Duke Ellington: Influential Black Leaders
Just as soul music and Motown provided the aspirational soundtrack for the 1960s civil rights movement, swing music furnished the upwardly-mobile score for the mid-1900s Harlem Renaissance. And of all the formidable bandleaders of the era, Edward “Duke” Ellington towered over the competition like a musical Everest. Where Count Basie, Benny Goodman and competing bandleaders favored high-stepping songs with hard-swinging arrangements, Ellington tunes such as “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” seem mysterious by comparison, romantic songs whose world-weary blues melodies helped Ellington earn 11 Grammy Awards, 13 Grammy Hall of Fame nods, and a Grammy Trustees Award.
An economical pianist and canny orchestra leader, music seemed to pour from the D.C.-born wunderkind. Composing original songs at a furious clip, Ellington wrote more than 1,000 tunes, many of which are considered part of the Great American Songbook, including “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Satin Doll,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and more.
He was a pivotal player in jazz music’s metamorphosis into swing, the evolutionary 1930s style that placed more emphasis on syncopated rhythms and hard-driving bass. Ellington and songwriting collaborators, including Billy Strayhorn, excelled at creating arrangements that showcased the orchestra’s most dynamic soloists, including alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, multi-instrumentalist Ray Nance, and trombonist Joe Nanton, the latter of whom employed a mute to create woebegone “wah-wah” effects. That Ellington was able to manage such a crackerjack touring orchestra while composing hundreds of topflight tunes is testament to his genius and industry.
His original songs rank among the first examples of “crossover” pop. It’s indisputable that Ellington performances such as “Take the ‘A’ Train” “In A Sentimental Mood” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” perfectly captured the essence of the black experience, but his facile reconciliation of street-smart rhythm, tuxedo-clad melody and impressionistic lyricism was also irresistible to white audiences.
One can easily quantify Ellington’s greatness by citing his many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Pulitzer Prize special citation, the Songwriters Hall of Fame Award, and honorary doctorates from Howard University, Yale and Columbia, to list but a few. But Sir Duke’s legacy transcends mere peer accolades. Play word association with phrases such as “swing” and “big band music,” and Ellington’s name will likely leap first to many people’s minds. In death as in life, he is the embodiment of jazz. — Bruce Britt