There are many reasons to be thankful to Duke Ellington, (born Edward Kennedy Ellington: April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) — a founding father of jazz, a brilliant pianist composer/craftsperson, a civil rights leader, and a true innovator. Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I read Ellington’s autobiography, “Music is My Mistress,” which I highly recommend. I remember devouring that book. I was 17 and in my first semester at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. I wrote a report on Ellington for my Jazz History teacher, historian Ira Gitler, who commented to me that my retelling of Ellington’s story was very well done and that he enjoyed it. Ellington captivated me, both as an artist and as an individual. Rather than go into biographical information here at length, I thought I would talk about a couple of things that I learned from Duke Ellington that I have drawn on for my entire career.
“At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” - Miles Davis
Duke Ellington’s music is timeless. His music was totally new, totally authentic to him, and real. Hot at times, lyrical at other times, natural, and unforced. Ellington's work is both powerful and sensitive. Did he have a technique for getting that perfect balance? YES!
Assembling the team,
Ellington curated his band very thoughtfully. He chose individuals whose natural sonic personalities were expressed in ways that were defined, refined, dynamic, and authentically theirs. Each of the players in his band had a distinctive voice of their own that Ellington wanted in his music. Then Ellington wrote for their voices in their styles, imagining musical conversations on specific topics, stories, or meditations, the way one might write a play with specific and recognizable actors in mind. We know how they speak, and we can conjure their voices in our minds as we imagine the dialogue. It was authentic and natural because he knew who he was writing for and how they communicated. Much like how a professional sports manager builds a team of star athletes and then designs the gameplay for their strengths, Ellington wrote specifically for his band, and it worked. Always at the ready, he could be seen jotting down pieces of phrases that he heard in passing that were just the natural communications of his band members. If he didn’t have paper, he might scribble a couple of notes on his cuff, or untuck his shirt and write a phrase on his shirt tails. His priority was his art. He was always listening and taking inspiration from everything. He knew that the magic of the music was in the players that he assembled and how they expressed themselves individually and together.
Money is secondary to the art.
Jazz was flush in its heyday and money rolled in for many, and then times were lean when jazz or subcategories of jazz went out of vogue for a period. Ellington kept his band working even when he didn’t have the income to support the work. He played high school dances and paid his band out of his own pocket.
This is not possible for many musicians today (or of any day) who are struggling to get by. I cannot afford to keep a band always on payroll, but what I can do is VALUE the great musicians that I work with. I can pay them the best that I can at any given moment for any given gig, even at times when I am not making the money to pay all of the expenses of the show. I value the quality of the music and musicians above everything else, which I learned from Ellington.
In a world that has put money on a pedestal almost always above other things, losing money can be seen as failure.
But, losing money is not a “failure” in the music “business.” The emphasis should be on the music and the commitment to craft. The quality of the music is the mark of a true artist, and this fact shows that even Duke Ellington faced this later in his career. No one can equate Ellington and failure. No band leader who is committed to the craft should feel like a “failure” if they find themselves at the same juncture.
If I had a penny for every time someone conflated financial standings and artistic validity I would be rolling in money, but the truth is that money and art are parallel paths. Sometimes they intersect and sometimes they don't, but they don’t really have anything to do with each other, only that having more money makes making art easier.
On some gigs, Ellington lost money making music. This is a powerful statement; this is DUKE ELLINGTON. My point is, for a true lover of music, it is not about the money. Money is important and necessary to live, and we should all be paid for our work, but as leaders in a fickle climate that depends on popularity, the subjective opinions of others, fashions, and trends, If we believe in the art, we sometimes have to look at the greater mission of getting our work out there because our work is bigger than ourselves, even if we lose money. Keep the emphasis on the music.
Art is a powerful balm in a world that rolls in and out like waves between troubles and grace. Money is of the earth; Art is is beyond limitation.
Ellington's art was a foundational pillar of jazz. Can we all imagine if he didn't continue to create when he was paying out of pocket? On Ellington's shoulders, all jazz musicians stand.
Learn more about Bebop a style of jazz developed by young jazz musicians in the 1940s as a continuation of the work of great pioneers and innovators including Duke Ellington. Bebop is one of the most impactful and popular developments in the jazz idiom.
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