Ellington’s Connection to Modernism
Modernism was a cultural movement that was based on the idea of artistically recreating new, unique, and radical forms of expression. In regard to music and modernism, jazz and Bebop were considered a part of this category due to the way in which these musical modes created new aesthetics, techniques, and a major cultural effect. When tracing the development of modernism in music we are often bombarded with the name Stravinsky, and as a result, we tend to overlook and undervalue the “African Stravinsky”—Duke Ellington.

Ellington’s Contribution
Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington, has been described as “the first Jazz composer of real distinction.” He has been praised for his talents and efforts in “redefin[ing] the sound and scope of Jazz.” He has been accredited with “fus[ing] the hot, syncopated sounds of Jazz Age Harlem with an element of dissonance [resulting in] a dance music of trance-inducing charm, originality and attack.” Ellington not only played a vital role in producing a new style of music—“his own dignified version of the new black sound,” but he also instilled a sense of racial pride in the African American mind.

Jazz developed out of the desire to escape from the world of “sameness, blandness, and predictability,” and Ellington was able to thrive in this genre of music by breaking away from traditional sounds and celebrating the individuality of his band members and their instruments. Ellington’s success in creating new sound can be attributed to his focus on the strengths and unique contributions of each musician in his band—this allowed Ellington to produce music that had been previously unheard while also constantly adding depth and variety to every song that he produced. Ellington approached his conducting using a few techniques, two of which include: showing off each individual player in concertos by displaying a single soloist against the “backdrop of a tightly-knit ensemble”, and “explor[ing] a dizzyingly shifting labyrinth of textures, as different instruments [took] the lead and the accompaniment move[d] from one section of the band to another.”
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Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

Writer Harvey G. Cohen recognized that Duke Ellington was inextricably linked to modernism not only as a musician and composer but also as a figure of black self-empowerment. Cohen dedicates his book, Duke Ellington’s America, to appreciating and revealing the life and times of this talented and influential pianist/composer. In 2010, Cohen appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves program, in which he focused particularly on Ellington’s connection to modernism. He asserts that Ellington “fits within the confines of modernism,” in that he made an effort to break down cultural boundaries while also setting an example for popular African American music to be viewed as serious and long-lasting. Although this BBC broadcast cannot be obtained outside of the U.K., Cohen’s book expands on Ellington’s musical, personal, and cultural contribution and the ways in which Ellington celebrates the African American experience through his music.
In Dudley Murphy’s Article, Jazz Modernism and Film, Dudley writes, “The story of jazz modernism is largely a history of migrations and detours, the movement of ideas and influences as well as of people, between the U.S. and Europe and back again, as well as across racial borderlines.” For Ellington, Jazz was an outlet, an opportunity, and a movement. Ellington took great pride in being black and he never failed to express this in his music. Examples of this can be seen when musicians like Louis Armstrong were singing about, “ ‘darkies’, ‘piccaninnies’ and ‘coal black mammies’ [while] Ellington was playing Black Beauty, Deep South Suite and Black and Tan Fantasy.”

Some of Ellington’s other efforts expressing his black pride include:
-creating a musical with an entirely black cast, and proclaiming, “I’ve taken Uncle Tom out of the theater.”(1941)
-producing Black, Brown and Beige, a musical based on the history of blacks in America (1943)
-playing benefit concerts for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and donating money to the civil rights movement. (1960)
-producing a composition to mark the 100th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation which ended slavery in the US—My People was the result. (1963)

Video-Duke Ellington & Orchestra

(Information gathered from: (Duke, Four, Holmes, Jazz, Project, Socialist, Thomson))

Duke Ellington and Modernism on BBC Radio 3.” Lost in CCI. 18 May 2010. Web. 18 April
2011. <http://lostincci.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/duke-ellington-and-modernism-on-bbc-

“Four Characteristics.” Modernism in Music. Web. 18 April 2011.

Holmes, Robb. "I Live With Music: An appreciation of Duke Ellington.” MyWeb. Web.
26 April 2011. <http://rholmes.myweb.uga.edu/dukessay.htm>.

“Jazz Library: Early Ellington Recordings.” BBC Music Showcase. 06 May 2010. Web. 18 April
2011. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/showcase/clips/p00g3r4m>.

Project Muse. “Jazz Modernism and Film Art: Dudley Murphy and Ballet mécanique.”
Jan. 2009. Web. 26 April 2011. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/m od/summary/v016

Socialist Review. “Band of Gold.” Mar. 1999. Web. 26 April 2011.

Thomson, Ian. “Duke Ellington's America by Harvey G Cohen and Thelonious Monk by Robin
DG Kelley: reviews.” The Telegraph. 09 July 2010. Web. 18 April 2011.