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Duke Ellington was a visionary composer who helped define the genre of jazz, and secured a lasting legacy not only for his numerous contributions to music, but also because of his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance and the development of an African American cultural identity. Born in a middle class neighbourhood in Washington D.C to two musicians, Edward Kennedy Ellington grew up around music. He began playing piano at the age of 7,  where he earned the nickname ‘Duke’ for his courtly and proper manners. Ten years later, he started playing professionally, having rejected a scholarship from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. As a child, Duke was more interested in baseball than piano, but chose a career as a musician because it was more respected at the time, and because the ladies were drawn to piano players.Despite the fact that music was his backup choice, Ellington brought incredible creativity and skill to his craft, introducing a unique level of style and sophistication to jazz. Throughout his career, he wrote over 3000 compositions for his band, many of which are considered to be standards in the American music repertoire. Although Duke was not the inventor of the big band style of jazz, he was one of its most important early adopters, merging elements of a classical orchestra with the bold new sound that was reshaping America’s musical landscape. His 10 piece ensemble, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, performed from its inception in 1923, when it was called the Washingtonians, until the end of his life in 1974. He would write music that engrained solo performances into the sound of the band, making use of each of his player’s unique talents. This was a combination of the solo-based jazz of Louis Armstrong, and the orchestral style of the classical music that was popular at the time. The Duke Ellington Orchestra performed what became dubbed as jungle music, due to its harsh, aggressive, primal, ‘African’ style. Ellington made a specific point to choose exceptionally expressive and creative artists for his ensemble, many of who were already well-known musicians, and he purposefully would leave large sections of music empty to allow for improvised solos.  His band included trumpeter Bubby Miley, who used a plunger mute to create an iconic “wa-wa” sound, and trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, who was the first to incorporate growling into his music. The fact that his ensemble consisted of world class musicians in and of themselves helped Ellington take his sound to a level that would not have been achievable otherwise. He broke away from the standard practise of ‘section-scoring’ and created new harmonic methods through which different instruments could come together seamlessly to convey whatever emotion the song required, often in new and unique ways. An example of this is his 1930 piece, Mood Indigo, which utilizes a muted trumpet, trombone and a bass clarinet as a trio, creating a distinctive timbre that several artists have copied and expanded on since. The seamless integration of unique solos and the classical sound of the big band in the context of these groundbreaking harmonies pushed the limits of what big band jazz could sound like, and secured Duke Ellington’s place in music history as an innovator and a visionary.And it was not only his fans that consider him to be an important figure in music. His orchestra performed with some of the biggest artists of the time, including Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Later artists such as Herbie Hancock and Wes Montgomery also performed his songs, and made their own versions of his classic hits, incorporating original samples from the Duke Ellington Orchestra. His impact on jazz cannot be understated, with almost every jazz artist being influenced in some way by his work. Ellington’s musical influence extends beyond the realm of jazz and into mainstream music as well. A great example of this is the Beatles song Honey Pie. The song makes use of the AABA form, a musical structure that was popular in the early big band jazz ensembles. The structure used by almost all pop songs is ABABAB (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus), but the Beatles, specifically Paul  McCartney uses several unique forms that have their roots in early jazz, such as AABA, and ABABC. Duke Ellington was one of the major composers of this era, and had a notable influence on Paul McCartney and John Lennon,; the former was known to perform pieces by Ellington, especially I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,  while on tour. The clear ‘big-band’ sound of the Beatles track is also an obvious throwback to their early jazz influences.Miles Davis, considered by many to be the greatest jazz musician of all time, had this to say about Ellington: “At least one day in every year, all musicians should put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” Outside of his music, Ellington was a powerful voice for the African American community at large. He was known to play to both black and white audiences, hoping to achieve some much needed unity through music for a society that was deeply divided along racial lines. The Duke Ellington Orchestra also toured the world, performing in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. He referred to his style not as jazz, but as ‘American Music’, spreading his art around the globe in an effort to spread this unique sound to people of all colours and creed.  Ellington was also one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that saw several notable African American artists come  to Harlem, a neighbourhood in northern Manhattan. Ellington moved to New York as the Great Migration, a movement of former slaves from the south to the north, occurred across the country. The Harlem Renaissance lasted from the 1910s to the 30s, and included several influential artists, including Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. Ellington and his band were important figures during this time period, performing in several notable venues, including the Cotton Club, one of the iconic jazz clubs of New York City.  During this time, considered to be the Golden Age of African American culture, there was an explosion in the creative output of a group of people who had spent the last few centuries being subjects to slavery and discrimination. The work of the artists in this movement still influence modern American and international culture. Duke Ellington was a visionary, a man who molded his unique style of music out of whatever tools he had available. He brought about a new age of musical exploration, his bold music having been an inspiration to countless other artists who went on to push the envelope even further in developing the  peculiar music of the jazz genre. He was a powerful voice for his community, and helped to promote racial diversity and unity in a time where racial tensions were still high. Ellington died in 1973 of pneumonia and lung cancer, leaving behind a legacy of unparalleled musical accomplishment. His last words were “Music is how I live, why I live, and how I will be remembered.”

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