Duke Ellington: the Music, Politics, and His Story

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Duke Ellington: The Music, Politics, and his Story
Duke Ellington was a musical and political genius; he was “America’s only original musical mind.” He was not only a performer, but a composer. He learned the craft of composing by observing others instead of disciplined study. One important factor of Ellington’s music was its relation to black heritage and African American history. His symphony “Black, Brown, and Beige” displayed the African American struggle in America. Not only did Ellington use his music to portray the struggle, voice, and triumph of black Americans, he used his professionalism, originality, persuasiveness, and political performances.

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in 1899 and composed, arranged, and performed music for the majority of his life. Ellington was born and raised in a middle-class family in Washington D.C., and that is where he first acquired his racial beliefs. During his grade school years, an emphasis of identity, pride, and history was instilled in the minds of him and his classmates. He was taught to command respect, not demand it. This meant that he was to act and speak in a respectable manner if he expected to be respected. He first began taking piano lessons at the age of seven but did not have particular interest in the trade at that time. In high school, he became interested in ragtime music. Also in his high school years, he acquired the nickname “Duke” because of his exotic choice of attire, and today, many believe that is his actual name. At age sixteen, Ellington was inspired by a “hot” pianist and decided that he wanted to be able to play like that. His knowledge of music was predominantly learned by ear, although he eventually learned to read music and took harmony lessons. Although he did have some music lessons, most of his musical mastery was self-taught by experimentation. Ellington became a professional pianist by the remarkable age of seventeen. Music was not his only artistic interest; he also excelled at visual arts. He was awarded an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute, but he preferred to play gigs instead. Duke eventually started a band of his own, originally containing only four players other than him. As the band expanded, he used the new members as resources to create a better product.

Ellington and his band began a six-month residency at the New York Hurricane restaurant. There, he accompanied floor shows until he became the featured artist and broadcasted on the radio. In 1927 after the residency, he and his orchestra known as the Washingtonians moved to the Cotton Club in Harlem. He and his band were said to have “put the Cotton Club on the map”. While at the Cotton Club, his music was often referred to as “jungle music” due to his band’s trademark use of plunger mutes to create growling sounds. Often while his orchestra played, there would also be a skit being performed that was nearly primitive. At the Cotton Club, the families of African American performers had to sit in a separate section of the audience. Although Ellington was upset by this, he continued to perform at the Cotton Club because it was his opportunity to enhance his career and popularity. Duke always made sure that he and his band were dressed and behaved as gentleman in order to represent African American pride, beauty, and artistry. Unlike other African American artists of the time, Ellington’s compositions were used for the sake of listening purposes, in comparison to just background music. Silence was demanded. People who broke the silence were given a warning and then asked to leave if they disregarded that warning. This was the first time an African American band was regularly broadcasted nationally. As Duke’s music gained popularity, this became many white Americans’ first encounter with African American music. A radio popularity poll concurred: “They are heartily admired by the white as the colored people.”

One of Ellington’s most...
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