People seem to start thinking about decorating their homes for the holidays earlier and earlier every year. Some in October or sooner, and a few even like to have their Christmas decorations up all year. In a way, Ginny and I may fall into that latter category.
That’s because one reminder of Christmas hangs on our wall year-round, too. It’s a handmade Christmas card created and signed by legendary jazz musician and composer Duke Ellington.
Duke Ellington was a pivotal figure in the world of jazz throughout his 50-year career. He wrote thousands of pieces of music for the stage and screen, including hits that have become part of the Great American Songbook like “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll” and “Sophisticated Lady.” He also toured extensively with his big band. And not just to major cities but also throughout the rural Midwest and elsewhere.
His music lives on today, of course. That’s one of the reasons his Christmas card is special to us.
Written in a kind of hip, “old English” blank verse style, the message on Duke’s card reads “Merrie is Christmas Happy is New Year’s So have a Happy and a Merrie … and may the Merriest be many Happy’s later.” Originally the card was duplicated and mailed by the hundreds to those lucky enough to be on his extensive list of family, friends and business associates.
Ginny found Ellington’s greeting card, framed, in a Grand Forks antique store. Inset in the card’s matting is a small, black- and-white picture of Duke with a couple we believe to be Clint “Poike” Rodningen and his wife, Leone, the longtime operators of Bachelor’s Grove ballroom near McCanna, N.D. Apparently at one time, they booked the Ellington orchestra into their dance hall. All three of them are beaming, practically cuddling in the almost photo booth-like shot.
Signed by Ellington long before the invention of Sharpies, the picture’s autograph has faded some now but is still legible. The card hangs around the corner from our living room wall, which itself is dwarfed by an oversized piece of canvas art in the likeness of Ray Charles, next to two framed publicity photos autographed by another jazz great, Louis Armstrong. One of the pictures is signed “Louis Armstrong,” the other, simply “Satchmo.” (We may have overdone it a bit with the jazz art.)
The Duke’s card is large, about 16 inches by 11 inches. The design is simple but elegant. Drawn in what looks like red pencil is a chimney at the very bottom. Up from it, representing smoke, is a curved music staff accented with a series of eighth notes.
We’ve owned the card for at least a couple of decades now, but it wasn’t until just last year that we realized something very curious about it. The “smoky” music staff is made of up of four, not the usual five lines. Rather odd for such a prolific composer as Ellington. Why the Duke chose to use a four-line music staff instead of the typical five lines will likely remain a mystery to us forever.
It doesn’t matter, of course. What does matter is that we cherish it. In case of a fire (or flood) at our house — God forbid— it would be among the first of our possessions to be carried out.
A little research led us to another fascinating part of the Ellington Christmas cards backstory. He would address the cards himself by hand in his free time, often while on tour. And he would send them out YEAR-ROUND, finding nothing odd in doing so. After all, didn’t Dickens implore us to keep Christmas in our hearts all year long?
Author and blogger Elizabeth Scalia writes, “His card list was extensive, and he faithfully wrote out his greetings while traveling, or when there was a little downtime between gigs. Friends said he found nothing strange in dropping some Christmas wishes in the dog days of summer.”
“Duke Ellington and I exchanged Christmas greetings each year,” wrote another mutual Ellington correspondent, Joe Delaney of the Las Vegas Sun. “Mine were sent in mid-December. Duke sent his when the spirit moved him.”
Duke Ellington used to tell his audiences he loved them — and madly. A little silly on our part maybe, but even though Duke’s Christmas card wasn’t sent to us directly, it did find its way to our house, and we love it madly.