Jazz legend Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974), born on this day in Washington D.C., earned the nickname "Duke" because of his elegant clothes and style. An important American composer, pianist, and bandleader, he influenced jazz, blues, swing, and beyond.
"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," he proclaimed in his famous song.
A passionate catalyst, he pulled together musicians and inspired their "deep well" of greatness. People came from all around to hear The Duke Ellington Orchestra (a.k.a. The Whoopee Makers) tear the roof off Harlem's famous Cotton Club (1927-1931). With a show broadcast weekly over radio, Duke's amazing music made him an international celebrity.
"My mother told me I was blessed, and I have always taken her word for it," he explained in Music Is My Mistress (1973). "Being born of--or reincarnated from--royalty is nothing like being blessed. Royalty is inherited from another human being; blessedness comes from God."
He claimed his inspiration came from love and the sacred spirit. A visionary, he experimented with odd musical intervals and pioneered the extension of jazz pieces beyond customary choruses of 12 or 32 bars.
The writer of about 1,000 compositions, he once said, "I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people. I believe that music, popular music of the day, is the real reflector of the nation's feelings."
In his 1977 tribute, Sir Duke, musician Stevie Wonder called Ellington "the king of all." Writer Tom Buckley described Ellington's famous piano style spinning "single-note runs and figures, some smooth and glistening beads of dew on a spider's web, others brittle, shiny and sharply cut as a necklace of jet."
Turn your blues into a song.