Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Duke Visits the World

Did you know that Duke Ellington visited Afghanistan fifty years ago this week? I didn’t, and I’m angry that I have to learn about his visit on BBC radio! Later the Duke was saying that his concert in Kabul, Afghanistan was the most memorable of his life. For the Afghan organizer, Faiz Khairzada, and the 5000 Kabul citizens who attended the concert free, it was a never forgettable experience. Dave Brubeck had pioneered jazz there in 1953.

He met Ellington at the plane and drove him across Kabul, which was not yet much of a city, to the stage he’d built at the Ghazi stadium. They chatted about Louis Armstrong and Khairzada told him about wanting to make Afghan films. Ellington promised: “You make the movie, kid, and I’ll do the music for it.” 

Ellington opened the concert with “Caravan”, followed by “Don’t Get Around Much anymore”! Between pieces, Ellington chatted with the Afghans that surrounded the stage. At the beginning of the trip that would take his orchestra to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Iran, and Lebanon. When they arrived in Turkey 22 November 1963 they learned the sad news that JFK had just been assassinated. The tour folded. 
Khairzada and many other young intellectuals shared a vision of an Afghanistan with open cultural borders. He set up an ambitious youth drama group that staged Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” which he had translated into Dari, the local language. He also booked the Joffrey Ballet, then based in New York whose leader Robert Joffrey was born Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan. Joffrey gave a masterclass for kids in Kabul as well as a command performance. “We had perhaps the worst theatre in the world. It was winter and I collected all the heaters and stoves I could find to keep the dancers warm. But the performance was dazzling.”

But Soviet politics was catchimg up with Khairzada. On 28 April 1978, the Communist party Khaiq party staged a coup that led to Soviet invasion and a generation of war. He and his wife rushed to pick up their children from school and buy as much bread as they could. He managed to get his family out of Afghanistan, but he was under house detention. Disguised as a nomad and guided by a smuggler he walked for three days along the passes and over the Afghan border. The Khairzada family sought refuge in the United States. The whole house was looted including all his Duke Ellington LPs.

I can’t resist retelling my last contact with the Duke. I had taken my daughter to Trenton to catch her train back to college. Museums didn’t open until the early afternoon so I killed time by taking the elevator to the top of Trenton’s newest hotel to see if it was just as ugly on top. It was. But who popped in at the seventh floor? Duke Ellington. 

Amazed, I asked “Whatever are you doing in Trenton, noon of a Sunday?” “Honorary doctorate! Princeton this time!”, meaning you can stuff the zillions such from black college!” I reminded him how we had spent an evening in Dakar, Senegal, where I was filming the first World Negro Arts Festival in 1964.” He smiled softly in recollection. “And on Easter Sunday when you opened the concert with “Take the A Train”, I could hardly hold my camera steady”. 

He broke into a grand smile. “Where can I see that footage? And what is your name, again”. The elevator door opened, and he followed me to the registration desk, where I wrote my first(and last, it turns out) anti-autograph.” Dr.Patrick D. Hazard, Beaver College, Glenside, PA.” He thanked me sweetly and caught a taxi for Princeton. A Serendipitous Encounter, No?

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