Duke Ellington’s Legacy


I think all the musicians in jazz should get together on one certain day and get down on their knees to thank Duke. —Miles Davis

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of the most original and wide-ranging composer in American history. (Charles Ives was second).

Duke Ellington’s life and works should be explored and enjoyed in classrooms and concerts at middle schools, high schools, and colleges all around the nation. That may already happen in a few places; but by and large, most younger Americans remain culturally disadvantaged in their ignorance of Edward Kennedy Ellington.

Recently, I called a mail-order house that specializes in hard-to-get recordings of various kinds. I was looking for a set of V-discs that the Ellington orchestra had recorded during the Second World War. The first person I talked to had never heard of Ellington. Nor had the second (“How do you spell Ellington?”). At last, there was someone who said, with delight, “What a wonderful composer!” I mentioned that the name Ellington had bemused her colleagues. “Well,” she said, “I guess it’s my age.” She was old enough to remember the exultant drive of “Harlem Air Shaft.”

A few years ago, moreover, I played some Ellington recordings for a group of teenagers in Harlem. They were polite but rather bored. It was rap that moved them.

There are still many Americans, of course, who play Ellington recordings to lift their souls; and in Washington, the Ellington legacy has been resoundingly extended in a public high school— the Ellington School of the Arts. More of that next week. As far as I know, it is the only school in the country named after this protean provider of the life force.

Duke never got a Pulitzer prize for music, an oversight the music jury tried to remedy in 1965, by giving him a token special award for having been around so long. Even that condescending nod was vetoed by the overall Pulitzer committee as not fit for a mere jazz musician. On hearing of the insult, Duke, characteristically urbane in public, said to the press:

“Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” He was 66 at the time.

I saw him a couple of nights later. He had been an occasional mentor of mine since I was 19, and we talked from time to time. That evening, he was angry at the invincible ignorance of the Pulitzer committee.

“Well, you see,” he told me, “most Americans still take it for granted that European-based music— classical music, if you will— is the only really respectable kind. What we do, what other black musicians do, has always been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”

An Ellington song that has haunted me for years is called “What Am I Here For?” Duke always knew why he was here. In 1940, he told a newspaper interviewer of his desire to establish “an unadulterated American Negro music.” (“Black” wasn’t much in usage at the time.)

That’s precisely what he did. Indeed, in the 1920s, Ellington went to Fletcher Henderson, the leader of a very prestigious jazz orchestra, and said, “Why don’t we drop the word jazz? We ought to call what we’re doing ‘Negro music.’ Then there wouldn’t be any confusion.” It was too bold an idea for Henderson.

Through the years, Ellington devoted large sections of his huge body of work to the black experience in this nation: “Black, Brown and Beige” (a history of blacks in America); “The Deep South Suite”; the kaleidoscopic “A Tone Parallel to Harlem”; “Harlem Air Shaft”; “My People.”

During the 1960s, some young black civil rights activists accused him of having stayed aloof from the civil rights battle. Duke was irritated. “People who think that of me,” Ellington said, “haven’t been listening to our music. For a long time, social protest and pride of the Negro have been the most significant things in what we’ve done.”

Cecil Taylor, himself a musician of unbending integrity, told me in the 1950s that “Ellington showed me how it was possible to incorporate all kinds of musical and other influences as part of my life as an American Negro. Everything I’ve lived, I am in my music. And that’s true of Duke, too.”

Duke had no patience with categories. He didn’t like the term jazz. It was too confining. “The other night,” he said one day, “I heard a cat on the radio, and he was talking about ‘modern’ jazz. So he played a record to illustrate his point, and there were devices in that music I heard cats using in the 1920s.

“These large words like ‘modern’ don’t mean anything! Everybody who’s had anything to say in this music— all the way back— has been an individualist. I mean musicians like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins. Then what happens is that hundreds of other musicians begin to be shaped by that one man. They fall in behind him and you’ve got a category.

“I don’t listen to terms like ‘modern’ jazz. I listen for those individualists. Like Charlie Parker was.”

Offstage, Duke was always courtly. But he was also a private man who rarely revealed his deepest feelings— anger, grief, exaltation.

Stanley Dance, who wrote some of the most penetrating profiles of Ellington and his musicians, told this story at Duke’s funeral in 1974 at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine:

“The first time he went to Buenos Aires, he had played his final concert and sat in the car outside the theater before going to the airport.

“People clutched at him through the opened windows. They were crying, thrusting gifts on him, gifts on which they hadn’t even written their names. It was one of the few times I saw him moved to tears.”

The day of the funeral, outside the cathedral, a black man, who had come down from Harlem, said: “I’m just here to bear witness. A man passed through and he was a giant.”

But how many Americans know Duke Ellington’s legacy? Do you?