I still occasionally get emails from readers asking about the husbands or boyfriends of the old-time divas that appear on this blog like Nina Mae McKinney or Fredi Washington, and it's safe to assume that in order to be the man of such compelling women like the two aforementioned stars, he would have to have his own agenda in order. Fredi Washington, who closely followed the McKinney idea in 1930's Hollywood of the next beautiful light-skinned black girl whom they might give a chance, soon found herself in the exact same predicament as her predecessor - no important film roles to follow that one initial breakthrough. In Washington's case, it was Lawrence Brown, a talented musician who was making a name for himself with jazz innovator Louis Armstrong, who'd be there to help pick up the pieces - if she needed it! And it was bandleader Duke Ellington, already recognized as a musical genius by the early 30's, who would see to it!
It was no secret that Miss Washington and Mr. Ellington were involved in a semi-serious liaison as early as their 1929 pairing in the film short, Black and Tan. Ellington was married and Fredi, not content to be his mistress, kept insisting that he divorce his wife, Edna, even though by this time, the marriage was in name only. But no woman was bad, bold or beautiful enough to ever tell Ellington what to do and the relationship began to slowly deteriorate.
Enter the extremely handsome and talented young trombonist, Lawrence Brown (standing over Duke's shoulder, right) in 1932. Ellington was known to "pass" his lady friends off to various members of his band once he was "finished" with them, and there were at least five Ellingtonians who were married to women subsequent to their having affairs with their leader. According to one source, Ellington and Washington (still hanging on) devised a plot where she would "fall in love" with Brown and marry him, thus having a reason to constantly be around by traveling with the band. Regarding this fiasco, Washington is on record as saying "I guess I was still trying to be as close to Duke as I could."
In between the time, something happened to further sour the relationship and it devastated Fredi, so much so that she sailed to France to clear her head and plan her next move. But something wasn't right from jump, because by the time she returned to the States, Ellington had already left his wife after a fight. During the melee, Mrs. Ellington had slashed her husband's face, but Fredi also discovered that, in her absence, Ellington had taken up with one of her best friends, dancer Mildred Dixon. They soon set up housekeeping, but the Washington-Ellington affair apparently hadn't quite burned out. Regardless, in just a few years, Ellington would meet one of Dixon's Cotton Club colleague's, showgirl Evie Ellis, and true to form, leave Dixon (clothes, furniture and all) to move in with Ellis.
Brown and Washington were two extremely attractive people and it shouldn't be surprising that there were some sparks between them. Fredi could be lively and fiesty but moody and melancholy, too. Lawrence Brown was the quiet son of a minister. He was known to disdain the party life and the raucousness of musicians on the road. He was such a beautiful but quiet and unassuming man that some people thought that there was something "wrong with" him. In other words, there must have been some initial whispers about his sexuality. Many years later, Fredi's sister, actress/dancer Isabel Washington Powell, contradicted the earlier report and recalled that it was basically on a dare that Fredi set out to "prove" his so-called manhood and won the bet. Lawrence Brown and Fredi Washington were married just a few months after they met in late 1933. It is said that, at least for awhile, he absolutely adored her!
"I don't know you and I've never heard anything about you, but Mr. Mills says to get you, so come on in the band" supposedly, those were the first words Duke Ellington ever uttered to Lawrence Brown. Not one to blindly invite random musicians into his prestigious roster, Ellington was still under the management of Irving Mills, a white music publisher who helped steal his money yet helped to build his career and provide many otherwise unattainable opportunities. Out in California, Brown had become known as one of the standout musicians playing with Louis Armstrong at Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City during 1931. When an unscrupulous, hot-head manager decided at the last minute to call an impromptu meeting on Easter Sunday, Brown, the son a minister, refused to attend and was unceremoniously fired from the group. Mills, who had been studying Brown from the sidelines, jumped at the chance and incorporated him into the Ellington unit where he would quickly become a part of the famous Ellington sound for the next nineteen years. (Ellington's mighty brass section, shown above in the early 30's, left to right are Freddy Jenkins, Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol, Cootie Williams, Arthur Whetsol and Lawrence Brown, far right).
1932 was right at the advent of the Swing era. Not only did Brown join the group, but Ellington also acquired the effervescent Ivie Anderson, now known as the quintessential Ellington vocalist. They immediately recorded and released the song that started it all, It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing). Ellington also issued timeless classics from the band that year including Solitude, Sophisticated Lady and Drop Me Off In Harlem, and the compositions, The Sheik of Araby and especially Slippery Horn were showcases for Lawrence Brown's virtuoso trumpet playing. The Ellington trombone section was soon unmatched in every way with the very distinctive voices of Brown, Juan Tizol and Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton. So much so that they were collectively known as God's Trombones! (Left to right, Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol and Lawrence Brown, early 30s).
But it wasn't all peaches and cream between Brown and Ellington. They developed a highly professional but very contentious relationship, often not speaking to each other and communicating via a third party. The word is that Brown found out about his wife and his boss's shenanigans to "dupe" him into a marriage and grew increasingly salty. Depending on the source, Fredi never really grew to love her husband and they ended up hating each other to the point that they "could have killed each other very happily and gone to prison the rest of their lives knowing they had done something worthwhile." However, something had to have developed between them. It's said that Washington wrote Brown a letter a day for everyday that he was on the road with the Ellington band. Part of their 1932-39 correspondence is now a part of the Fredi Washington Papers, housed at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. The Brown's seperated in 1948 and were divorced by 1951.
Around the exact same time, Lawrence Brown was also deciding to divorce the Duke Ellington band. He left with a small contingent of the orchestra, led by saxophonist Johnny Hodges in 1951. It was during a time when most of the old big bands had already fallen out of public favor and were disbanding. Perhaps due to an extremely high level of musicianship and an enduring appeal, Ellington's band was one of the relative few that survived. According to Brown, he was tired of playing the same thing every night and wanted a new opportunity to be more flexible with the Hodges small band. After leaving Hodges in 1955, Brown worked as a session musician for CBS. He rejoined Ellington in 1960 and stayed until he retired in 1970. Lawrence Brown, the suave, debonaire but very reserved preacher's son passed away in 1988. Fredi Washington, long since retired from the silver screen, remarried in the mid-50's to a dentist named Anthony H. Bell. She passed away quietly in 1994 at the age of 90.
The full 1932 Ellington Orchestra; in foreground, from left is dancer Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, Juan Tizol, Artie Whetsol, Ivie Anderson, Wellman Braud, Ellington, center, Harry Carney, Freddie Jenkins, Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown (back) and Sonny Greer.