Black History Month Profile – Jazz Royalty

Duke Ellington was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of American music. He was a prolific composer with an immense legacy of over 1,500 copyrighted pieces. His career was to span 6 decades.

 Ellington was born and raised in Washington, DC and began making a wide range of contacts as a young man while working as a messenger for the State Department and Navy Department. His early gigs included society balls and embassy parties. He would arrive in Harlem, New York City, just in time to take part in the rise of American culture being created there as part of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’.

 In 1941 Ellington unveiled ‘Jump for Joy’, a full length musical with positive African-American themes, which stood in stark contrast to the long history of American minstrelsy whose characters featured comical behavior and exaggerated dialects. Ellington was one of only five Jazz musicians to be featured on the cover of ‘TIME’ magazine.

 In 1959, Ellington became the first African- American to score a major motion picture, Otto Preminger’s ‘Anatomy of a Murder’.

 In 1969, on the occasion of his 70thbirthday, Ellington would be a guest at the White House, where President Richard Nixon presented him with the Medal of Freedom, the highest award available to a civilian. Ellington died in 1974, but the honors and acknowledgement of his work continued. In 1986, the US Postal Service would issue a stamp in his honor. In 1999 he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for Music.