April is designated as "Jazz Appreciation Month" in the United States. It celebrates this unique American music form and honors the great American jazz musicians who revealed it to the world. One of the most influential figures in jazz is a native Washingtonian, Duke Ellington. He is also considered one of the twentieth century's best known African-American personalities, who influenced millions of people at home and around the world. April 29 marks his 111th birthday.
Many agree that Duke Ellington is Washington DC. This is where he was born, as Edward Kennedy Ellington, and where his career began. As a composer and band leader, he brought jazz to the world. During the Cold War in the 1960's and 70's, he was one of the numerous American jazz artists who traveled to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. In 1969, president Richard Nixon presented Duke Ellington with the Medal of Freedom. In his 50 year career, Ellington also received the Pulitzer Prize and 13 Grammy awards.
Today, Mercedes Ellington, Duke Ellington's granddaughter, keeps her grandfather's legacy alive as President of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts. "The music of Duke Ellington is of such a structure that it crosses generations and puts everybody on an even scale. Duke Ellington used to be very charming and very gracious, and he appreciated his career to such an extent that, when he was invited to play in different countries, he would compose a suite dedicated to that country. He loved to go to places where he was not supposed to go. He never labeled his music. It was not jazz, he said it was 'American music,'" she said.
Duke Ellington tore down racial barriers, playing to both African-American and white audiences, a rarity during those racially-divided times.
"It is just proving that the commonality between people is one of the things that I think Ellington wanted to accentuate. He was always on the path of acknowledging what was really happening in the world. The ideal of people being drawn together through music was his goal. He was constantly writing, every day, even when he was ill and dying in the hospital, he had a piano at the foot of his bed," she said.
Mercedes Ellington remembers rare moments spent with her grandfather. "We never really saw him, because the orchestra was constantly on tour. The only time when we would see them would be when they came to New York. They would play at the Apollo, the Rainbow Room, and we had those intimate family gatherings backstage in the dressing rooms," she said.
As a young boy, Duke Ellington was more interested in baseball than in piano lessons. But at that time, people respected and admired musicians.
The ladies were drawn to piano players and musicians. And as his interest in ladies increased, so did his interest in music. He was driven by music and by women," Ellington said.
Duke Ellington started playing the piano at the age of seven, and by the time he was fifteen, he was already composing.
Mercedes Ellington says her grandfather was not really a grandfatherly type. He did not want people to know his age. "I think he was vain enough that he did not want all of his lady friends and some of his fans to know that he was old enough to have grandchildren, so he asked me to call him Uncle Edward," she recalled.
Mercedes traveled with the band to Russia in the mid 1970's, and got to see her grandfather's popularity first-hand.
"The people were running on the tarmac alongside the plane as we landed, with bouquets of flowers. They had been listening to the music of Duke Ellington through Radio Free America. There were enough Russian people who knew about the music and had secret recordings of the Ellington band. And there was great reception everywhere we went," she said.
The musical revival, Sophisticated Ladies, based on Duke Ellington's music, has just opened at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington DC, where Ellington used to perform. The original Broadway production from 1981 was nominated for eight Tony awards and won two. Sophisticated Ladies stars famous Broadway choreographer and dancer Maurice Hines. Since Mercedes Ellington is herself a professional choreographer, she is the artistic consultant for this performance, which celebrates life and work of her grandfather.
"He lived to work," she said. "When he traveled and toured, that's when he was in heaven."
Duke Ellington wrote more than 3,000 compositions during his career. After his death in 1974, his son Mercer Ellington, Mercedes' father, took over the orchestra. The Duke Ellington legacy continues to live and will endure for generations to come.