Still loving Ellington madly on the centennial of his birth

April 22, 1999|By ANDREA LEWIS

THE NAME Duke Ellington brings images of sophisticated gents and satin dolls to mind. It brings echoes of the sweet sounds of a brilliantly crafted jazz orchestra to the ear. Ellington, whom many hail as the greatest jazz composer ever, is synonymous with music that is thoughtful, distinctive and elegant. Strangely, however, most of his music remains a mystery.

Next Thursday marks the 100th birthday of Edward Kennedy Ellington. A yearlong celebration in honor of the Duke is in full swing, led by Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

"Few other artists of the last 100 years have been more successful at capturing humanity's triumphs and tribulations in their work than this composer, band leader and pianist," Mr. Marsalis recently wrote in the New York Times. "I've always regarded the Duke Ellington Orchestra as one of the great achievements in the history of art."

The differences between this year's Ellington centenary and that of George Gershwin's, celebrated last year, are interesting to note. Gershwin's music is very familiar to fans of "art" music. Ellington, on the other hand, wrote an estimated 2,000 compositions, none of which is a regular staple of symphony orchestra programming. In fact, Ellington's compositions mostly remain unpublished and rarely, if ever, performed.

"If something doesn't come out of the hallowed halls of European culture, it is not considered all that significant," says John Edward Hasse, executive director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

As a music major at a small college in eastern Michigan, I learned firsthand how ingrained Eurocentric notions about jazz were. Our music department offered virtually no jazz classes, and my proposal to perform classical and jazz music at a senior voice recital was not even jokingly entertained by faculty advisers.

Still, in those days, jazz was very much a part of the black cultural experience. I listened to all kinds of music on the radio and on the record player while growing up in Detroit. My parents were big jazz fans and they exposed me to such greats as Cannonball Adderley and Sarah Vaughan at an early age. Sure, I wanted to jam at Motown's Hitsville, U.S.A., and be one of the Supremes, but I also had visions of being Ella Fitzgerald.

Today, most young people interested in learning about jazz and Ellington would probably have to do a lot of work on their own. Many public schools have drastically reduced or even eliminated their music programs.

And while most major U.S. cities support a highly commercial "smooth" jazz radio outlet, the chances of hearing Ellington or any classic jazz music produced before 1980 on these stations is pretty slim. What you will hear is an endless stream of perfectly pleasant and interchangeable saxophone riffs that wouldn't dare challenge your ears or mind. "Smooth" jazz has become the Muzak of the information age.

Let's hope that the yearlong celebration of the genius of Ellington spells revival for his music specifically and for jazz music in general.

Duke would, no doubt, love that madly.

Andrea Lewis has won two Grammy awards as a member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. She's an associate editor with the San Francisco-based Pacific News Service. She can be reached at

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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