Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on this day in 1899 in Washington DC. No irony was lost that this man was born in America’s capital city. Jazz was an American creation. It was an African American creation. And this man would one day become known as Duke Ellington. He is the most productive,original and prolific composers in the jazz world even after his passing forty years ago. And he is likely the greatest of all American composers of his time period. He had a very independent mind. He rejected formal education in music even when he knew full well he more than had the ability and aptitude. Always driven and highly ambitious his songs essentially wrote the soundtrack to the jazz age-with songs like “Mood Indigo” and “Black And Tan Fantasy” defining that time period when he and his orchestra broadcasted via radio from the Cotton Club what was probably rather pejoratively called “jungle music”. Even after the swing era,the passing of his famous writing collaborator Billy Strayhorn passed away Duke was writing new songs on the get well cards he was receiving from admirers when he was dying of cancer. These are among the reasons why he fascinates me so.
As a grade school student my parents would often take me to see a local jazz band who called themselves Perennial Jay and the Be-Bop Divine. Because of Jay’s own personal interests, the band played a lot of songs by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. At that age,the musically advanced nature of be-bop was likely a lot easier for my parents to appreciate than myself. Usually at the end of their set they would break out into the Duke Ellington classic “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”. Now this was a song that even at that age I could dance,hum and snap my fingers to. It seemed as if Duke was all around me at that time. A postcard of Ellington was always in easy sight in my father’s music area during this period. And there seemed to be literature about the man always laying about somewhere in the home. One of the reasons why he was likely in the home, and why a local be-bop oriented jazz band would be playing his music was that Duke Ellington was an eternally progressive composer and musician. Though coming into his own during the swing age Duke fully acknowledged the be-bop era in his music as well. And that extended onward into other developments in jazz as well.
As I got older and learned more about Ellington, it also became apparent what an iconoclast and fine wit he was. Described in most of the biographical information I’ve heard as being a demure and rather shy individual,Ellington approached most conversations he had outside of music with a great sensitivity to whomever he was talking to-as well as to his own ego. An excellent example of this was when an interviewer asked him on television later in his life what his favorite composition of his was. Ellington’s answer,still stationed at his piano was “Oh the one coming up tomorrow. Always the best”. At the same time, Ellington also verbalized his musical self possession in his autobiography by saying “music is my mistress, and plays second fiddle to no one”. This personality mixture of both reflective sophistication and a fiercely ambitious work ethic is captivating to me also in that it shows up in the way he composes music. His songs are filled probing chords and moody dissonance and,in fact this characterized his compositional stamp.
I’ve seen a lot of musicians in my own lifetime come along with the assertion they were going to “save jazz” and re-popularize the music this music that has taken on something of a self victimizing tone from critics of some of jazz music’s development such as fusions with R&B/funk and later hip-hop. They all seem to lack true crucial things that made Duke such an enormous musical success. That would first be Duke’s abilities in musical adaptation, and his willingness to present his music anywhere from concert to Elks Halls. Duke Ellington never seems to have looked down his nose at any of the developments in jazz, or any other music for that matter, during his lifetime. And he was daring enough to compose anytime and anywhere inspiration hit him-not just at times when it was convenient. An artist with his approach would probably be considered highly eccentric in today’s less sympathetic music business. Yet Duke faced the challenges that same business presented in his era,many of them racially based, with the same attitude he always had. He begrudgingly played the segregated Cotton Club. But also directed and attempted to stage a musical theater production about civil rights just before World War II. These, among other things are why “Sir Duke” could never musically lose.