Duke Ellington: Symbol of jazz as a high art form

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, composer and pianist, died on this day 1974.

He remains a key figure in the history of jazz. Everything that is appreciated in music: originality, imaginativeness, technical knowledge, passion, all of this was brought to perfection in his music.

His over 50 years long career brought him a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1965 – he didn’t get it because the board of this prestigeous award rejected the concordant reccomendation to honor Ellington with a special award for lifetime achivement and contribution to American music and culture. Ellington’s answer to this was a typical one: “Destiny is on my side. It doesn’t want me get too famous at too young age.”

Ellington was 66 at that time.  He was awarded with the Pulitzer Prize after his death in 1999, on 100th anniversary of his birth, “to honore a music genius… who spread democratic principles through jazz and made indelible contribution to art and culture of the United States.”

He is considered the most prolific American composer of the 20th century – not only for the number of pieces he composed (approximately 2000 known, and according to some sources, another 3000 never transcripted or recorded), but also for the variety of music shapes. “I think that on one particular annual day, all musicians should gather and fall on their knees as a sign of gratefullness to Duke”, were Miles Davis’ words.

Every attempt to put the oppulence of Ellington’s music in words is condemnd to fail at the very beginning. The only way to understand the greatness of his musical language is – to listen.

I Don’t Mean A Thing (If I Ain’t Got That Swing), is Ellington’s standard written in 1931. It was the first ever composition that had the word swing in it’s name, three years before this music genre gained prominence. It was recorded in 1943.

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