On April 27, 1974, the Chicago Defender wrote an early birthday blessing for Edward “Duke” Ellington. The second sentence of the article was the first part that stood out to me as it is clearly written out of respect for and in praise of the Duke. Nearly every article that I had read from the time period had elements of conflict or lingering segregation, so, as simple of a “happy birthday” as it is, the article felt like a breath of fresh air. Ellington is described as “one of the most consistently creative musical geniuses the world has known.” Other articles involving the African-American community were reports of disputes between demographics or wrongful refusal of rights by white authorities.
Ellington, famous for his development of jazz music, was turning seventy-five, and several famous musicians of his era took time to honor the legend. The Chicago Defender lists jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, and Sarah Vaughan as performing and paying homage during the week of his birthday. These artists, and countless others, played a key role in African-American music and history during the Harlem Renaissance. Duke’s piano skills, showmanship, and easygoing manner helped develop the jazz movement in America. At that time the sound of musicians in America still resonated strongly with traditional European pieces, but Duke stretched his musical creativity and delivered “sounds that were uniquely American.”
Originally from Washington D.C., Ellington and his band eventually moved to New York to join the jazz boom of the Harlem Renaissance. He and his talented band, which varied in name from the Washingtonians to the Cotton Club Orchestra, cranked out the sounds that defined the first era of real freedom for African Americans. Harlem became their own separate community where they were free to express themselves in the forms of art and music. Duke and his band would hustle pool by day and play jazz in bars by night. This lifestyle was something that had been “reserved” only for whites because of prior segregation.
Possibly the biggest impact Duke Ellington and the Harlem Renaissance had on society was the shift it began for the future. As African Americans could unleash their talents through the arts, many began to rise to fame and higher positions in society. This vast display of talent and almost reinvention of entertainment continued to dismantle norms of segregation. Duke blazed his own path, deciding not to be just another sound but to create whatever he wanted to create.
Ellington went on to work on an astonishing number of albums with his own band and with many other prominent artists of the time. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and John Coltrane are just a few artists who had the opportunity to work with him. Duke also composed and performed the soundtracks for several films and stage musicals. His work pushed and helped to break down boundaries. I believe he helped set in motion a mindset that is best summarized by a quote of his very own: “I don’t believe in categories of any kind, and when you speak of problems between blacks and whites in the U.S.A., you are referring to categories again.”