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process quotations

Duke Ellington, Deadlines and Attribution

I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.

—Duke Ellington

Here’s a deadline: publish something inspired by Duke Ellington’s quote above by the end of the day today.

Each morning for the past month or so, I have been picking a quote as my parting thought for the end of a thirty-minute session of free writing via Zoom with the D.C. Writers’ Salon. This “morning poppins” ritual started with the pandemic — 560 days ago — but I only recently took over facilitation and quote curation from the Salon’s founder, Ali Cherry, when her schedule changed in August.

This routine gives me an opportunity to mine the collection of quotes, writing prompts, and odd fragments of language and inspiration I’ve been collecting over the years. Sharing these fragments with other people reawakens the language and I find that I have more questions, more desire to explore the concept and author than there is time for in the closing moments of our Zoom sessions. Today’s quote from Ellington inspired me to set a deadline for this blog post. Perhaps I’ll keep writing on the daily quote in the days ahead.

Ellington’s name and face are all over my neighborhood, the U Street corridor in D.C. He was one of the major figures of the jazz age that thrived here on “Black Broadway.” I pass the apartments he lived in and the remnants of clubs, hotels, and theaters he performed at a century ago.

I don’t know what deadlines Ellington faced, or what kind of creative blocks and distractions he confronted when he didn’t have a deadline, but I imagine a big concert or recording session coming up in a day or two would help anyone’s creativity flow out of necessity. I know I’ve found academic deadlines and filing deadlines for arts opportunities to be highly motivating.

In recent years, Ellington’s legacy has been complicated by questions of authorship. Many elements of his most famous works can be traced to his collaborators and bandmates. Sometimes he “bought” these songs for an insignificant sum, other times he transcribed the way a player in his orbit improvised a solo, giving the public the impression that the sound was Ellington’s alone. The charitable view is that this was the birth of “remix culture,” or was a continuation of eons of artistic collage and borrowing that predates the advent of the modern record industry.

Certainly some of what Ellington was doing when he was not on deadline was listening to and absorbing what his peers were doing; jamming with friends; assembling ideas in his mind, if not on paper. When the deadline came, perhaps all that was left to do was to spill everything out on paper.

But a deadline is no excuse to cut corners, and it is never cool to present your colleagues’ ideas as your own. Those less-famous, less-compensated players and arrangers who walked these same D.C. sidewalks do not have statues, murals, plazas, bridges and schools named for them today: Billy Strayhorn, Jimmy Rowles, Lawrence Brown and many, many others.

And here, I must cite my own sources by giving credit to write-ups of Terry Teachout’s book Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington from Maria Popova, Alex Belth, and Adam Gopnik. All three are worth a read, and I am curious to pick up the book itself soon.