Though the name Duke Ellington may be more or less synonymous with jazz, the man himself often eschewed the term, preferring to refer to his work simply as “American music.” That may sound like a non-definition, but philosophically, there’s really no other name for the sound he and his orchestra created. Ellington’s music was the melting pot that his nation always purported itself to be, but rarely delivered upon -- a tapestry of influences, both homegrown and foreign, that exists in perfect harmony instead of collapsing into discord. Born into a time when the hypocrisy of the American Dream was immediate and apparent, especially to a person of color like himself, Ellington championed its true spirit by searching for inspiration across the nation’s myriad voices and subcultures. In much the same way that America promises to judge a man by his actions and not by his race, religion or country of origin, to Ellington, it didn’t matter where music came from or who made it, since at the end of the day there were only two kinds, “good and bad”. Not surprisingly then, it struck a chord with American listeners at large, and over the course of his unparalleled 50 year career, turned its creator into a beloved national icon.
Born into a comfortably middle class area of Washington D.C. in 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington was, surprisingly, initially more interested in baseball and girls than music. His doting mother and aunts dutifully exposed him to the hymns and spirituals of the church and the upper crust operatic stylings of singers like Sissieretta Jones, but Ellington always ended up rushing back to the sandlot or after some pretty young thing as soon as he was released. After being struck by a bat while practicing one day, his mother, determined to set her boy safe and on the right path, signed him up for piano lessons to keep him busy. Ellington once again displayed little enthusiasm, and indeed oftentimes failed to show up altogether. Continuing his rambunctious ways, he began sneaking out to pool halls at the age of 12, where he thoroughly absorbed the jumpy sound of ragtime, but was equally entranced by the X-rated talk of the grownups, including that of a number of local hustlers and confidence men.
He liked the music, and when he deigned to appear for his lessons, he took to it quickly enough to tap out tunes around the house, but it didn’t grow into a passion until he came across pianist Harvey Brooks. Working a summer job in Asbury Park, NJ, he idly mentioned to his boss that he enjoyed the gin-joint players he had heard down in Washington, and was instructed to check out Brooks in Philadelphia on his way back home. He was blown away, even sticking around after the show to pick Brook’s brain, and soon he had completed his first original song, “Soda Fountain Rag.” Realizing that his true calling had been right under his nose all along, he returned to the pool halls with a new purpose, to study his newly adopted craft with the same love and intensity he previously brought to sports and his, er, amorous activities. Using his regal nickname, Duke, which he earned thanks to his dapper looks and polite ways, he began fronting local bands. From there, his career took off quickly, soon leading him to a high-profile residency at the legendary Cotton Club in New York, where his compositions were heard by a national audience via a weekly radio broadcast.
The exposure gained on the airwaves and on the nearly endless touring that followed his stint at the club didn’t hurt, but part of the reason people took to his music so fast was down to the sheer level of care and effort that went into it. Unlike most big bands, Ellington’s orchestra didn’t really play any standards or cover the latest hits, instead focusing on entirely original material. Moreover, the musicians he chose to bring that material to life were the cream of the crop, hand-picked by the maestro himself for their unique playing styles and musical voices. Beyond its originality and the talent behind it, Ellington’s work was eclectic enough to provide something for every taste. He may have been weaned on gospel and ragtime, but his colorblind attitude toward music also allowed him internalize not only the regional variations of jazz, but down and dirty blues, the pop ditties of white Tin Pan Alley songwriters, show tunes, and folk songs. There was even a place for the musically important but culturally reprehensible minstrel shows, which relied on grotesque caricatures of African Americans, but were paradoxically one of the only avenues available to Black musicians to have their music heard by a wider audience and, almost more importantly, make a living doing it.
As time went by, fads continued to come and go, but Ellington apparently couldn’t have cared less about chasing trends. When swing music became a national phenomenon in the 1930s, Ellington, true to form, incorporated what he liked about it and discarded the rest. Hardcore fans realized that, to him, the style was just another color on his vast palette, but continuing to follow his personal, subtly patriotic muse did take a toll on his commercial fortunes for a number of years as a swing-crazy public found their fix elsewhere. As the popularity of swing, and big bands in general, began to wane after the Second World War, Ellington saw many of his peers falling by the wayside of popular culture, but he just kept on making music that appealed to him, which had by then expanded to make room for European classical music and especially its quirky American offshoots. The more complex and mature his sound became, the more fans came back around to it, and by the early 1950s, and certainly by his eye-opening smash performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, listeners began to realize that Ellington had been ahead of his time all along, and that jazz, as a musical language, was only then beginning to catch up.
Prolific even during lean times, being back in the musical epicenter added even more fuel to his creative fire. He continued to record in a pop vein, but also worked on more ambitious, conceptual suites, like the Shakespeare-inspired Such Sweet Thunder, and moved into scoring feature films, most notably for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. It’s a bit hard to gauge, but the number of original songs in his catalog runs well over a thousand; rumor has it that he was even working on a new tune in the hospital during the days leading up to his death from lung cancer and pneumonia in May of 1974. 12,000 people crowded New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine for his memorial, and no less than Ella Fitzgerald was heard to remark, “It’s a very sad day. A genius has passed.”
By that point, he had received just about every accolade available, and was routinely referenced as one of the greatest composers of all time, but no one could have accomplished all that on his own. In fact, his classically trained writing and arranging partner Billy Strayhorn was instrumental in translating Ellington’s avalanche of ideas (and contributed plenty of his own, including much of “Take the A Train,” one of the orchestra’s signature tunes). Of course, you can’t forget all the musicians he employed over the years either (some of whom made substantial additions themselves, as trombonist Juan Tizol did with the sultry “Caravan”), yet in the end it was Ellington’s seemingly bottomless well of inspiration that powered it all -- one that was continually refreshed by the United States’ eclectic and ever-changing musical traditions. Trumpeter and composer Winton Marsalis once observed, “His music sounds like America”, summing up the man’s life and work with stunning simplicity, as Ellington was not merely a practitioner of American music, for decades, he was the living embodiment of it.