Two of the greatest home-grown American inventions—indeed, grassroots institutions—are jazz and baseball. The consensus greatest practitioners of both pastimes—Louis Armstrong and Babe Ruth, respectively—were in their prime at the exact same time, the 1920s, and both men were raised in orphanages. Shit, it’s jazz and baseball, I’ve just accidentally named two Ken Burns PBS series, that’s how freaking iconic those two things are. You can tell the story of America through baseball, or through jazz. They’re both rich mines of meaning.
And if you have something that combines the two, well, that’s something I want to know about. Smithsonian Magazine recently came up with some truly remarkable footage, dating from around 1941, of the legendary jazz bandleader and composer Duke Ellington playing a little bit of baseball during an off moment with a few of his bandmates, namely cornetist Rex Stewart and valve trombonist Juan Tizol. For the record, that’s the Duke pitching and then swinging the bat from about 0:15 to 0:30. (That’s tenor sax man Ben Webster in the bathrobe at the end, clearly communicating something along the lines of “You guys can play out there if you want, I’m hung over and I’m staying right here.”)
This fantastic image actually has nothing to do with the footage. That picture was taken sometime in the mid-1950s—the massive slogan on the bus, “Mr. Hi-Fi of 1955,” in addition to being my own future nickname if I have anything to say about it, surely puts us pretty close to that year. The appearance of the neon word “Colored” at left certainly suggests that this little game of pickup ball took place somewhere in the South.