At the ballpark with Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington held a band together for over 50 years from 1923 to his death in 1974.  This rare video of Ellington playing baseball with a few of his bandmates from the early 1940s captures a glimpse of how these pioneering jazz artists  passed their time on the road, when they weren’t rehearsing or performing. They were a close-knit family of mostly men who loved baseball.

This home movie was taken by Harry Carney, a baritone saxophonist and amateur filmmaker, who joined the band in 1927 when he was just 17-years-old. Carney, who died only six months after Ellington lost his battle with lung cancer, was the maestro’s longest serving band member with 45 years of service.

In the film, Carney films Ellington,  cornetist, Rex Stewart, and valve trombonist, Juan Tizol, enjoying an impromptu game.

As a boy growing up in Washington D.C. in the first decade of the 20th Century, Ellington’s had a passion for baseball. He got a job selling snacks at Griffith Stadium so that he could watch Senators games.

“I had to walk around, in and out in front of all those people, yelling, ‘Peanuts, popcorn, chewing gum, candy, cigars, cigarettes and score cards!” he said in his autobiography, Music is My Mistress. “I soon got over my nervousness, although the first day I missed a lot of the game hiding behind the stands.

“By the end of the season I had been promoted to yelling,, ‘Cold drinks, gents! Get’em Ice cold!” I was so crazy about baseball, it’s a wonder I ever sold anything. The opportunity to walk around there, looking at all those baseball heroes, whose pictures were a premium in the cigarette packages, meant a lot to me.”

In his autobiography, published in 1973, Ellington recalls playing sandlot ball with his friends on Sixteenth Street.

“President Roosevelt would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play,” Ellington said. “When he got ready to go, he would wave and we would wave at him. That was Teddy Roosevelt–just him and his horse, nobody guarding him.”

Sports were Ellington’s passion, but his parents also wanted him to learn piano. In early adolescence when young men are coming into their identities, Ellington was reluctant to get serious about music.

“After all, baseball, football, track and athletics were what real he-men were identified with and so they were naturally the most important to me,” he said years later.

But a potentially serious head injury playing baseball led his mother to push him toward the piano. And by 1916 when he was 17-years-old, Ellington had formed a band with friends and just three years later, he put together his first professional group.

Yet he never lost his love for baseball or desire to play the game.

For years in New York, Ellington lived at 381 Edgecombe Avenue, near the 155th Street Bridge in Harlem, where on the Manhattan side of the bridge he had easy access to New York (baseball) Giants that played at the Polo Grounds and the Yankees across the Harlem River in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium.


Ellington’s orchestra wasn’t the only big band that enjoyed baseball.  Many of  the leading bands of his era seemed to organize teams.

Cab Calloway bought uniforms, gloves and bats for his band and hired his trombonist, Tyree Glenn, as team manager. When Calloway fell into a hitting slump, Glenn benched him. Furious over being benched on a team that he owned, Calloway allegedly sold the team to Glenn for a penny.

A young Dizzy Gillespie played on Calloway’s team when he was a member of the band. “One Bass Hit” and “Two Bass Hit,” which Gillespie recorded with his own orchestra in the mid-1940s are clearly named as odes to baseball. Ray Brown, the featured bassist and soloist on both these tunes, was also a big fan  of the sport.

Oscar Pettiford, another great bassist of that era, broke one of his arms during a game in 1949 when he was in Woody Herman’s orchestra. Pettiford began experimenting more with the cello after the injury and ultimately made some groundbreaking recordings as a jazz cellist.

Before joining Ellington’s band in 1934, Rex Stewart had a stint with  Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, where he played on the baseball team. Stewart recalled that during a gig at the Southland Club in Boston, Coleman Hawkins, a saxophonist with the band, showed up for a game at the Boston Commons wearing a Panama hat, tuxedo and patent-leather shoes. Hawkins announced that he was playing shortstop, but he carried a first baseman’s mitt.

Called out for having the wrong glove, Hawkins shot back, “Anybody knows that, but I’ve got to protect these valuable fingers.”

On the first ball hit to Hawkins at shortstop, he fielded the ball cleanly and threw the runner out at a first and walked off the field.

In 1938, the Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford orchestras squared off in a softball game in Central Park. Lester Young was in Basie’s band at the time and he wouldn’t play unless he could pitch; living up to his nickname, the “Pres.”

Lunceford out pitched Young and his team beat the Basie squad 19-3.

In the early 30s, Louis Armstrong sponsored a New Orleans semi-pro team called the Secret Nine. The team had a lousy record due partly do to their refusal to slide as to not get their white uniforms dirty. When Armstrong played sandlot ball with the Black Diamonds as a child in New Orleans, they would respectfully stop their games to let through funeral processions.

Armstrong recalled one occasion when the boys dropped their caps out of respect when King Joe Oliver, whose band he would later join, would come through from the cemetery. “When the Saints Go Marching In,” would start, the boys would began, according to Armstrong, “dropping baseball bats and everything to follow the parade, ‘cos they know old Joe Oliver going to reach up and start hittin’ them notes.”

Louis armstrong

“[Armstrong] loved to talk baseball and he knew the game,” remembered Cool Papa Bell, an All-Star Negro League shortstop. “He never talked about music, just baseball. You couldn’t help but laugh and have fun when he was around.”

Harry James, a trumpeter and bandleader who got his start with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, worked out with his favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, during spring training when he was in Florida for a gig. In order to be in James’ band one needed to be both a good musician and a decent ballplayer. Stan Getz was James’ pitcher when he was in the band.

“Stan was hard to hit, because he’d lob it in so easy, and the guys would try to kill it, and half the time they would strike out,” said Terry Gibbs, a vibraphonist in Woody Herman’s band. 

Frank Sinatra was a 200. hitter for James before he left to join Tommy Dorsey in 1939.


Gerald Early, the writer and essayist, has called the Constitution, baseball and jazz music the three “most beautiful things that America has ever created.”

Baseball and jazz no longer hold the center of American culture the way they both did in the first half of the 20th Century, when Armstrong, Ellington and the likes of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays had their turns as major cultural icons.

According to Nielsen’s 2014 Music report, jazz represented just 1.4 percent of U.S. music consumption. In 2014, 5.2 million jazz albums were sold in the U.S.  Taylor Swift sold 3.7 million copies of her best-selling “1989” album in just the last two months of the year. Jazz was the only genre to have its digital sales decline between 2011 and 2012. In 2013 and 2014, jazz music represented just 0.3 percent of all streamed music.

At the height of Ellington’s popularity in the 1940s, jazz was the most popular music genre in America. Baseball long ago conceded its preeminent place to the NFL as the most popular sport in America.

Earlier this year on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Chris Rock painted a sad picture of decline in Black interests in the game in a seven-minute rant that would have been disappointing to Ellington and Armstrong and other blacks of their generation for both its truths and hopeless tone.

Rock, who grew up as a New York Mets fan, starts his monologue by asking: “Why don’t black people like baseball anymore?”

“Baseball isn’t 20 percent anymore, it’s 8 percent and falling fast,” Rock said. “That’s an average of two players per team and those two probably listen to Blake Shelton to keep from their ass kicked by their teammates.

“Maybe if baseball gets a little hipper, a little cooler, just a little more black, the future can change,” Rock continued. “But till then, blacks and baseball just aren’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”

In Duke Ellington’s day, jazz and baseball and the state of Blackness had a near symbiotic relationship. Jazz and baseball were cool and men like Ellington and Count Basie were the personification of what was modern and revolutionary about the 20th century.

Amiri Baraka knew something about this symbiosis. The  author and playwright, wrote in his autobiography of going to games with his father to see his hometown team, the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues,  at Ruppert Stadium.

“The black men (and the women) sitting there all participated in those games at a much higher level than anything else I knew,” Baraka wrote. “In the sense that they were not excluded from either identification with or knowledge of what the Eagles did and were.

“It was like we all communicated with each other and possessed ourselves at a more human level than was usually possible out in cold whitey land.”

It’s no coincidence that in Kansas City, Missouri the two most notable landmarks to a bygone era in jazz and baseball history are the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. These monuments are a testament to how the future can change and how both American music and sports were changed forever when blacks made things a “little hipper, a little cooler, just a little more black.”

—Farrell Evans







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