Duke Ellington Essay, Research Paper
Where would music be had it not been for the men that stepped before him. The Motzarts and Beethovens, who wrote the music that today is known as the classics. These men were naturals in their own right, but these people wrote their music in the 17th and 18th century. Many people don’t realize all of the changes that music had to go through between that period of music and the present day. One such musician stands alone at the top as one of the movers and innovators of the 20th century. He is Duke Ellington. Along with his band, he alone influenced millions of people both around the world and at home. He gave American music its own sound for the first time. Winton Marsalis said it best when he said “His music sounds like America.” (Hajdu, 72). These days you can find his name on over 1500 CS s (Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz, 254). Duke’s legacy will live on for generations to come.
Duke Ellington was born Edward Kennedy Ellington, April 29, 1899 in
Washington D.C (The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 330). His father at the time
was employed as a butler yet always wanted the best for Duke. At the young age of seven Ellington took up the piano, because his father had always wanted him to become an artist (330). But how was Duke to become an artist in a time when blacks weren’t given the same rights as everyone else. They went to separate schools. They were forced to the back of the bus and to use separate bathrooms. If Duke were to become someone he had much to conquer.
One thing that we do know is that Duke was always looking for attention
and dignity. There are even stories of how he would announce from the top of
the stairs in the morning that he was coming down and demand that his parents
applaud (Collier, 9). Also when his cousins would come over he would stand on the front porch as they arrived and make them curtsy in front of him (9). Of course they didn’t like that but they played along (10). From the beginning Duke
Ellington wanted to be remembered by generations to come that would be
difficult being the son of a butler and black (The New Grove Dictionary of
Jazz, 330); in a time when Negroes had many obstacles including the racism that
plagued the United States.
About ten years after he started to play piano, he made his professional
debut. It was nothing glitzy just a pub in uptown (330). Back in Ellington’s
time black performers had to enter through back doors. He was on his way, or
was he? In 1923 he experienced failure due to financial instability (330). Most
people would have given up by now but not the Duke. He kept on looking for work. His relentless perseverance paid off. In 1924 Elmer Snowden asked Duke Ellington to join his band and he accepted without question (Collier, 45). So
Duke moved north to New York and joined the Washingtonians (46). Elmer Snowden was so impressed by his natural ability, which in 1927 he handed his band over to Ellington (Collier, 72). It was the turning point in Ellington s life. He was now the leader of a headlining bank at the Cotton Club. “The Cotton Club–smack dab in the middle of Harlem-but Black people couldn’t go there. It was for whites only,” says Joe Louis (Gales, 1995). Imagine the prestige of being a Black in the midst of White people. Ellington was finally rubbing shoulders the upper class. However he was not allowed to share his talent with his own kind. His inspiration for all his wonderful compositions never were heard by them. It’s
like writing a love song for someone and not being allowed to share it. His
feelings and ideas were never expressed to the people that meant the most to him, his people (Johnson, 59). At the time his legacy was only known by the whites that went to see him perform. It wasn’t until later when Blacks began to hear the Duke’s music for the first time.
Being headlined wasn’t the only fame that the band brought Duke
Ellington. In 1930 he took the group to Hollywood to appear in the movie, check
and Double Check (The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 330). Ellington was becoming a household name. The attention and dignity that he had always strived for as a kid had finally come.
Ellington was not going to let opportunity get away from him. During
the time from 1933 to 1939 he went on a huge world tour that spanned the globe.
His tours took him from Japan, to Europe, to Africa, and Austria (330)(The New
Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 658). Often times, Ellington
supported his dreams out of his own pocket or from royalties collected from his
ever growing and equally popular songbook (Duke is Still Tops… 1). Duke
Ellington showed Black Americans today that you could be someone, if you wanted it badly enough. He was willing to put himself on the line in order to gain
respect in a time when blacks received little respect in America. DeSable
probably put it best when he said, “yet the man who was sent to the Colored
People’s Waiting Room at the same time was the toast of Paris!”(Hajdu, 72).
America was truly disregarding one of the greatest Americans there ever will be.
His legacy is part of the America that we want people around the world to see,
the Cinderella story, from relative obscurity to fame.
Duke will probably be remembered most for the over 3000 songs that he
composed during his lifetime. The most amazing part about Ellington was the
most creative while he was on the road and busy. (The New Grove Dictionary of
Jazz, 330) It was during this time when he wrote his most famous piece, “Mood
Indigo” which brought him worldwide fame. When asked what inspired him to
write, Ellington replied, “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I
try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people” (Johnson 58).
Duke wrote from the heart. Unlike nowadays when writers write for money,
Duke’s music was at the next level of musicianship. One of feel and love for
what he was doing.
The other aspect about Duke that makes his writings so great was his
wide range of styles that he could write in. During his lifetime, Ellington
was able to sign his name to a Broadway musical, “Beggars Holiday”, a ballet,
“The River”, and a full-length movie score, Anatomy of a Murder. (Hajdu, 73).
Some of his more interesting music came from the period when he wrote in a
classical style. What makes his music so interesting is how it sounds so much
like Beethoven yet, there is an underlying jazz feel to the music. This is
something that is very unique to his writing. What is even more amazing is
knowing that Duke basically taught harmony to himself and that his vast
knowledge of arranging music came from experimenting with his band (The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 331). Just as a chemist learns and creates in a lab,
Ellington used his band to learn and create. Duke was no match for Father Time
though. As death crept up on Duke Ellington, he began writing liturgical music.
His most famous piece was, “In the Beginning God,” which was written for
orchestra chorus and soloist. Again he was still able to keep an underlying
People began to take note of one the greatest composers that ever lived.
Duke once used the phrase “beyond category” to describe singer Ella Fitzgerald
(Johnson, 58). Who would ever think that people would ever think of Duke in that
category as well. One of New York University’s Music Department Chairmen Percy Granger ranked Ellington as on the three greatest composers in the history of music, sharing honors with J. S. Bach and Frederick Delius. (58) What makes
Ellington s accomplishments even more significant is that despite being the first
Negro to gain such a distinction, he was the first and only American to do so.
More and more people began to give Duke the respect that he always strived for.
In the very beginning, Duke wanted to be respected but now awards and other
recognitions filled his life. Finally, in 1967 he received Honorary Doctorates
from both Harvard and Yale and later became the only jazz musician to receive an honorary degree from Columbus University (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of
Jazz, 244). Greatness in his own country was now upon him. Later in 1969, Nixon awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian medal of honor (244). The American government wasn’t the only government to honor this truly great man. Duke was so revered after a trip to Togo that the government issued a stamp in his honor. (The New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 658) Above all, his greatest distinction had to have been, being the first jazz musician to be named to the Royal Academy of Music in Sweden (658). With all of Ellington’s awards, Honorary Doctorates, and honors, he still remained humble. When asked about not winning American’s top prize for composers, Duke replied, “fate is just being kind to me. It doesn’t want me to
become famous to young.” (Johnson 59)
His music will surely live on for generation to come but more
importantly will the man behind the music be remembered? In a day and age when people are on the go, will they listen to his music done by another artist and not realize that the artist they are listening to is not the author? 13 Saying
Tony Bennett wrote Satin Doll is like saying Disney wrote the Nutcracker. Duke
Ellington had to go through a lot just to be heard when America was keeping
their African American artists under a cover. Not only should Ellington be
remembered as a great composer, but he should be remembered as a leading figure of Civil Rights like Martin Luther King Jr. who always saw the glass half full
instead of half empty. In his autobiography he writes, Gray skies are just
clouds passing over.” (Gayles, 1995). That sums up the man. Optimistic and
always striving to accomplish more.
Camus, Albert. Gales Quotations. Who said What. December 1995. Detroit: Gale
Research Inc. 1995. CD-ROM.
Collier, James Lincoln. Duke Ellington. New York: Macmillan. 1991.
“Duke is Still Tops. Ellington’s Relevance goes Beyond Music.” Chicago Tribune,
13 December 1995, Tempo, p.1.
“Ellington, Duke.” The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz. 1978 Ed.
“Ellington, Duke.” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. 1988 Ed.
“Ellington, Duke.” The New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians. 1980
Hajdu, David. “Sophisticated Gentleman” Entertainment Weekly. 31 May 1996.
Johnson, Robert. “On his 96th Birthday, Duke Ellington Proclaimed ‘BEYOND
CATAGORY’ by Critics of his Great Music.” Jet. 15 May 1995.
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