"My men (orchestra members) and my people are the inspiration of my work....I try to catch the character and the mood and feeling of my people. The music of my people is more that the American idiom. It is the result of our transplantation to American soil and it was our reaction in plantation days, to the life we lived. What we could not say openly we expressed in music."
-- Duke Ellington --
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, was a jazz and Black culture icon. Indeed Duke, the prolific quintessential, multitalented, multifaceted composer, musician and orchestra leader was also a musical and cultural anthropologist, or musico-anthropologist,
musical biographer and autobiographer.
Perhaps Duke's musical creations were so alive, so imaginative, bright and colorful was because he lived and loved the music he composed. He wrote about--gave form to and celebrated through music--black people those he worked with and those he met in his travels across the United States. The beloved people, sights and sounds of his much love Harlem were celebrated in musical compositions such as "Harlem Air Shaft," of which Duke wrote,
"So much goes on in a Harlem air shaft. You hear fights, smell dinner, hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring."
During the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was a magnet that drew the best creative black minds: musicians, artists, poets, and movers and shakers in politics, history and education. This was the era of the "Harlem Renaissance" when many of the most talented black artists used their creative and intellectual talents to contribute to and articulate African American culture. And, Duke Ellington was one of the catalysts of this cultural revolution, and celebrated and honored fellow gifted artists such as Florence Mills, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Bert Williams, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
Duke's band was very near and dear to him (so much so it has been said on occasion he paid band members with his own funds). He wrote his music based upon their unique, individual talents--their ways of playing their instruments. And, Duke and his orchestra has a very long lasting relationship, well over 50 years, longer than any other big band in American history.
Duke was beloved of black people, not because he was a jazz artist, but because he was the "people's musician." He respected and loved blues, which he often heard in clubs where he hung out, and which is very apparent in his music. Of course, he was and is the musicians' musician.
Many musical artists, including Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor readily cite the influence Duke "the piano player" had on them. Cecil, an IconoClassic composer and pianist said, "When I get in the hole for ideas, one of the sources I go to is Ellington's conception of how to create colors. Also he showed me how it was possible to incorporate all kinds of music and other influences as part of my life as an American Negro. Everything Duke lived is in his music."
Although he was a global publicly acclaimed creative artist, Duke was also subjected to discrimination. And, he met this challenge too in an elegant and dignified way. And, he readily admittedly that he gained strength to do so from his people. This was exemplied, for instance, in his first gig at the Cotton Club. During this era when black bands were often given derogatory names, Duke introduced his band at performances as "The Famous Duke Ellington Orchestra." When Duke's band had to travel to perform in the South, rather than having members of his band relegated to sitting in the back of the bus, he booked cars on trains for them.
Duke was also the epitome of grace, wit and humor. In 1965 when the Pulitzer Committee refused to give him an award,, he joked, "Fate's been good to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too soon." Duke was sixty four years old at the time.
Duke Ellington was arguably a gifted creative artist, a rare, brilliant talent, an American and global treasure. He was a man who indeed loved people...and he loved his people and his music...madly.