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Nation remembers Duke who made swing the thing

Web posted on:
Friday, April 30, 1999 5:39:38 PM EST

In this story:

A gumbo with international spice

Video: CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports on the legacy of Duke Ellington


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- This city of presidents is turning its attention to a duke, as jazz lovers and historians observe the centennial of the birth of one of America's most prolific composers, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington.

Ellington is responsible for definitive American tunes from "Satin Doll" to "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Nearly everyone can claim a favorite among his works. He was born 100 years ago Thursday. This week, his legacy is the focus of lectures, performances and other special events in the capital and around the nation.

"Everyone is starving for Ellington projects and Ellington works and Ellington evenings," says Mercedes Ellington, a choreographer who has arranged works to her grandfather's music.

Although he was a bandleader, pianist and arranger, Duke Ellington was above all a composer, with more than 1,000 works to his name. And while he didn't like to be defined as a jazz musician, he's remembered as one.

"He was an exponent of the music and a defender of it for 50 years on the road, all over the world," says Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. "He created a body of music that's unequalled, really, with the exception of Bach, in the history of music."

A gumbo with international spice


Marsalis has made a mission of spreading Ellington's music -- gumbo, he calls it: a big stew with the blues, spirituals, tin pan alley, and classical elements all stirred up with a little international spice.

"It's very sensuous, it's questing, it's unpredictable, and it's revolutionary," says Reuben Jackson of the Smithsonian Institution.

If he were alive today, the son of a White House butler might find all the D.C. galas surrounding him somewhat ironic. He began his career in his native Washington and went on to play Carnegie Hall and the White House. Along the way, there were racial slights and insults. For example, he often found himself shut out of hotels when he was on tour.

But with his snappy dress, suave persona, eloquence and talent, Ellington did much to defeat racial stereotypes. In compositions celebrating his heritage, his music sent a message to other African-Americans. Summed up, Marsalis says, that message was: "Your life is valuable and worth something, and look at this contribution that we are bringing to this country."

By the time he died on May 24, 1974, Ellington had published about 2,000 compositions. But he wrote much more than that. Among his archives preserved at the Smithsonian are 200,000 pages of documents -- about half of which are unpublished music.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports on the legacy of Duke Ellington
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What's your favorite Duke Ellington tune? Talk about all that jazz here!

John Hasse, the American music curator for the Smithsonian and an Ellington biographer, calls Ellington "the greatest all-around musician this country has produced."

And he revels in the massive Smithsonian collection. "Can you imagine acquiring a hundred thousand pages of unpublished Beethoven music?" Hasse asks. "It's just incredible. I regard the Ellington collection as one of the Smithsonian's crown jewels."

Although he died 25 years ago, Ellington continues to attract new fans. "His stuff is not dated," says granddaughter Mercedes. "People are still humming those tunes. ... It's just as new today as it was before."

Even rocker Lenny Kravitz credits the Duke as an influence, in a very personal way. He tells this story:

"My parents took me to hear Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, everybody -- things I wouldn't have chosen at a young age -- that molded me. On my birthday, when I was 6 or 7 or 8, they took me to hear Duke Ellington at the Rainbow Grill in New York. I sat on his lap at the piano bench and he played. Later on during the show, Paul Gonsalves, the saxophone player, came over and played 'Happy Birthday' for me.

"Here was this guy I thought was a really cool, nice man. I didn't know he was Duke Ellington, who defines the best of American music. When I grew up and became a musician and realized who he was, it was just incredible to me I was so lucky to have this experience with him. It's something I will always remember. It's one of the highlights of my life."

Correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.

Welcome to retro, where swing is the thing
November 27, 1998
Lenny Kravitz grows up
June 15, 1998
Marsalis grooves to 'Midnight Blues'
June 15, 1998
New Orleans Jazz Festival a mecca for music lovers
April 26, 1997

Smithsonian Institution
Jazz at Lincoln Center
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