auditorium was the only venue of its kind in the United States, owned and operated by a person of color for members of his race.

The Beale Street Auditorium was the only venue of its kind in the United States, owned and operated by a person of color for members of his race.

Millionaire business leader and philanthropist, Robert Reed Church, Sr., used his own money to purchase a tract of land on Beale Street in 1899 where he built the Beale Street Auditorium

Millionaire business leader and philanthropist, Robert Reed Church, Sr., used his own money to purchase a tract of land on Beale Street in 1899 where he built the Beale Street Auditorium

An Unusual Business Venture for Its Time

Church's Park and Auditorium was built, owned, and managed by Robert R. Church, its founder. Designed as a recreational facility for the Black community, who were barred from entering Memphis city parks or auditoriums, Church's venture was thought of as a daring business undertaking.

According to the September 15, 1906, issue of the Planter Journal, the auditorium had one of the largest stages in the South, had a fire-proof curtain, and was completely furnished with all-modern equipment.

Duke Ellington performed on the beautiful landscaped grounds of the Beale Street Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee.

Duke Ellington performed on the beautiful landscaped grounds of the Beale Street Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee.

Beale Street Auditorium Location

World-acclaimed musician Duke Ellington played at The Beale Street Auditorium in the 1940s. The auditorium was built by Black millionaire Robert R. Church and was one of the most beautiful and well-equipped facilities in the country.

Other Famous Musicians Played on Beale

In addition to Duke Ellington, many other famous artists performed at this auditorium, as well, including Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway.

W. C. Handy, "the father of the blues," was employed as orchestra leader at this venue.

© 2015 Robert Odell Jr

Comments

Robert Odell Jr (author) from Memphis, Tennessee on December 16, 2019:

C JAm BLUES seems to be just as the name implies, a jam session. All that is needed is a simple melody and that is what Duke offers. The fantastic riffs, solos, and rhythms of the musicians make the composition great. Mr. Ellington had assembled some of the most talented artists of his day.

Christopher Nowak on December 16, 2019:

Duke Ellington was a great composer with one exception: C JAM BLUES.

It is probably the simplest song (melody) in the history of music!!

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