EARLY LEARNING

submitted by Karl Patten

Duke Ellington comes to Salem, Mass.

The front row of the Paramount Theatre
Is the only place to be and see and hear
For two nights running the Duke’s spectrum
Of Olympians.

                                       I proclaim their names:

Hodges, Hardwick, Webster, Carney, Noone,
Williams, Stewart, Miley, Nanton, Brown,
Raglan, Guy, Greer, the Duke himself.

                                   *

— And a couple of days later I was told
That Ellington’s band could not stay
At Salem’s one good hotel, the Hawthorne,
But had had to put up at the fleabag down
By the railroad tracks.
                                           All of those gods
Sequestered in that dump!
                                                       In all white
Salem I was only fourteen but suddenly
Saw some serious problems in the USA,
Not just Salem.
                                   Good jazz swings lessons.

                                       *

Hodges, Hardwick, Webster, Carney, Noone,
Williams, Stewart, Miley, Nanton, Brown,
Raglan, Guy, Greer, the Duke himself.

from Spaces and Lines
by Karl Patten

Commentary: “Early Learning” is simply a brief narrative poem, based on my memory. Enamored of jazz, my best friend and I had to sit in the front row for the two nights that Duke Ellington’s orchestra played in Salem, a truly special event. Somehow, I learned that the band had had to stay in what could hardly be called a hotel down by the railroad tracks. It was my first encounter with race prejudice, but it was a searing one and taught me.

To me, the strength of the poem lies in the recording of the names of the players, exactly as they sat up on the stage. They were Olympian gods on their mountain, and their names had to be repeated.

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