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Duke Ellington Playing Piano

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“Just because a record has a groove / Don’t make it in the groove.” ~ Stevie Wonder

Turn on some music right now – almost any made by Black Americans after about 1930. Odds are the nuances that make it so appealing are using compositional and orchestral practices first conceived and applied by the late Duke Ellington. The man Stevie Wonder referred to as “Sir Duke” in an offering on the internationally celebrated album Songs In the Key of Life died 50 years ago on May 24, 1974.

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, beloved public intellectual, pastor and professor who holds dual appointments at Vanderbilt University, and the multiple best-selling New York Times and American Book Award-winning author of more than 25 books, recently began a conversation with me about Ellington toward the end of a crowded day.

“When Duke Ellington rose to prominence, it was against the backdrop of what many have credibly argued was the appropriation of Black music by white figures like Irving Berlin,” Dr. Dyson noted.

Berlin, a white contemporary of Ellington’s, wrote classic songs like “Blue Skies” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

When you make great music, it transcends rigid boundaries.

Dyson continued: “Jazz, performed by any number of white musicians was, some have argued, doing questionable and destructive things with Black music. They appropriated it without understanding its base or fundamental impulse–and certainly without due recognition of the culture from whom they inherited it.”

Nevertheless, Ellington navigated that appropriation Dyson asserted, because he was not only “significant in his own right, but also he stood in sharp contrast to those who weren’t as genuinely familiar with and authentically rooted in Black culture.”

As a composer, Ellington is as defining for American music as Mozart is to classical music in Europe. He had a composition for every occasion and every emotion. For an intimate meeting with a loved one, he gave us “In a Sentimental Mood.” For a good time at a dance hall, he offered “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” For commentary on the socio-political temperature in America, he provided “Money Jungle.”

Ellington’s versatility was limitless – and it reached the point where he believed that Black music shouldn’t be relegated to any single genre or category. To him, the only categories were good music and bad music. “The Negro has had a major influence on the total culture of America,” Ellington once said during an interview. “I think what people hear in music is either agreeable to the ear or not. And if this is so… why does it have to have a category?” Decades later, Quincy Jones would insist that artists, in the long run, will be stifled by the pressures of fitting into a box.

American music is Black music and Black music is American music.

Dyson acknowledged the point, sharing that “Duke Ellington certainly was a figure who embraced a broad variety of musical tastes and expressions [which may have guided him toward] decategorization or the challenging of the disciplinary boundaries that reflect certain forms of music.”

But, he continued, “confining music to a category was also an attempt to protect the sanctity of various Black art forms. There were and are widely respected Black musicians and artists who have “worried about the dissolution and dissipation of the Black aesthetic,” Dyson said.

Nevertheless, the through-line of the debate, whichever side one takes, is loving and caring for Black music and art, as Dyson underscored.

“The great thing is to have an ear for improvisation, an ear for melody, an ear for harmony, an ear for great music— and that may transcend narrowly drawn boundaries that are arbitrarily imposed on the music,” Dyson said. “Duke Ellington certainly was an inspiration for those who do that.”

Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference National Town Hall

Professor Michael Eric Dyson speaks during the National Town Hall on September 21, 2023, in Washington, D.C. | Source: Jemal Countess / Getty

Perhaps, then, it makes for a bittersweet kismet that the 50th anniversary of Ellington’s passing comes in the year that marks the centennial anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of innovation, independence and exploration that his artistry and vision helped create and canonize.

A gifted though likely underappreciated pianist, Ellington is most celebrated for his singular approach to composition and orchestration. He wrote the film score for one of the most highly regarded courtroom dramas of all time, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Ellington’s ability to magnify the film’s characters, transitions, tensions, and releases earned him the first-ever Grammy for a film’s soundtrack and paved the way for future Black film composers, including Quincy Jones and Isaac Hayes. The ebb and flow of brightness and mystery that Ellington crafted for “Flirtibird,” a song built around the film’s leading lady,  can be heard in Hayes’ “Ellie’s Love Theme” from his Shaft score.

“His compositional style was just extraordinary,” Dyson told NewsOne. “It could be orchestral. It could be bluesy. And his jazz was influenced by and informed by some of the basic elements of American—of global–music. It was his sense of pacing, cadence, rhyme and rhythm.”

Dyson suggested that may have been because, in addition to his artistic and technical capacities, Ellington possessed an indefatigable pride in Black Americans, Black American musicians — and the critical role that had to play in directing the course of the nation’s music.

Duke Ellington certainly was an inspiration.

And while today’s music still depends on genre — particularly in the era of digital streaming that’s so dependent on playlists and algorithms where categories still rule the roost — there is still a Robert Glasper, a Kendrick Lamar, a Moses Sumney, a Solange Knowles and so many others whose work dissolving the boundaries of category and sharp edges.

“American music is Black music and Black music is American music,” Dyson said. “We’ve transcended and in the end, the genre-fluid boundaries of American music have been driven by the improvisational wherewithal of Black culture and its intent to master every form of musical expression.

“So I think the Duke was right,” Dyson concluded. “You got to make great music, and when you make great music, it transcends rigid boundaries.”

Duke Ellington In London

Duke Ellington is pictured on stage with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on Jan. 14, 1963. | Source: Express / Getty

This is ultimately the legacy of the great Duke Ellington whose work transcended both musical boundaries and the boundaries of a rapidly changing culture. Because in the end, if artists are supposed to have a prime, no one told him that. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1899, he started his eponymous orchestra and moved to New York by 1923. From then until his passing in 1974, every year was his prime.

The work he began during the brutality of Jim Crow, expanded with dreams of a postwar Black nation that was reaching North and West “for the warmth of another sun” and marched proudly on a global stage beside a movement for civil and human rights movements, never rested until Sir Duke himself took his final breath.

Prior to writing for NewsOne, Matthew Allen, a 16-year veteran journalist, has had his work published by the Root, theGrio, Ebony, Jet, The Village Voice, Okayplayer, Revive Music, and Mass Appeal.

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s most recent book is Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America (St. Martin’s Press, 2021).


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