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Lesson from Duke Ellington

By Kim Knox

My favorite professor, Marcus Shelby, taught me a lesson on leadership.

Marcus Shelby is a jazz bassist and the leader of the Marcus Shelby Trio. He has been teaching classes at Cafe Royale on jazz and jazz musicians.

Duke Ellington's birthday is this week. Since Duke is Shelby's favorite musician, the lesson this week was all about him. Shelby taught his rapt students that one of the secrets of Ellington's success was his willingness to highlight other performers in solos. He also changed his music with the times — which allowed his musicians to grow as artists.

An example was the bassist Jimmy Blanton. Duke had such a high opinion of Blanton that he created a record entirely of Ellington and Blanton duets. This meant that, thanks to Ellington, even though Blanton died at the age of 24 in 1942, he left a legacy that has influenced bassists in the decades that have followed.

Another example was Ellington's partnership with Billy Strayhorn. Marcus Shelby explained that Ellington met Strayhorn one day after a matinee in Pittsburg. While Ellington's personal assistant was working on Ellington's hair, Strayhorn played Ellington all of Duke’s solos note for note. Then Strayhorn played variations on those same solos.

A less secure man would have thrown Strayhorn out on his ear. Ellington called Harry Carney (a good friend and saxophonist, who played with Ellington from 1927 until Ellington's death in 1974) to hear Strayhorn's arrangements. Thus began a great partnership — and a new chapter in the history of music. Together Strayhorn and Ellington created such classics as "Take the A Train" and "Lotus Blossom."

I was reminded of Ellington when I read about Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton's nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

While supporters have praised Bolton for his loyalty and his decisiveness, critics have pointed out his overbearing manner and tendency to micromanage. It has been amazing to see the number of people who are willing to testify to Bolton’s heavy-handed behavior — even at the risk of their own professional careers.

The recurrent theme is the behavior of Bolton toward his employees. Not only didn't he allow them to shine, but he even tried to break their morale.

Bolton is an example of a politician who doesn't allow the spotlight on anyone but himself. He is an example of a politician who surrounds himself with sycophants to ensure that they take all of the blame — while the politician gets all of the credit. San Francisco has several of these politicians: people who surround themselves with yes men who are too insecure to challenge their boss. Choosing insecure men and women for their surrounding circle actually weakens these politicians, because they lack confidantes who will correct them when they are wrong and challenge mistaken policy decisions. Politicians need subordinates who will remind them that politics is about community service — and not getting what you want from the community.

It takes courage to surround yourself with people who can sometimes outshine you. But it can also make sweet music. And if you don't believe me, then listen to Ellington and Strayhorn as they  "Take the A Train."