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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Happy Birthday Duke Ellington

When it sounds good, it is good.

Duke Ellington (wiki(program notes to Such Sweet Thunder, 1957)

I have a mistress. Lovers have come and gone, but only my mistress stays. She is beautiful and gentle... She is a swinger. She has grace. To hear her speak, you can't believe your ears. She is ten thousand years old. She is as modern as tomorrow, a brand new woman every day, and as endless as time and mathematics. Living with her is a labyrinth of ramifications. I look forward to her every gesture. Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to none. 

~Ellington (Music is My Mistress, 1973)

The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius, and Duke E Ellington. Unfortunately, Bach is dead, Delius is very ill, but we are happy to have with us today the Duke. 

~ Percy Grainger* (quoted in Bird, Percy Grainger)

Outside of the intrinsic artistic value of his music (which is, of course, the most important thing about Ellington), I think his contemporary impact on American culture was at least as much a social one as an aesthetic one. He was the first black man who was widely perceived as a serious and significant artist in white America, and his success in vaulting over that barrier of perception was a source of immense collective pride in black America. It was exactly what he set out to do, too, which is one of the reasons why he went to such lengths to cultivate his image as a man apart from the common run of jazz bandleaders—black and white alike. 


Today is the anniversary of the birth of American jazz pianist and composer Edward Kennedy ("Duke") Ellington (1899-1974) (wiki) (official website) in Washington, D.C. One of the most influential figures in the history of jazz, Ellington established his reputation at the Cotton Club in New York City between 1927 and 1932 and toured Europe with his band in the late 1930s, setting an unprecedented standard for jazz performance and improvisation.

Over the course of a 50-year career, he wrote more than 6,000 compositions which span the spectrum from jazz to "serious" and sacred music and include such standards as Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, Solitude, and Black, Brown, and Beige. 

Often credited to the Duke but actually a couplet by Irving Mills from one of Ellington's favorite numbers, is a phrase that well describes his philosophy of music-making:

"It don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing."

Here he is playing that song:



* N.B. Quirky Australian-born composer Percy Grainger (1882-1961) is remembered largely for popular light-classical works such as Over the Hills and Far Away and Handel in the Strand. His ranking of watery English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) - whose music never rises above mezzo forte - with Bach and Duke Ellington boggles the mind.

Here's a short (4 minute) bio from the Biography Channel:


And here are the Duke and John Coltrane in Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood":



If you're looking for a good biography of the Duke, I highly recommend Terry Teachout's excellent Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.   

1 comment:

  1. Such a great musician, such wonderful music. Why don't the blacks of today revere people like Ellington, Satchmo, Ella, Sarah Vaughan (the list goes on) and others. More often it is white people who do.

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