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Duke Ellington and Jazz for the Next Generation: Ashley Kahn, Jason Moran & Darin Atwater
  • Conversation

Conversation: Duke Ellington and Jazz for the Next Generation: Ashley Kahn, Jason Moran (2024 Artist-in-Residence) & Darin Atwater (MJF Artistic Director)

The year 2024 will mark the 125th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth, and the 100th anniversary of his first recordings. What is his lasting impact?

Duke left us with over 1,500 compositions and thousands of recordings. It is not just the sheer enormity of his creative output that makes it so enduring, but its emotional depth. During tours of France in the 1930s, a critic wrote that Duke’s music “reveals the very secret of the cosmos;” a poet wrote that “such music is not only a new art form but a new reason for living.” It sounds as fresh today as it ever did, and worthy of a lifetime of study.

Embodying Black excellence

Ellington’s music was anticipated in 1893 by Czech composer Anton Dvorak during a visit to the United States: “The future [music] of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies,” he declared. “This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

“I want to perpetuate in music the American Negro’s life, so much of which has never been touched upon,” Duke told a reporter in Boise, Idaho, in 1941. His stated desire was to “establish an unadulterated Negro music.” He wrote Black Beauty in 1928; the seven-minute Creole Rhapsody in 1931; his 47-minute “tone parallel” to African American history, Black, Brown, and Beige, in 1943; and Harlem in 1951.

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra embodied Black excellence. The great writer Ralph Ellison recalled the stunning impact of seeing the immaculately dressed band performing in the 1930s South: “They were news from the great wide world; an example and a goal.” Duke reached out to Black communities; arranged for special concerts; and made appearances at high schools, colleges, hospitals, churches, and baseball and football games.

“At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington,” Miles Davis famously said in a Down Beat Blindfold Test in 1955. Duke was foremost among jazz musicians in claiming the freedom to write music as artistic expression, rather than solely for entertainment. He broke down employment barriers as the first Black musician to play numerous Whites-only venues.

He and his orchestra’s sophistication and intellect were in bold contrast to the demeaning racial stereotypes of their day. “Ellington has been an ambassador of goodwill for his race and he has not mispresented us in any way, shape, or form,” editorialized the African American weekly, Norfolk Journal and Guide, in 1943.

Duke opened ears. In elevating African American culture, Duke elevated all of humanity. His music was both an optimistic vision and a deep expression of the human condition. It appealed across racial lines. Duke embedded the American ideals of democracy and freedom in his message, and took it to the world. The band played to rapt audiences in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America.

-by Ken Steiner, Duke Ellington Historian. Courtesy of