The Unknown Ellington

This being the anniversary year of Duke Ellington’s 100th birthday, there are so many tribute concerts to the master composer that he seems more alive now than ever. From Lincoln Center to the smaller regional venues, his music is being heard and appreciated while distinguished persons speak about ‘Duke, as if they knew him. The irony is that while he was one of the most famous men of the twentieth century, Ellington remains as personally enigmatic, private and complex a celebrity that has ever existed. His music is here, but in death as in life, Duke Ellington the man vanishes like the morning fog.

In Gene Lees’ wonderful book, Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s, he delves into the mysterious and unique traits of the famous bandleader, composer, arranger, and music psychologist who typically ended his concerts with the phrase, “We love you madly.” No one seemed to know what Duke meant by that statement, or any other grandiose

Ellington declaration for that matter. His suave, sophisticated, and lofty manner enabled him to distance himself from the human world that he loved but ultimately did not trust.

Duke’s genius was not only found on the score pad, but in his ability to handle a marvelously virtuosic and eccentric band of stars filled with egos, personal problems, vendettas, drug and alcohol addiction and more. His ultimate belief in the word tolerance made for a group that would grow into one of the great musical units in jazz history. In a gracious, yet somewhat superior way, Duke kept even his closest band mates at a distance and probably loved and trusted no one more than his beloved mother. Even associates who toured endlessly with Ellington for 20, 30, and in a few cases, 40 years, had to admit they hardly knew the man.

We pay tribute to Duke Ellington not merely as a result of his fame, but for the unique and distinctive artist that he represents. His seemingly tireless quest to write bigger and better original music will live on forever and remind us that it is not merely the final outcome, but the striving that makes it art. Perhaps Duke’s greatest lesson is that we should never settle for a world in which we all look alike, dress alike, talk and walk alike, nor should our music, regardless of style, ever make us content when it all sounds alike. For as commercially popular as he was, Duke Ellington knew bow to write the weird blues – it made us think and listen. He wouldn’t want us to forget it.

as appeared in The Green Mountain Jazz Messenger, September – October 1999