Monday, March 26, 2012

Duke Ellington,
Blackwing balalaika user

[“Jam Session in the U.S.S.R., 1971.” From Duke Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress (1973). Photographer unidentified.]

Look: it’s Duke Ellington, and he’s playing a balalaika. Can we leap to the conclusion that this instrument helped him create “timeless works of art”? Sure we can. Can you prove that it didn’t happen?

If you’re tuning in late, the context for this post is a pencil company’s choice to market its merchandise by using the Ellington name. The Blackwing is a celebrated pencil that California Cedar has recreated in replica form. The company’s choice to associate Ellington with its merchandise rests on exactly one photograph of Ellington with a Blackwing (the real thing, not the replica) that I posted late last year.

Why I care: I’ve been listening to Duke Ellington for about thirty-six years, and I don’t like seeing his name used in a tacky commercial ploy. And I think that facts ought to remain stubborn things. John Adams, as quoted in David McCullough’s 2001 biography: “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The state of facts and evidence — a single photograph — does not support the conclusion that Duke Ellington had any particular attachment to the Blackwing pencil.

And if you’ve decided that you should really listen to some Ellington music, this post suggests the best place to start.

March 29: I’m happy to report that Duke Ellington’s name no longer appears on the Blackwing Experience page. Thanks to Gunther and Sean for passing on the news.

Related posts
Duke Ellington, Blackwing sombrero user
Duke Ellington, Blackwing Johnson’s Baby Powder user
All Blackwing posts (via Pinboard)
All Duke Ellington posts (via Pinboard)

comments: 13

Pete said...

For better or worse, you're influencing our cultural narrative.

Michael Leddy said...

Alas, I think it’s Cal Cedar that has the much greater influence, with engines of publicity tying the Ellington name to its product.

Sean said...


Sean said...

Made my way back from France
Heard my name's on your store
You should do this without me
Don't Blackwing around much anymore...

Michael Leddy said...

I’ve been trying hard to resist spoofing the names of Ellington compositions. I’ll offer just one: “Sophisticated Lead,” which — who knows? — may have have inspired the Blackwing.

Gunther said...

Coming soon to a theater near you: Anatomy of a Marketing. Score by Duke Ellington.

Michael Leddy said...

That reminds me — weren’t Otto Preminger and Jimmy Stewart great Blackwing users? I think Frank Lloyd Wright introduced them to the pencil.

Sean said...

Charlton Heston was a well-known Blackwing user, so was secretary lady from the Presidio. In her hands, the Blackwing created more works of fiction than all of that coming from Stockton, California.

Another Blackwing user -- Richard Dreyfus. Let's not forget Harvey Korman, too.

Michael Leddy said...

You can see the users Sean refers to here.

Sean said...

The Blackwing Experience?


The "Blackwing Delirious"

PS: You, sir, are one Sophisticated Leddy.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Sean.

Anonymous said...

With all these rapid fire one-lines, I feel like I'm listening to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in "High Society"!

Michael Leddy said...

Well, thanks. The biggest joke though is the claim that Duke Ellington had an attachment to the Blackwing pencil. Not a good joke either.