In April 1969 the President of the United States stood before a large gathering of more than a hundred people in the elegant ballroom of the White House. He raised his glass and told his audience that in the past he had toasted ambassadors, prime ministers, kings, and queens, but this was the first time he had ever toasted a duke. The duke accepted the toast graciously, bowing in the direction of his host. Then, smiling broadly, he kissed the surprised President twice on each cheek.
The duke was not a visiting dignitary from a foreign country. He was a black man born in Washington, D.C. -- Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, one of the greatest figures in the history of American music. The gala White House party was being held in honor of his seventieth birthday. And that evening President Richard M. Nixon presented Duke Ellington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award the United States government can bestow upon a civilian.
But the highlight of the evening was the music, mostly Duke Ellington's music, a music called jazz. Scores of prominent jazz musicians, along with many government officials, had been invited to the party. Most of them knew Duke, and all of them loved his music. Eagerly, the musicians took turns performing the music that Duke had been giving the world for some fifty years. And once they started they were hard to stop. Even after President and Mrs. Nixon had retired for the night, the formal White House ballroom rocked with the swinging rhythms of a jam session -- until the wee hours of the morning.
Duke himself spent a great deal of time at the piano that night, sometimes sharing the spotlight with other greats of the jazz world. For a while he sat next to his friend and teacher Willie "the Lion" Smith and cheered the older pianist on.
"The big moment for me," Duke said later, "was when I saw my man, the Lion, playing the President's grand piano with his derby on his head!"
How was it that this man, Duke Ellington, was chosen to be honored by the President of the United States and given his country's highest civilian award? Fifty years earlier the same Duke had been a clerk in a government office in Washington who spent his spare time organizing dance bands to make a little extra money for himself.
In those days a new music was just beginning to develop. It was a music that would eventually become known as jazz, but was then considered low and vulgar by most respectable people. It was a music that had grown directly out of the experience of black people in America, played and sung wherever black people lived and worked. And Duke Ellington, proud of his black heritage, loved that music. Perhaps no other musician was as important to its growth and development.
Duke became a prominent jazz pianist in his own right. But he was also one of the most important composers and arrangers to have worked in the idiom. For fifty years he managed to keep a large orchestra together through good and bad times, using the band as his mode of expression, an instrument to play his compositions. In doing so he helped create a whole new world of sound.
During Duke Ellington's long career, the new music slowly emerged from the saloons and cabarets, made its way into the dance palaces and night clubs, and eventually climbed onto the concert stage. Jazz had great popular appeal -- to young and old, black and white, rich and poor alike. In time, jazz became universally recognized as a legitimate art form, and some contend it is the only art form to have originated on American soil.
Duke Ellington remained in the forefront of the new music for more than half a century. By the 1960s, Duke was an unofficial ambassador of the United States, traveling with his band to every corner of the world. On tours sponsored by the United States Department of State, they played in Russia, Japan, Latin America, the Far East, the Middle East, and Africa. Wherever they went, jazz was recognized not only as a form of black expression but also as a unique form of American expression.
Duke himself was a man of elegance and mystery. In the early days of jazz, when many whites looked down on the black man and his music, Duke Ellington brought grace and dignity to every performance. Jazz historian Leonard Feather once described Ellington the public figure: "An inch over six feet tall, sturdily built, he had an innate grandeur that would have enabled him to step with unquenched dignity out of a mud puddle. His phrasing of an announcement, the elegance of his diction, the supreme courtesy of his bow, whether to a duchess in London or a theater audience in Des Moines, lent stature not only to his own career, but to the whole world of jazz."
Duke's private life was not as easy to describe. He was something of an enigma. It is known that he spent much of his time writing and arranging music for his band. And although he had many friends, none of them ever came to know the whole man. He always kept a part of himself in the shadows, revealing only as much to a person as he desired. He could be friendly and personable, but he also jealously guarded his privacy, perhaps because he had so little of it.
It is Duke's music that is most important to us, because that was what was most important to him. His fertile imagination led him to write many kinds of music, from three-minute tunes for recording sessions, to elaborate suites for concert performance, to music for revues and films. And finally, he developed an original form of sacred music for performance in churches.
Duke attracted some of the country's greatest jazz musicians to his side. Then, through the innovative arranging techniques he employed, he proceeded to bring out the very best in each of them. In fact, his arrangements are almost impossible to duplicate because they depend on the individual talents of his musicians.
Duke hated categories, and indeed his music is difficult to categorize. He himself preferred not to call it jazz. Each time a critic thought he had placed Duke in the proper slot, Duke would head off in a new direction.
After the White House party broke up, sometime around 2 A.M., Duke did not take time to relax and savor the occasion. He rushed back to his hotel, changed from his formal attire into his traveling clothes, and raced to the airport to catch an early-morning flight to Oklahoma City. The Ellington band would perform there that night, and Duke would be out front, leading them as usual. For despite all his success as a composer, and all the honors he received for his contributions to music, Duke was still a working musician. Even at seventy, with forty years of constant travel behind him, he was still on the road.
In Oklahoma City he would bound out on stage to greet a new audience of fans. He would announce the numbers, introduce his great musicians, then play introductions and solos at the piano. His band would play the old standards, his many hit tunes, as well as new, experimental pieces.
When the show was over, Duke would bow graciously and assure the audience, as he did after every performance, "We all love you ... madly." Shortly he and the group would be off again, heading for the next stop. And riding through the dark, whether by car or bus or plane, Duke would be working on the next tune, the next arrangement, the next suite. For he always looked to the future, and he never ran out of ideas. Some five years later, desperately ill in a New York City hospital, he was still turning out new compositions for the band.
Duke Ellington's career spanned the whole history of jazz. And nowhere in that glorious history is there a man who had more love for his music, more respect for his art, than the man they called the Duke.
Copyright © 1977 by Bill Gutman