Duke Ellington: A Retrospective

'Jazz Legend' Duke Ellington: Playing the Piano (Circa -1940's)
‘Jazz Legend’ Duke Ellington: Playing the Piano (Circa -1940’s)

Edward Kennedy Ellington is rightly considered to be one of the leading figures and original titans of Jazz music. In addition to writing over 1,500 compositions, he was one of the most successful bandleaders and pianists of his time. To this day, he has stood the test of time and is one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century as well. Along with being a major figure in Jazz, Ellington’s music also delved into other musical genres such as blues, gospel, classical music and popular film scores.

His career was one of the longest of all the Jazz legends, spanning about 50 years from the 1920s to the 1970s. He was a versatile musician and was extremely dedicated to this work. In addition to running his big band and orchestra, Ellington composed new songs, put on many world tours and also scored the music for stage musicals and films. Many of his instrumental works have become Jazz standards that the average listener should be well aware of and familiar with many of Ellington’s compositions.

His ability to be an entertainer as well as a performer helped elevate Jazz to a level where it was considered to be equal or even more influential than most other genres of music during the early 20th century. He was the first musician to really incorporate the idea of using a big band and/or orchestra to really propel jazz/swing as being distinct forms of music with their own style and substance. Ellington came from a modest upbringing in a middle class black neighborhood in Washington D.C. and was considered by others to charismatic, compassionate and a brilliant and dedicated musician. He is as well known for his ability to entertain people as he is for his excellent piano playing.

Ellington would often refer to the music he played not as jazz but as “American” or “Negro” music and helped his orchestra’s musicians and others to develop their own jazz standards and compose for them. Some of the names for which he helped out so graciously were for Johnny Hodges’s “Jeep’s Blues”, Cootie Williams’ “Concerto for Cootie” and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” Many of his band members stayed with him throughout the five decades for which they were active. In addition to his band members, Ellington also worked alongside other musicians of the time such as Billy Strayhorn, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. Some of Ellington’s best known songs include, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”, “Mood Indigo”, “Black and Tan Fantasy”, “Sophisticated Lady” and “Satin Doll” among many others. While which song exactly made the Duke most famous is a hotly debated topic, some argue that it is “Mood Indigo” which thrust him upon the world stage and gave him global fame for the rest of his career. When Ellington was once asked, what made him inspired to write, record and play music, he 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.”

Location played an important role in influencing Duke Ellington’s musical contributions to society. With each song he wrote and composed, he would try to tell a story about his community, his life and his race. It is no coincidence due to the Duke’s popularity and his wide following throughout America as one of the first prominent black musicians that he was often times referred to as a “race man.” People referred to him as this because of the cultural and social impact that he had as a popular musician representing the African-American community at a time when there were few black performers and entertainers in music. This was particularly due at the time to Jim Crow laws and general intolerance, racism towards the African-American community in many parts of the United States. Duke Ellington in a way broke through the color barrier along with Louis Armstrong because of those who came before them when it came to music in America during the early 1900’s. Ellington was an instrumental musician in bringing Jazz music outside of New Orleans to towns and cities across the country especially in New York City when he hit the big time and made his home starting in 1927, at the famous “Cotton Club” in Harlem. From that and other clubs, his big band/orchestra set the bar high when it came to playing brilliant jazz, swing, classical and other forms of music. Over the course of his career, He made jazz and swing music into American music as he traveled around the world for thousands of performances in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There is no doubt to the average learner and student of Jazz that Duke Ellington is one of it’s most important figures in its’ history. He was the genre’s most important composer, one of its’ most highly regarded performers and band leaders who employed many talented black and white musicians believing that everyone should have the chance to play regardless of the color of their skin. Ellington’s compositions are studied and played over and over by many musicians today and his prowess at the piano is often overlooked but was also instrumental in talking about his legacy as a musician. It’s fair to say that there will only ever be one “The Duke” and those who follow his lead. His work is also very important in describing American culture and music. His legacy is still vibrant today as many young people continue to pursue the arts and perform in music groups. They strive to play jazz and other types of music because of men like the Duke himself.

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