Celebrating Duke Ellington’s Life & Legacy

Duke Ellington in top hat

The 2024 CYSO Gala: Got That Swing! is coming up on March 2 and this year’s event celebrates the enduring work of Duke Ellington in honor of what would have been his 125th birthday. As one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century, Ellington was well known for transcending boundaries throughout his career, breaking racial lines as well as the confines of genre. In fact, Ellington was known to use the term “beyond category” as the highest praise of a person or project. In that same spirit, CYSO works to transcend boundaries as we support students in developing not just musical prowess, but also the fundamental skills of leadership, self-confidence, collaboration, and resilience.

Ellington said that “the scope of music is immense and infinite,” and we agree. Music transcends boundaries to connect people and cultivate empathy, creativity, and integrity. 2022 CYSO Jazz and Symphony Orchestra alum Tom Gotsch penned this portrait of Ellington’s life, the boundaries he broke, and his enduring legacy in music and culture.

What is music to you? What would you be without music? Music is everything. Nature is music (cicadas in the tropical night). The sea is music, the wind is music. The rain drumming on the roof and the storm raging in the sky are music. Music is the oldest entity. The scope of music is immense and infinite.”

Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. in 1899 to Daisy and James Ellington. Growing up, Edward’s parents—both pianists—filled the house with music, instilling in their child a love and passion for it from an early age. Daisy and James were supportive parents but also maintained high standards for their son and emphasized elegant manners and dress. Indeed, it was Edward’s classy appearance and personality that earned him the title “Duke” from his peers.

At six years old, Ellington began piano lessons from musicians at local bars, immersing himself in the booming ragtime scene. At 17 he formed his first band “Duke’s Serenaders” and began performing at dance halls throughout Washington, D.C. It was an exciting time to be a professional musician for the teenage Ellington, with Black American music—in the forms of blues, ragtime, marches, and spirituals—becoming more popular in the United States. The Serenaders were very successful in D.C., and in 1924, Duke took the band to New York, renaming it “The Washingtonians.” 

The Washingtonians in 1925. From left to right: Sonny Greer, Charlie Irvis, Elmer Snowden, Otto Harwick, seated, Bubber Miley, Duke Ellington.

In New York, the Harlem Renaissance was in full force,and Duke’s artistry attracted some of the greatest jazz musicians of the time, including “Bubber” Miley, “Trick Sam” Nanton, Harry Carney, and Johnny Hodges. With this new lineup, the Washingtonians were a hit at Harlem nightspots like Club Kentucky, the Plantation Club, and most importantly, the Cotton Club, where the band had both regular gigs and radio broadcasts around the country. The Washingtonians’ regular performances enabled Duke to begin pushing and subverting musical boundaries, as well as the social boundaries of the time as a Black musician on the national scene. Constantly aware of each musician’s individual “sound,” Duke began writing parts to fit each player’s style, welcoming and celebrating their distinct dissonances. This unique structure and its radio broadcasts across the country in the late 20’s cast Ellington’s musical style not as “jazz,” but as “American music,” plain and simple.

In 1931, The Washingtonians said goodbye to the Cotton Club and embarked on tours across the U.S. and Europe, recording albums, making movie appearances, and bringing the “Ellington sound” to new audiences. Duke was leading a musical and social revolution, challenging Jim Crow by subverting racist stereotypes about Black people, expressing Black experience through music, and reaching audiences across world to define the new sound of America.

The “Ellington sound” was beyond categorization and grew even more popular and dynamic once a shy, modest pianist and composer named Billy Strayhorn joined the band. The Ellington-Strayhorn partnership propelled the band to new heights in the 1930s and early 1940s, with the popularity of tunes like “Take the A-Train” and “Lush Life” catapulting the band into a 1943 performance at Carnegie Hall. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the demand for big band music declined, and the Ellington band became less popular. But in 1956, their performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the Newport Jazz Festival arguably catalyzed an ongoing renaissance in big band music, in part because of saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ 27-chorus solo that almost incited a riot in the dancing, exhilarated audience. 

Ellington and his band at Newport Jazz Festival in 1956

In the 1960s, Duke started collaborating in smaller groups with musicians like John Coltrane, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, and Coleman Hawkins. During these years, Duke continued to push the boundaries of his sound, transcending traditional forms of jazz with conversational, experimental albums like Money Jungle (with Roach and Mingus), and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane.

Towards the end of his life, Duke returned to his jazz orchestra with The Sacred Concerts, which he described as “the most important thing I’ve ever done or am ever likely to do.” While often overlooked, Duke’s Christianity, which his parents had helped him develop at a young age, certainly had a profound influence on his music throughout his life. The Sacred Concerts transcended the boundaries between church music and jazz, integrating the big band with the congregation, as Ellington expressed the spiritual worship that he carried lifelong through his sound to produce unique, passionate, and enormously creative music.

Ellington (right) with John Coltrane

Ellington passed away in 1974 at the age of 75 but his music has remained a cornerstone of American music. His varied works—big band compositions like “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” (1937), “Jazz Symphony” pieces like Black, Brown, and Beige (1943) and Harlem (1950), combo collaborations like Money Jungle (1962), and the unique Sacred Concerts (1965-1973)—transcended and still challenge musical, artistic, racial, social, and spiritual boundaries, blurring the line between music and life. For Ellington, music was not merely a mode of expression, a part of education, or a profession. It was, and always will be, “everything.”

To experience more of Ellington’s masterpieces this spring, join us at the CYSO Gala: Got That Swing! on Saturday, March 2, 2024. Tickets and info here.

ABOUT TOM GOTSCH

Tom Gotsch is a 2022 alum of CYSO’s Jazz and Symphony Orchestras, as well as CYSO Social Media Team. They are currently studying geobiology Brown University and serve as the Vice President and Archivist of the university orchestra, where they continue to play the double bass.

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