Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, composer, pianist, and jazz orchestra leader, plays a pivotal role in the life of Omar Bassari, one of my main characters in The Talking Drum. Omar is a drummer growing up in a small village in Senegal. He’s been training to become a master drummer under his father Ibrahim’s direction. One day, in the mid-1960s, Ibrahim pulls him aside to tell him of an important event happening in the capital city of Dakar, The Festival of the Black Arts. Omar will drum along with Ibrahim and the other drummers in their village outside of Amity Arena where the main event is being staged in the hopes of impressing not only Senegal’s president but Duke Ellington as well. Days after they arrive for the festivities, other drummers have tired and gone home, but not Omar, his father and the rest of the drummers stay put, practicing and sleeping at nights on their broken-down bus.
At the right moment they begin drumming with all of the energy they can muster when they see President Senghor and Ellington walking out of the arena. Duke Ellington notices the drumming, notices Omar’s drumming skill, and decides to use his influence to get Omar on a course to grow in his musicianship and share it with others.
After more revisions and more drafts than I can remember, I was readying The Talking Drum for publication. During one of the last rounds of proofreading, after the book had been formatted, I noticed a glaring mistake. Throughout the book, I kept referring to Duke Ellington as “The Duke.” I had Omar reminiscing about his meeting with “The Duke.” I had Omar catching a television program in which “The Duke” was at the keyboard performing. I had read my manuscript over and over so many times that I almost didn’t notice that I had given the famed orchestra leader a nickname that belonged to an equally famous actor, known for his roles in Western films, Marion Michael Morrison, better known as John Wayne.
Of course, from Omar’s perspective he could have incorrectly assumed that the correct nickname for his musical mentor was “The Duke,” but I didn’t want the reader to be tripped up and have John Wayne on their minds as they read about “Sir Duke,” as Stevie Wonder dubbed him.
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