Duke Ellington definitely stands in my mind as one of the more important and productive musicians of this century. One of the first black band leaders, and one of the most innovative, the Duke wrote music of all types and styles from solo jazz piano pieces to 16 piece pop songs to symphony orchestra pieces. His wide range of composing styles is seen in his collaborations with prominent performers, two of which are John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra.
He was born in 1899 in Washington, D.C., and came to Harlem in 1922. His composing style at the time contrasted deeply with that of two of his contemporaries, Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman. While they were developing the stereotypical big band style of Brass vs. Winds vs. Rhythm, the Duke attempted to blend and mix the three sections and help them to work together as much as possible to speak to the masses. He also tried to convey tho two most prominent emotions of the young black man in the early 20th century Harlem, known as dicty and haincty. The latter was an unfettered and open type of mood where anything can happen, and the former is loose but restrained and weary.
In his earlier years, he used the Big Band as his medium, and wrote what came to be the most popular and innovative music of the 30's and 40's. Soon after, when the popularity of swing was diminishing, Duke moved his instrument to the orchestra, and began writing a great amount of pieces for it. He now has a complete archive in the Smithsonian Institute dedicated to his work, and his work is still celebrated by his son's orchestra and others such as the New York American Jazz Orchestra.
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