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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Artist Profiles

Duke Ellington

By Published: October 5, 2005
The early 1940s were a particularly fruitful period for Ellington, helping produce the theatrical revue, Jump for Joy, previewing his extended work on African-American racial issues, Black, Brown and Beige, at Carnegie Hall, and recording some of his finest and most complex music. The ambitiousness and scope of Black, Brown and Beige garnered comparisons to classical music and Ellington was being cited as a talented composer and not just an entertainer. Though it wasn't completely successful, it showed Ellington trying to break free of the confines of twelve-bar blues and thirty-two-bar forms and be taken on a more serious, artistic level.

Ellington would continue to pursue extended compositions in jazz with such works as The Deep South Suite, The Perfume Suite, and The Liberian Suite during this decade. By the late 1940s swing music was fading in the light of more progressive jazz styles. The demands of keeping a big band on the road and departure of some of Duke's pivotal musicians, including his greatest star Johnny Hodges, also contributed to a career low point in the early to mid-50s, though he continued recording and touring. Duke was content to revisit his earlier jazz styles and mostly shunned the new jazz trends.

In 1956 Ellington's band played the Newport Jazz Festival and enthralled the audience with a thunderous version of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." It was a groundbreaking performance featuring an inspired 27 chorus solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. Praise was unanimous and Duke was back in the spotlight. He rode out the remainder of the '50s reinvigorated with cultural projects like the recording Such Sweet Thunder and the 1957 television score, A Drum Is a Woman, as well as film scores.

Duke Ellington's legacy in American music is unrivalled. Since his death in 1974 recognition of his many achievements has steadily grown. The vastness and depth of his recordings is bewildering. Ellington's talents were multi-fold, as a composer, band leader, arranger, pianist, and interpreter of African-American history and culture. Like any great artist, his creative output endures and will continue to be evaluated for many years to come.


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