Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Capital Crescent Trail

Architecture Arts, Entertainment & Sports Black History

The photo on the left, taken around 1900, shows what Western High School originally looked like, while the photo on the right reveals that the expansions made in 1910 considerably extended the front of the building.

Duke Ellington School of the Arts was founded in 1974, but the Classical Revival building it occupies is much older. In September of 1898, students walked through the door of what was then Western High School for the first time. The student body grew steadily over the next three decades, and Western had to expand in 1910 and again in 1925 to accommodate the increased numbers. The building you see today is the result of another expansion in 2017 that added new classrooms and performance spaces and modernized the structure for 21st century uses. [1]

Both Western High and the School of the Arts boast many famous alumni, but Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899–1974) was not one of them! However, Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. and is one of the city’s most famous performing artists. His parents were both very musical, and by the time he was 17 Ellington had begun to compose and perform arrangements for piano. In 1923, his band moved to New York City and started performing at different clubs, acquiring more and more musicians and evolving into the Ellington Orchestra. By the late 1920s, the orchestra was performing regularly at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club and recording successful records, and in the 1930s, began doing European tours. In between these gigs, the Ellington Orchestra played larger shows attended by thousands of mostly Black dancers who came to lose themselves in the music. In the Journal of African American History, Nicolas L. Gaffney states that Black audiences loved and embraced Ellington, his orchestra and his compositions because the music—its joy and sadness, movement and stillness, challenge and grace—intentionally reflected their emotions and experiences. Through their reactions—swinging faster to a bopping tune or swaying slowly to a mournful blues song—audiences engaged with and felt connected to the performers. [2]

Through records, radio, and live performances of his signature compositions like “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” or “Take the A Train,” Duke Ellington became a jazz legend and inspired many future performers—including the students of his namesake high school.

This is an active school. Feel free to admire the campus from outside, but please do not disturb students learning inside.




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