In 1974, the year Duke Ellington died, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts was born in Washington, D.C. Over 90 percent of the graduates go on to college and beyond. Alumni are in movies, on stages, in the American Ballet Theater, and on the professional jazz scene.
This public school’s dropout rate is less than 1 percent. As one of its teachers, Davey Yarborough, says, “To me, it is not acceptable to lose even one.”
Some 60 percent of the students come from the poorest sections of the District of Columbia. The poverty I’ve seen on some of those streets equals that of rural Maine and Appalachia. Writers on education should spend some time at the Ellington School of the Arts to learn how teachers can enable kids— including those with severe personal problems— to realize their capacities.
In the May 24, 1998, Washington Post, Marcia Slacum Greene focused on one of those teachers— 44-year-old Yarborough. He is director of the jazz studies program, including the jazz orchestra, the New Washingtonians. (In the early 1920s, Ellington headed a group called the Washingtonians.)
Yarborough— an accomplished saxophonist, flutist, and vocalist— is also an arranger and composer. He has played with Joe Williams, Roy Hargrove, and Sonny Stitt, among others. Although he still plays gigs, he devotes enormous time and energy to the developing musicians at the school.
As Marcia Slacum Greene writes, “In a school system notorious for shortchanging students, Yarborough, a native Washingtonian, works 16-hour days, using his planning and lunch periods to help students perfect a scale, a sound, a style. He accompanies students on gigs.”
His students have his home telephone number. He knows the strengths and vulnerabilities of each of them. Just as Duke Ellington wrote for each of the musicians in his orchestra.
“After a man has been in the band for a while,” Ellington told me one afternoon, “I can hear what his capacities are, and I write to that. And I write to each man’s sound. A man’s sound is his total personality.”
Davey Yarborough gets to know the total personality of each of his students. Wynton Marsalis says of him: “There is a purity and integrity about the man that is for real. I do workshops, but he teaches— dealing with crises with kids and parents. He is rare because he changes kids’ lives.”
Yarborough is demanding, as Ellington was of his musicians. Ellington’s sidemen were very proud of having been skilled and creative enough to be in his band. So too the students in the New Washingtonians, and to be dismissed from that orchestra would be a tragedy. Yarborough insists that his musicians make and stay on the honor roll or else be in danger of losing their places in the band.
The Ellington School of the Arts, as Greene points out, “combines college preparatory courses in English, math, history, and science with music classes. Add on rehearsals and performances for as many as three musical groups [in addition to the New Washingtonians], and many of their after-school hours are consumed.”
She tells of a 17-year-old senior, a trumpet player, Albert Strong: “When he solos in one rehearsal on ‘I Remember Clifford,’ written in memory of trumpeter Clifford Brown, he drapes the room in sadness, leaving other players to wonder about the depth of such emotion.
” ‘I’ve lived through some rough times,’ Strong says, ‘not being with my mother since I was two, figuring a music scholarship would be the only way I’d go to college.’ ”
Another trumpet player, 16-year-old Malik West, is very shy. “In Malik’s eyes,” Yarborough says, “the passion is there, but also there is uncertainty . . . The worry about making a mistake is the hurdle I want him to get over.”
At a Yarborough rehearsal, a trumpeter can’t get it right, and stops playing. When I was a clarinet player in the all-school symphony orchestra in Boston, our director, Fortunato Sordillo, would roar, when we made a mistake: “Stay out of that passage! Just look at your instrument as if there’s something wrong with it!”
Davey Yarborough has an entirely different way of teaching. When the trumpet player stopped playing because he’d missed some notes, Yarborough said sharply, “Don’t take your horn out of your mouth! Frustration is a distraction. Nothing beats a failure but a try.”
As if he had time to spare, Yarborough told me recently that he and his wife have started a mentoring program— the Washington Jazz Arts Institute— that will serve D.C. students with musical capacity who need a professional’s attention.
Yarborough is totally immersed in a life of music. His daughter bought him a button that says: “No music. No me.”
So it was with Ellington.
Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s closest musical associate, once told me: “Duke would much rather sit up and write after work than go to a party. I’m used to his calling me at 8 or 9 in the morning to talk over a musical problem that’s just developed or tell me about a piece he’s been up all night writing.”
Yarborough never got to play in Duke’s orchestra, but Mercer Ellington— who led the band after Duke’s death— tried twice to bring Yarborough into the orchestra. “But always,” Davey says, “it was on too short notice. I had other commitments.” He keeps his commitments.
Ellington himself and his music have clearly been a major influence in Yarborough’s life. Duke once wrote a song, “What Am I Here For?” Not many people are that certain of what they want their lives to amount to. But Duke was. And so is Davey.
One night, Wynton Marsalis, doing a benefit in town, surprised Davey by asking him to play. “He dipped his shoulders,” Greene wrote, “swayed his horn and filled the room with music so captivating it brought thunderous applause from the audience and from clusters of his students, gushing with pride.”