5 reasons why Duke Ellington is one of the most important jazzmen of the 20th century

Caravan, Take the “A” Train, Satin Doll... countless jazz standards that have made Duke Ellington one of the most famous and influential composers of the 20th century.

5 reasons why Duke Ellington is one of the most important jazzmen of the 20th century
Duke Ellington, © Getty / New York Daily News Archive

Pianist, conductor, and composer, Duke Ellington is considered by many to be one of the most influential forces in 20th century jazz, if not the most influential.

He came to be known as the ‘Duke’: not only was Ellington capable of maintaining an elegant and nonchalant style for any occasion, but he reigned over half a century of musical creation.

Ellington composed several of jazz's biggest standards

With only one name comes to mind a wave of hits: Satin Doll (1953), It don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) (1932), In a Sentimental Mood (1935), Caravan (1936), I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” (1941)... Alone or with his Billy Strayhorn, also a pianist and composer, the ‘Duke’ composed over 2000 tunes, of which many became huge hits.  

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn Reading a Score
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn Reading a Score, © Getty / George Rinhart

Ellington's music relied on one specific formula: a learned blend of Afro-American sounds and more modern influences including Latin, Oriental, and expressionist sounds. When it was came to recording for and adapting to radio, the Duke knew exactly how to adapt and tailor his music, but he also pursued another objective: to lengthen current jazz songs, bring new forms to the hitherto malnourished and largely ignored genre that was jazz music.  

Ellington always remained faithful to the roots of jazz music

In the early 1930s, as Duke Ellington and his orchestra began garnering success at the famous New York Cotton Club, the big bands had only one mission: to make people dance. Jazz was the music that brought Harlem to life at night, and the orchestras often performed at a lively pace to keep people comfortably moving to the sounds of the brass and the rhythms of the drums.

Duke Ellington rapidly became the master of orchestral jazz, the king of the big band, without ever sacrificing his compositional style. Rather than adapting to the popular tastes of his time, to the typical and lively cabaret jazz, Ellington favoured expression and turned to the blues of the past for inspiration, eventually creating the jazzjungle style: a dirty and hoarse sound with plenty of wa wa effects from the brass. 

Ellington elevated jazz to the ranks of "serious" music

With Duke Ellington, jazz became a "serious" music, classed alongside the respected repertoire of classica music. Be it in front of a black or white public, in a prestigious concert hall or a cabaret, the Duke performed what he considered to be good music and told his story, that of the African-American people.

None could deny the depth and subtlety of his works, not even the critics: Ellington garnered a great commercial success as a jazz musician. In 1965, as the orchestral jazz genre became gradually eclipsed by the more recent be bop artists and the groundbreaking arrival of rock'n'roll, Duke Ellington topped the charts with the now-legendary recording of his concert in July 1965 at the Newport Jazz Festival. 

Ignoring the boundaries between the jazz and classical repertoires, Ellington composed various concertos and orchestral suites. He thus became the first jazzman to write "long" works, going beyond the standard 3 minutes imposed by the radio and record industries. 

Perfume Suite (1945), Liberian Suite (1947), Echoes of Harlem (1936)... these great works composed by the Duke for his orchestra brought to him the idea of re-writing and adapting various classical masterpieces. In 1960, he recorded Three Suites, in which can be found a merry re-working of the Nutcracker. A jazzy version of Tchaikovsky's famous ballet in which the Sugar Plum Fairy is renamed Sugar Rum Cherry and the Dance of the Reed Flutes becomes Toot Toot Tootie.

He walked his own path, without worrying about tastes and fashions

This was undoubtedly Duke's greatest strength: no matter the challenges or fashions, the Duke always stayed true to himself and defended his music. When it seemed impossible to record a track of more than 3 minutes on a 78rpm disc, he recorded Reminiscing in Tempo (1935) over 4 sides! When the record industry and market suffered as a result of the financial crisis of the 1930s, he turned to radio.

Though steady and persistent, Duke Ellington was not against change, on the contrary. The composer was always in search of new influences (Latin and Oriental in the 1930s, and more expressionist and exotic sounds in the 1940s).  

He performed alongside the biggest and greatest

Though Duke Ellington is today sat alongside the greatest American composers, he also marked the history of modern music with his unforgettable collaborations: with the singer Ella Fitzgerald in 1957, the pianist (and conductor) Count Basie and the trumpeter Louis Armstrongin 1961, the saxophonist John Coltrane in 1962… 

At the head of his orchestra, Duke Ellington toured the world: from Paris to Moscow, from South America to the islands of the South Seas. The first jazzman to be invited to the White House (in 1969 by Richard Nixon), and also invited to represent Afro-American music in Dakar in 1966 by the president of Senegal Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Duke never forgot the crowds of the jazz clubs and festivals, continuing his tours until his hospitalisation in 1974. 

Duke Ellington passed away on 24 May 1974, at the age of 75. America lost one of its first Afro-American ambassadors, an internationally renowned and influential jazzmen. His funeral in New York gathered almost 12 000 people in front of the Saint Jean cathedral. New York, the city in which he regularly took the famous “A” Train (the A line of the New York subway system), and where he first found success.