April 27, 2023     Abby Feck

The Legacy of Duke Ellington 


With Duke Ellington’s birthday coming up this Saturday, April 29, we wanted to take a look through the history books at how this famous jazz artist impacted music, American culture, and even the entire world.

How Edward Kennedy Ellington Became “Duke” Ellington 

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in 1899, nobody could have ever foreseen the grand success of “Duke” Ellington. The soon-to-be-famous jazz musician was born and grew up in Washington DC, a relative “safe haven” for the black populace at the time. While DC was comparatively “progressive in their racism”, Duke still attended segregated schooling. However, the black population of DC was known to “circumvent” the racist policies at the time instead of fighting with violence. This was especially seen in these segregated schools Duke attended, where teachers took advantage of teaching directly to black students and black students only. His education included deep dives into teachings on Black American history, empowering students through knowledge. Black community leaders taught the youth to challenge racism through achieving, using their platforms to figuratively fight the racist systems, instead of fighting with closed fists. Duke carried these lessons with him all throughout his musical career.  

He got his start musically by playing piano as a kid, under his mother’s teachings. A gifted pianist, he began his professional career at the young age of seventeen. After making a name for himself in Washington, he moved to the Big Apple in 1923 to continue his work. In 1924, he formed his first jazz band, the Washingtonians. With this group, he was able to establish himself in NYC as well, both through performing and composing. Just four short years after the band was founded, they became regular performers at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. From this point on he began doing radio and recording work, cementing his rise to eventual international stardom. 

Duke’s Impact on Jazz Music Domestically and Abroad 

Though the course of his career and beyond, Duke Ellington grew to become one of the best-known names in jazz history. While he got his start playing piano, he eventually branched into becoming a band leader, becoming a composer, writing scores for movies and even appearing in films! Duke progressed to either write or collaborate on over 1,000 compositions. This made him one of the most recorded artists of all time as well as having one of the largest artist libraries in history. He truly was a jack of all trades when it came to the musical arts. 

 “Jazz today, as always in the past, is a matter of thoughtful creation, not mere unaided instinct.” – Duke Ellington

Duke approached music differently than anyone had ever before. He didn’t conform to an idea of what jazz should or shouldn’t be; He followed what was inside himself, creating music with emotion and depth, yet also with swing and blues. He also encouraged his musicians to listen to the tunes and feelings within. He looked at his big band group in a very special way, seeing each individual performer instead of only the group as a whole. This was unlike any other band leader – Duke knew how to play to everyone’s strengths, make them feel heard and allow them creative freedom in performances. By making each individual feel empowered in such a way, he formed a loyal band of players that helped to support him on his rise to fame.  

Duke traveled with his band often, seeing a heyday in the 1930s and 40s. His most notable international tours were in 1933 and 1939, but he continued to travel far and wide with his group just up until his death in 1974. In the couple decades post World War II, the international performances Duke and his band did were hugely socially influential, beyond just the music. Like most other bands, the group Duke led saw huge hardships during the war. However, they weathered these difficult times with the backing of Duke, paying from his own pockets to keep the group alive and well. After the war, the group was able to start international and domestic touring again with a new energy. Later on in the 50s, amid tensions between the US and the USSR, President Eisenhower appointed Duke as a “Jazz Ambassador.” Seeing the negative propaganda against the US in Europe, Eisenhower wanted Duke to head across the pond to “set the story straight” and prove that America was not the evil power the country was being made out to be. With this, Duke was cemented as an American icon and figurehead, especially in the international music scene. 

Duke’s Influence in the Fight for Racial Equality 

My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people” – Duke Ellington

As a black artist in the 1900s, Duke had to face deep-seeded racism in America, plaguing his journey to become a recognized and successful jazz musician. Being born into a freshly post slavery America to seeing the fight for equality during the Civil Rights Movement, Duke experienced one of the most transformative times in US history. However, Duke recognized his role in American society during his life. He recognized that he needed to employ the teachings from his youth – he needed to use his platform to raise awareness of the horrific treatment Black Americans experienced every day.  

One of his most popular and influential works was Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the American Negro. This series was performed for the first time at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943 to a very diverse group. It outlined the African American experience, being broken into three sections, black, brown and, of course, beige. Black follows the slave era in America, brown looks at emancipation and beige calls attention to the inequality that was still at play. Outside of just the music, Duke also wrote 29 essays really meant to solidify the message of the work. Duke intended to unify the public through education with his musical activism. He recognized that music was a far more effective medium to get people to listen, so once he had their ears, he made sure to stand up for his people.  

Carnegie Hall

While it may not be the first method that comes to mind, Duke also tried to challenge the racist ways in America at the time through his appearance. He challenged what the stereotype of Black Americans “should” look like, often dressing in a very formal yet stylish debonair fashion. This was not a style associated with Black culture at all, but that never stopped Duke. He performed with slicked back hair, in dapper style, the same way affluent white people made themselves up. He appeared on the silver screen in almost anything but the drab or sometimes even cartoonish looks normally given to Black actors. He challenged the racist assumptions of appearance, showing people of any skin tone could wear any clothes. Especially when Duke was on stage or on the big screen, Black America took huge pride in how he presented himself. He was an icon in the non-violent fight for equal rights. 

Awards and Accomplishments 

Duke was a hugely successful musician, getting recognized frequently for his role in music, racial equality and American culture as a whole. He was publicly recognized by two presidents in his lifetime, receiving the President’s Gold Medal from President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 as well as the Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon in 1969. However, his recognition spanned beyond just the American government. In 1973, just before his passing, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor. This is an incredible feat, as this is the highest recognition possible in France, being initially established by Napoleon in 1802. While having multiple government level recognitions is hugely impressive, he also earned 13 Grammy Awards, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 and even has a US Commemorative stamp with his likeness on it! 

Duke Ellington US Commemorative Stamp

Duke Ellington was a main player in shaping what jazz is as we know it. Not only did he have a huge influence on the music, but also the culture and society developing around it. He changed how people thought. Duke altered the mindset of the musicians in his bands, the composers creating jazz, the band leaders driving the groups and the Black and White audience members alike. There’s a reason “Duke Ellington” is a household name – This man helped to create the musical and empowered society we live in today.  

Ready to celebrate the life and music of Duke Ellington through an unforgettable jazz-focused performance tour? Contact Encore Tours today to start planning your next musical adventure!

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