Duke EllingtonDuke Ellington was one of the most influential jazz musicians ever. In a time when music
was going through a transformation from a ragtime style to a jazz-blues mix, Duke was
there to add his own style. He was a composer, conductor, and pianist who revolutionized
the way music was written and earned the title of being the great American composer.
Duke Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. in 1899. At the age of 17 he began
to play professionally. Due to his love of music, Duke dropped out of high school to
pursue his career as a musician in New York. He arrived in New York in 1923, where
Ellington found that his plans were ruined as the job which awaited him was no longer
available. Next, Duke just happened to run into an old friend, Ada Smith, who help Duke’s
band get a job in the club she worked at.
The big city, in the 1920’s, was not as glamorous as most people thought it was.
Working in the club, Duke Ellington found himself around shady characters and gun toting
gangsters. Duke’s workplace was a hazard in itself. Duke was constantly dodging thrown
bottles from drunks and bullets on a regular basis. Instead, Duke did not allow any of
these things to get in the way of his career or creativity.
In this period of time, racism and segregation was a huge problem in society.
Through his musical talent, Duke Ellington was able to close the gap between the white
upper-class and the black lower-class. Duke would play in such fancy joints as the Cotton
Club, not to mention cheap rent parties that he made only a dollar a night. Unlike most
musicians, Duke did not play for the money. He played his music to please his audience.
Soon, white people who only chose to watch white performers, found themselves listening
to soothing music of Duke Ellington. Whites, blacks, and gangsters stood side-by-side at
clubs and even sat at the same tables to listen to Duke. It was as if both of these races and
lifestyles were united through this intangible force, the universal language of music.
On the musical side of Duke Ellington’s achievements would have to be his
contributions towards transforming the traditional jazz-influenced American dance band of
the time, to a real jazz orchestra(Williams, 51). With the help of Fletcher Henderson, a
fellow band leader, Duke was able to focus less on the dancing areas of jazz, but more on
the musical side. This led to a greater quality of jazz. Not know to many, Ellington wished
to write his own musical, but never succeeded in starting one. Regardless, he is considered
by many, our greatest American composer in any style of music(Williams, 232).
Another one of Duke Ellington’s achievements was his ability to excite the
audience with his performances. With his electrifying concerts which Ellington put on, he
was able to make jazz and music as a whole grow to a popularity which rivaled like the
American pastime, baseball. From old people to young people, Duke has made jazz into
something special. It is this achievement which I feel gives the people of the 1920’s an
advantage over those of today; the experience of enjoying a variety of music(Brown, 148).
Unlike many of the band leaders of his time, Duke Ellington chose to allow his
band members to play however they felt was right for them. Aware of each members’
ability, he would build his music around them, instead of writing music the way he thought
it should be played(Brown, 48-50). Through improvisation, Duke introduced a whole new
dimension of jazz. Duke’s success in seeing the different colors of each instrument must
have been because he was also a skilled painter. He once referred to each scale as a
different color, and a musical scale as a rainbow(Brown, 226). Without the introduction of
improvising in music, we would find today’s music lacking in much liveliness which brings
Duke Ellington’s contributions to the world of the 1920’s span from advancements
of music in other cultures, to the lasting impressions he had upon jazz. Music to Duke was
more than a way for him to make a living, but something of a color, life, and meaning.
Duke Ellington described music best in his quote:
Wise and patient,
Music is the woman you always wanted to find (Ellington, 39).
Duke Ellington was connected to music by a strong force, making him leave his education,
his wife, his child, his friends, but always seeming to take care of him as the woman he
always wanted to find.
In my opinion, I think Duke Ellington was the most influential jazz musician of all
time. I also have learned that you might have to sacrife somethings, just ad Duke did, to
succeed in life. Duke Ellington did not create his music to make money, but to simply
please his audience. That is why I believe Duke Ellington is the great jazz musician of our
Brown, John R. Legendary Jazz Musicians. Freehold Publishing Inc., 1954, New York
Ellington, Duke. Music Is My Mistress. Doubleday Publishing, 1973.
Williams, Mercer. Duke Ellington in Person. Houghton, 1978. Da Capo, n.d…