Duke Ellington’s famous closing number was “I Love You Madly,” and a lot of people still love him right back, as one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived.
By the time he was 17, Ellington (4/29/1899-5/24/1984) had learned to play cutting-edge musical styles by watching top-notch performers on U Street in Washington. He joined a band and moved to New York just as the 1920s came roaring in.
There, a generation of young people were rejecting the manners and morals of the old men who bore the blame for the slaughter of millions during the Great War (1914-1918). The stylish woman was no longer a Gibson Girl but a flapper. She didn’t ride sedately in a horse-drawn carriage; she zipped around in a flivver. She didn’t hum Victor Herbert’s light operas; she got all dolled up and danced the night away in speakeasies, where the liquor was illegal and the music had a swing to it. The music was such an important part of the era that F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed it “the Jazz Age.”
Jazz had an intoxicatingly risque reputation because it had developed from African-American music. Even half a century after the Civil War ended, most of America was still segregated - in practice, if not by law. But music is a universal language. At jazz clubs in New York, the focus was less on white vs. black, and more on the music. Music became one of the few professions where a black with talent and tenacity could become prosperous, even famous.
Duke Ellington did both. Along the way, the elegance and polish that had earned him the nickname “Duke” when he was a teenager helped raise the status of jazz and its descendants from low brow to music that even your parents might dance to.
Ellington was unusual in that he didn’t just improvise. He wrote or co-wrote thousands of works, some highly innovative in form, harmony, mood and orchestration. Many were composed to showcase the talents of top jazz performers such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges and trumpeter Cootie Williams. Some, with lyrics by greats such as Johnny Mercer, have become staples of the Great American Songbook.
The distinctive sound of Duke Ellington’s band soon became familiar across the nation, as performances at New York hotspots were recorded or broadcast on radio. From the 1930s to the 1970s, Ellington and his band toured the world. His home base, though, was always New York.
Ellington’s last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live, and how I will be remembered.” True ... but a sculpture is a useful memory aid. In 1997, this monument was dedicated at the northeast corner of Central Park, where Duke’s elegance serves as a link between the sophistication of the Upper East Side and Harlem’s spirited street life.