Duke and the Big Career

Fred Witt | June 2nd, 2019

Miles Davis once said: “Someday all the jazz musicians should get together in one place and get down on their knees and thank Duke.” It’s true, nobody did more to make jazz a serious art form than Duke Ellington. 

Here is the second in our Spring panel on Duke Ellington: “Duke and the Big Career.” (See our earlier post, “Duke Ellington, Origins of the Jazz Mover” for details on Duke prior to 1940.)

As the century took off from 1940, a lot of things combined to close out the big band format that Duke had been using. There was the war, new requirements on royalty payments to writers by performers, entertainment shifts from “big band dancing” to suburb entertainment, all taking the business support out from under the big bands.

In this shift, Duke with smaller groups became a central performer of the “old songs” that people could dependably go to for the music they remembered. (The music ranges were extreme. The following two hyperlinks will give you a pair of examples. Click here for Mood Indigo or here for Cotton Tail, a jumping dance number from the ’30’s. Do a YouTube search for It Don’t Mean A Thing Anymore, Jump For Joy. Click the video frame below for In a Sentimental Mood…). He continued to compose, especially in his famous collaboration with Billy Strayhorn. Duke’s output was labeled “enormous” and by sheer volume of quality work, kept jazz a major art form in mid-20th century America. (Try opening Google and keying in a search for Duke Ellington titles !).

In this period Duke produced some sizeable works. (Try keying up Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue, Black, Brown and Beige, Jump for Joy, Far East Suite, Such Sweet Thunder, or Creole Rhapsody. He was even recorded as the Duke Ellington Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald.) He produced themes of popular movies (Anatomy of a Murder, Paris Blues, Nutcracker Suite, Peer Gynt). In a unique turn Duke composed a number of religious or sacred concerts (look for “A Concert of Sacred Music”.) Duke played music that Europe loved too, and filled out his bands’ lives with the tours over there.

Join Jazz 91 for a weekend of Ellingtonia, as we honor one of the most important creative forces in twentieth century music, the great Edward Kennedy Ellington, Friday June 7th through Sunday June 9th, right here on KCSM, The Bay Area’s Jazz Station.

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