“Music is how I live, why I live, and how I will be remembered.” – Duke Ellington 1974
Duke Ellington – world renowned composer, pianist, and jazz orchestra band leader is widely regarded as a pivotal figure in the history of jazz. Ellington embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a liberating principle, referring to his music as part of the more general category of American Music, rather than to a musical genre such as jazz. This proud defiance of being categorized and restricted to a certain musical genre allowed Ellington to elevate his music to new heights. The Duke has recorded for most American record companies of his era, performed in films while also composing scores for several, and composed stage musicals over an illustrious fifty year career. A master at writing miniatures for the three-minute 78 rpm recording format, Ellington wrote more than one thousand compositions; his extensive body of work is the largest recorded personal jazz legacy, with many of his works having become standards.
As part of the Jazz Scholar Lecture Series presented by the Library of Congress, Columbia University Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English, Robert O’Meally, PhD lectured on the life and music of Duke Ellington. O’Meally is currently the director of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies and an internationally recognized scholar of African American music and art in American culture. His books include Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, The Craft of Ralph Ellison, and Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey. Like Duke Ellington, O’Meally was also born in Washington, DC and noted the geographical significance of lecturing on The Duke at the historic Library of Congress in his own hometown. The Library’s Music Division also offered a curated display of rare Duke Ellington photographs, memorabilia and other items from its collections as part of this event.
O’Meally’s lecture explored the true sophistication and grandeur of Edward Kennedy Ellington – the man we all know as “Duke“. The name given to him by his childhood friends often noting his dapper style and noble etiquette. Born in Northwest Washington, DC in 1899, Ellington grew up around music. His parents (both accomplished pianist themselves) had young Duke taking piano lessons at the age of seven – however he was more interested in playing baseball. In his early teens, Ellington would sneak into local clubs and halls where his exposure to ragtime musicians truly ignited his passion for the piano. While Ellington learned fundamentals of music theory and composition, he also steeped himself in the techniques of non-schooled jazz and blues musicians, whose rawness and passion he admired and sought to duplicate. Soon after forming his own group, Duke began playing local cafes and clubs which quickly flourished to performances at high society balls and embassy parties in Virginia.
The performances thrived, as Duke Ellington’s band The Washingtonians played to black and white audiences (a rare feat during that time of segregation). In 1923, Ellington moved to Harlem, New York ultimately becoming a part of the Harlem Renaissance movement. While in New York, he secured a lucrative and lengthy stay leading his own orchestra as the house band at the famed Cotton Club. Ellington’s orchestra included some of jazz music’s most prominent musicians: Charlie Mingus (bass), Louie Bellson (drums), Billy Strayhorn (pianist / composer) just to name a few. The Duke Ellington Orchestra was on it’s way to becoming a household name for decades playing gigs throughout New York City, then around the country, and ultimately across the globe. Ellington’s signature compositions as Mood Indigo, In A Sentimental Mood, and It Don’t Mean A Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing) became early jazz standards for music lovers all over the world!
Robert O’Meally reminded the audience of a very different period in time back when racial inequalities plagued the music and film industry. However, the Duke remained unwavering in his decision to appear on film only as himself—as composer, bandleader, and pianist but never in any of the roles typically reserved for African Americans on the silver screen of his era. Black, Brown and Beige (1943), was Ellington’s first extended composition and was introduced during his first ever appearance at Carnegie Hall. The composition was “a parallel to the history of the Negro in America, dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, the place of slavery and the church in their history.” Many regard it as Ellington’s longest and most ambitious composition. He later worked with award-winning actor James Stewart in Anatomy of A Murder (1959) and also with Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier in Paris Blues (1961). Ellington had pioneered his way in both music and film while maintaining his dignity and charm all the while. O’Meally shared that it was widely known in New York City’s African American community of The Duke’s live broadcasts from the segregated Cotton Club on Manhattan’s WHN radio station, allowing Duke’s orchestra to be heard in homes across the city as well as in front of a live audience. This gave Ellington the unique opportunity to play a wide range of music from ragtime to swing while connecting with both his audience in the Cotton Club and all through the city streets of New York City.
Today, Ellington’s influence can be heard in nearly every genre of music that exist. Countless musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Stevie Wonder have composed tributes for him, preserving his significant legacy in the African American community as well as in the music community. Miles Davis once said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” With an extraordinary career spanning over fifty years, The Duke earned fourteen Grammy awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966) on twenty-four nominations. A recipient of The Presidential Medal of Freedom, The Legion of Honor in France, an honorary PhD from Berklee College of Music, and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his lifetime contributions to music and culture. Duke Ellington remains one of the most accomplished and significant musicians the world has known. His legacy remains strong and cherished back home on the streets of the Nation’s Capital.
For more information on Duke Ellington: www.dukeellington.com
-Jamaal Bailey (Urban Heat Advisory)
*Special Thanks to Anne McLean @ The Library of Congress