Early Life Mythscapes
(on Duke Ellington and more)
Welcome to the third installment of Bangkok After Dark, the story of an intimate relationship between Thailand and the United States during the Cold War, told at the level of nightlife. If you’re enjoying this series, please share the link to sign up:
Last week’s post described Maurice Rocco’s family history, as well as his earliest years in Oxford, Ohio: learning piano from his mother, becoming a local sensation, and drawing national attention in his teens in the early 1930s.
Duke Ellington played a part in Maurice Rocco’s rise to fame, and in his move from Ohio to New York. But Ellington’s celebrity was so massive that it had its own gravitational field. As a result, it can be hard to tell truth from exaggeration and even fiction in the archive. This is compounded by the fact that almost everyone who reported on Rocco spoke either in the embellishing tones of the showbiz press, or with varying degrees of racist assumption.
Here are some facts about Rocco’s relationship to Duke: that Ellington, in his memoir, recalled seeing Rocco by chance in Bangkok in 1972, and watching him play at the Oriental Hotel. Ellington called Rocco an “old friend.” It is also verifiably true that Ellington’s orchestra played the Miami (Ohio) University homecoming dance in spring 1936. That may have been when he and Rocco met.
Most of what is known beyond this is anecdotal. Rocco’s sister Charlotte claimed that Duke often came to the apartment she and Maurice shared in Chicago in the 1940s, playing the piano or listening to Rocco play for hours. Many in Oxford (including Rocco) himself, have said that Rocco played the intermission at the Miami homecoming dance, or a show at the Greystone Ballroom in Cincinnati, and that Ellington was wowed by Rocco at one of those events, so much so that he invited him to New York to join his orchestra. The telegram mentioned last week, in which Rocco’s agent allegedly invited him to join Ellington “on the RKO circuit” has been mentioned by many people. One source suggests that Ellington hired a tutor to help Rocco finish his high school degree while they toured together. Another source charges that it was Ellington’s idea for Maurice Rockhold to change his name to “Rocco.”
However, aside from these anecdotes, there is no evidence that Rocco ever played in Ellington’s orchestra. Ellington famously had a large circle of associates, and Rocco may have been part of it in some way, although he does not appear to have been on a payroll. The Ellington archives in Washington, D.C. have no documentation of their professional relationship. The two shared a bill several times, and clearly knew one another. Ellington might have connected Rocco with some performing opportunities, and by all accounts he recognized Rocco’s ability. But Rocco was not part of Ellington’s inner circle.
Yet Ellington figures centrally in many of the stories told about Rocco’s rise, often as a kind of mythical character. For Rocco, ambiguity and myth cloud the archives. I note this in the middle of an otherwise chronological telling of his early life because I understand this cloudiness not as an impediment to writing Rocco’s “real” biography, but rather as part of a firmament of sensationalism that underlies racial capital. Echoing historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, narrativity and the processes of history are entangled. In other words, human beings tell mythologizing stories about themselves not just in history books, but also while history is happening. Such stories are sure to be full of ideology and self-promotion, but since stories are told even while history happens, they should not be ignored in later tellings. Thus I take seriously (if not always factually) press accounts from outlets like Billboard and Variety as well as regional newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s, which could be both imprecise and outlandish, routinely printing rumor as fact. Examples include the claim that Rocco attended Oberlin University, or that “Rocco” was his real surname, both of which falsities appeared in one 1944 article from the Milwaukee Journal. Perhaps this happened because newspapers were willing to print compelling exaggerations, especially when writing about entertainers. And Rocco himself played the same game sometimes, for example reeling off autobiographical stories of dubious authenticity during one 1946 radio interview on New York’s WOR, or falsifying his birth year, as he often did. Exaggeration and fantasy are common in coverage of celebrities, including their own strategic self-representation.
But these embellishments were not always innocent. Notably, Rocco’s life was periodically narrated through overt racist caricature. For instance, his physical features were often exaggerated, including the claim that he had large hands. These features were sometimes said, again without evidence, to account for his preternatural piano abilities. Critical race studies scholars have noted that in several hundred years of academic and everyday discourse about global music, the capacities of Black and brown artists have been reduced time and again to inherent biological capacity, rather than to the labor of their thought and practice. A near-obsession with Rocco’s body in the popular music press exemplifies this. More than one interviewee from Oxford even suggested to me that there were whispers about Rocco being Duke Ellington’s biological son. This claim is impossible, and should not need to be refuted. The two were not biologically related. Ellington was born in 1899, and Maurice in 1915, almost certainly too close in age to have been father and son. Moreover, Ellington did not form his first band or even perform nationally until around 1917. Unlikely as the rumor already was, Ellington would not have toured Ohio before 1917. The claim that he was Maurice’s father therefore conveys little more than the entitlement of the teller to gossip about the most personal details of Rocco’s life, including his genes. Despite its obvious falsity, this story has been retold with gusto, including the observation of physical similarities (i.e., that both Rocco and Ellington had large hands) as a point of evidence. Finally, in one interview, Ellington was even reproached for refusing to pay funeral expenses for Rocco -- his own alleged son -- after Rocco died in 1976. But no such refusal was possible, as Ellington died in 1974.
This kind of dispositive evidence is easy to find. The previous paragraph demonstrates how racist myth-making has persisted in spite of (now quite Googleable!) facts to the contrary. But myth-making is, for better or worse, part of the story. Rocco never publicly disputed the mischaracterizations of his life. Indeed, he gave few interviews at any point in his career, aside from scripted radio segments that provide little insight into his feelings or beliefs. He was a private person who used media representations of his musicianship to savvy advantage, but who kept his private world carefully walled off from those representations. Nevertheless, racial prejudice and violence were ingrained in Oxford during Rocco’s upbringing, as they were throughout the United States, and these prejudices were certainly visited upon him.
Oxford, Ohio during the period of Rocco’s upbringing was a place of typically acute racial inequity, less than 30 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line and, by many accounts well south of that line in spirit. “We [Black residents of the city] couldn’t swim in the municipal pool,” recalls Ennis Miller, one Black former resident of Oxford who knew Maurice Rocco in his youth, saw him play in Ohio, and even spent time with him socially. I spoke with Mr. Miller by telephone in 2019. “We had to swim in the creek. And the cows and the farmer’s animals had access to the creek and if they were upstream that stuff floated down the creek. Growing up in Oxford there was the fact that you couldn’t go in the restaurant in the front, you had to go in the back in the kitchen. Opposite all of that, when we were in grade school, they had separate restrooms. Black and white. Whites go in one, Blacks go in the other.”
Ultimately, we know some historical details about Maurice’s earliest years with certainty. But much of relevance has been subjected to racialized historiographies, or altered by the rhetoric of celebrity news coverage. This remained the case throughout his life.
Next week’s update will discuss Rocco’s move to New York in the early 1930s, his earliest gigs at the Cotton Club and other venues in the city, and a bit more about his style of piano playing, en route to stardom and an international career.