Good Essay About Duke Ellington
One of the most iconic and celebrated musicians of the big band era and perhaps in all of music, is none other than Duke Ellington. The list of his accomplishments is vast and his prominence among those in his steed ranks him as being a musical legend in his own right. His greatest achievement was leaving his mark on Jazz music, which he affably referred to as “American Music”. Ellington could lay claim to such a name because he changed the sound and scope of American music never before heard. His influence would pave the way for others to follow that would eventually evolve into the Jazz music that we know today. Not only did he leave behind a musical legacy that is still revered to this day, but his passion and ingenuity for life and the impact he made is beyond compare.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born April 29, 1899, in Washington, D. C. From the very beginning, music was a part of Ellington’s life. Both his parents were involved with music and suffice it to say, if this was any indication, Ellington was destined to become musical greatness. At the age of 7, he began taking piano lessons and was given the nickname, “Duke” because of his gentle demeanor. By age 15, he had written his first composition entitled, “Soda Fountain Rag”; inspired by his job as a soda fountain busboy. Ellington turned down an art scholarship to Brooklyn, New York’s, prestigious Pratt Institute to follow his dream of pursuing ragtime music at age 17 (biography.com). Not long after at the age of 19, he married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson, and they had one child.
Over the span of Ellington’s career that ran nearly half a century, he produced over 3000 songs, gave well over 20,000 performances worldwide that took him to countries such as Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, in addition to his performances back home in the United States.
He received many prestigious awards in recognition of his musical accomplishments. In 1966, Ellington was awarded the President’s Gold Medal by President Lyndon Johnson. He received the Medal of Freedom in 1969; awarded by President Richard M. Nixon. Over the course of his career he was the recipient of thirteen Grammy awards. He won the Pulitzer Prize and in 1973, was given the French Legion of Honor. Ellington even had a commemorative U. S. postage stamp named in his honor in 1986 (dukeellington.com).
For all the great accomplishments Ellington achieved in the world of Jazz music, he was just as instrumental behind the scenes making a difference in other ways. Ellington’s music was more than just a new style of music for the American public, it gave voice to the black community during a time when racism was still ever-present. In many ways, Ellington, made history by breaking through barriers that no composer before him dared before. When he traveled to the Soviet Union, Ellington did so through a State Department tour that was arranged in large part by President Nixon in his efforts to amicably appeal to the Soviet Union. To the Soviets, Ellington was already a superstar. They had spent much time listening to him on the radio and by the time he arrived there he was given “a reception of Beatlemania proportions wherever he went” (Cohen).
Despite being supported by the State Department in his overseas touring, Ellington was not a spokesperson for the American political landscape. Rather he promoted his music as “the pinnacle of American culture” (Cohen). It would become more than that, however. Ellington’s music made a statement for blacks everywhere in America that sent a clear message around the world that there was no limit to what blacks could accomplish. His acceptance in U. S. S. R. culture by its citizens proved that Ellington’s music had broken through barriers and created necessary change across racial and ethnic boundaries. Ellington was not just known as one of America’s greatest composers, but someone who presented a “positive vision of American character and respectability to the world” (Cohen). It was a defining moment in history that would continue to have an impact worldwide.
Duke Ellington was a diplomatic individual that believed in the equality of all persons. In his initial State Department U. S. S. R. tour, he insisted that his entire band fly along with him in first class. He did not want he and his band to be segregated as he felt they all were just as important as he was. His intent was purposeful. He wanted both he and his band to fly into the Soviet Union as a united front. While he was always gracious to the people of the Soviet Union, Ellington made no secret of his disdain for communism. During his performances there, Ellington strived to “embody the differences between what he viewed as the freedom and democracy of his home country” (Cohen) as opposed to what was going on in the Soviet Union. Ellington did not believe in making much fanfare over his commitment to unity, but rather believed in leading by example.
Back home in the United States, Ellington had not only made his mark musically, but also in the area of civil rights. He penned many compositions that were in support of “programmatically celebrating African American history and personages” (Cohen). Ellington devoted many of his compositions to the black community which were testaments to just how far they had come. He and his band played numerous events in support of black organizations. He became a spokesman for African Americans; speaking at length about black history and freedom in every interview. Additionally, Ellington took part in a sit-in held in Baltimore, MD, in 1960. Every opportunity Ellington had to leave his mark in support of civil rights, he took it and then some.
Ellington lived his life on a set of guiding principles that were a part of everything he did. His leadership abilities commanded the attention of everyone he came in contact with that was inherent to Ellington’s character and integrity as both a professional musician and individual. Ellington knew from which he came. He never forgot his roots and the rich history that encompassed them. He considered it a “privilege of his background to learn his trade in the competitive creative world of popular music” (Nigel). Ellington had a knack for being able to listen and handle people better than most. Some of the most difficult to deal with were ironically jazz musicians. He treated his musicians as equals to himself. He believed in letting them shine and have their moment in the spotlight. Doing so, made “a unique difference to the performance of the organization” (Nigel) which kept his players motivated and inspired.
In keeping with the spirit of equality, Ellington recognized his role as band leader and never took that for granted. He believed in the value of teamwork and understood that it took all pieces to make a complete unit. Each band member was a unique fit that complimented one another. Ellington did not strive to be a problem-solver, but rather a unifier that enabled people to come to their own decisions that were best suited for themselves. Perhaps this is why he had mass appeal with the Soviets. He had learned the secret to individuality which served him well at home and abroad. More than anything, Ellington had an undeniable way of relating to people from all walks of life. His music helped shaped the face of Jazz music around the world. His ideologies on equality and quality of life for all of mankind helped to shape culture and forever change the face of it.
Duke Ellington’s music took on a life of its own. His iconic nature shone through in his music that captivated audiences and evoked raw emotions the world over. Audiences were often mesmerized by Ellington’s keen ability to play to the moment and utilize the talent of his musicians. No matter what situation might arise, Ellington nor his band ever missed a beat and the audience was the great benefactor of it all. Ellington’s elegant musical presentations have often been imitated but never duplicated.
Ellington’s music has continued to live on. Had he still been alive on April 29, 1999, it would have marked his 100th birthday. He was not forgotten, however. That year marked an array of celebrations both domestically and internationally to remember Ellington and his many contributions to Jazz music.
Today, Ellington’s “music offers a wide spectrum of sound from which to expand students’ knowledge and understanding of contemporary music” (George). His music contains so many different elements from tone, melody, rhythm, and sound, to texture and structure that students can learn and become inspired from all aspects of it. This signature style is what sets Ellington apart from most other composers both past and present.
Duke Ellington left this world on May 24, 1974, at the age of 75, due to his long battle with lung cancer. Jazz music lost one of its greats. He will forever be remembered for the indelible mark he left behind. The fingerprints of his legacy live on in others both in the Jazz community and beyond. Before his death, Ellington summed up his life in this way, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered." No doubt, he has done just that.
Bio.com. A&E Networks Television. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://www.biography.com/people/duke-ellington-9286338#professional-life>.
Cohen, Harvey G. "Visions of Freedom: Duke Ellington in the Soviet Union." Popular Music 30.3 (2011): 297-313. ProQuest. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
"Duke Ellington Biography." Duke Ellington Biography. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://www.dukeellington.com/ellingtonbio.html>.
George, Luvenia A. “Duke Ellington, the Man and His Music”, 85.6 (1999): 15-21. Music Educators Journal. Web. 4 March, 2015.
Nicholson Nigel. "Engaging leadership – the Duke Ellington way", 12.6 (2013): Strategic HR Review. Web. 4 March, 2015.
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