Duke Ellington: An American Legacy
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Duke Ellington: An American Legacy
Where would music be had it not been for the men that stepped before him.
The Motzarts and Beethovens, who wrote the music that today is known as the
classics. These men were naturals in their own right, but these people wrote
their music in the 17th and 18th century. Many people don\'t realize all of the
changes that music had to go through between that period of music and the
present day. One such musician stands alone at the top as one of the movers and
innovators of the 20th century. He is Duke Ellington. Along with his band, he
alone influenced millions of people both around the world and at home. He gave
American music its own sound for the first time. Winton Marsalis said it best
when he said "His music sounds like America." (Hajdu,72). These days you can
find his name on over 1500 CS\'s(Illistated Encyclopedia of Jazz,254). Duke\'s
legacy will live on for generations to come.
Duke Ellington was born Edward Kennedy Ellington, April 29, 1899 in
Washington D.C(The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz,330). His father at the time
was employed as a butler yet always wanted the best for Duke. At the young age
of seven Ellington took up the piano, because his father had always wanted him
to become an artist(330). But how was Duke to become an artist in a time when
blacks weren\'t given the same rights as everyone else. They went to separate
schools. They were forced to the back of the bus and to use separate bathrooms.
If Duke were to become some one he had much to come over.
One thing that we do know is that Duke was always looking for attention
and dignity. There are even stories of how he would announce from the top of
the stairs in the morning that he was coming down and demand that his parents
applaud(Collier,9). Also when his cousins would come over he would stand on the
front porch as they arrived and make them curtsy in front of him(9). Of course
they didn\'t like that but they played along(10). From the beginning Duke
Ellington wanted to be remembered by generations to come, That would be
difficult being the son of a butler and black(The New Grove Dictionary of
Jazz,330); in a time when Negroes had many obstacles including the racism that
plagued the United States.
About ten years after he started to play piano, he made his professional
debut. It was nothing glitzy just a pub in uptown(330). Back in Ellington\'s
time black performers had to enter through back doors. He was on his way, or
was he? In 1923 he experienced failure due to financial instability(330). Most
people would have given up by now but not the Duke. He kept on looking for work.
His relentless perseverance payed off. In 1924 Elmer Snowden asked Duke
Ellington to join his band and he accepted without question(Collier,45). So
Duke moved north to New York and joined the Washingtonians(46). Elmer Snowden
was so impressed by his natural ability, that in 1927 he handed his band over to
Ellington(Collier,72). It was the turning point in Ellingtons life. He was now
the leader of a headlining bank at the Cotton Club. "The Cotton Club--smack dab
in the middle of Harlem-but Black people couldn\'t go there. It was for whites
only," says Joe Louis(Gales,1995). Imagine the prestige of being a Black in the
midst of White people. Ellington was finally rubbing shoulders the upper class.
However he was not allowed to share his talent with his own kind. His
inspiration for all his wonderful compositions never were heard by them. It\'s
like writing a love song for someone and not being allowed to share it. His
feelings and ideas were never expressed to the people that meant the most to him,
his people(Johnson,59). At the time his legacy was only known by the whites who
went to see him perform. It wasn\'t until later when Blacks began to hear the
Duke\'s music for the first time.
Being headlined wasn\'t the only fame that the band brought Duke
Ellington. In 1930 he took the group to Hollywood to appear in the movie, Check
and Double Check(The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz,330). Ellington was becoming
a household name. The attention and dignity that he had always strived for as a
kid had finally come.
Ellington was not going to let opportunity get away from him. During
the time from 1933 to 1939 he went on a huge world tour that spanned the globe.
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Duke Ellington, Harlem Renaissance, Mood Indigo, Duke Ellington discography, Billy Strayhorn
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