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The jazz composer and orchestra leader Duke Ellington was born only 34 years after the 1865 emancipation of slaves. His father worked first as a butler at the White House and later as a blueprint maker for the U.S. Navy.

The young Ellington played piano at home and gravitated toward piano performances—both highbrow and lowbrow—around Washington, D.C., that he called his “poolroom education in music.”

Once, a buddy invited Ellington to listen to a player-piano roll by James P. Johnson. The friend slowed down the piano mechanism so that Ellington could see which keys were being depressed. Ellington took in the whole song, “Carolina Shout,” then practiced it until he had it down pat.

“When James P. Johnson himself came to Washington to play at Convention Hall,” Ellington wrote in his autobiography, “my cheering section and pals waited until he played ‘Carolina Shout,’ and then insisted that I get up on the stand! I was scared stiff, but James P. was not only a master, he was a great one for encouraging youngsters. He went along with the whole scene, and when I finished ‘Carolina Shout,’ he applauded, too.”

Ellington didn’t play any more that evening, but he listened.

“What I absorbed on that occasion,” he wrote, “might, I think, have constituted a whole semester in a conservatory.”

Lesson: It would have been easy for Johnson, the fine blues pianist, to snub the upstart Ellington. But his graciousness encouraged one of the top American composers of the 20th century and helped his own memory endure, as well.

—Adapted from Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, Ken Rattenbury, Yale University Press.

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