Diasporic Music: The genius of Duke Ellington

Malcolm X used to shine Duke Ellington’s shoes when he was a youth in Boston.
In fact, Malcolm says in his autobiography that Ellington’s alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges forgot to pay him for a shoe shine because he got into a friendly argument with the drummer Sonny Greer. Says Malcolm, “I wouldn’t have dared to bother the man who could do what he did with ‘Daydream’ by asking him for fifteen cents.”
Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974 after making music for 56 years. He was born in Washington D.C. on April 29, 1899.
Music lovers around the world are celebrating the 115th anniversary of the birth of this towering music legend. After Ellington’s death, notes were found of an unfinished opera, Boola, narrating the travails of an African enslave in this hemisphere.
It is important to note, African people and the world never lose sight of the fact that Ellington was more than some kind of “American original”. The New Yorker magazine pointed out in 1969, that Ellington was “the unacknowledged but undeniable master of Western music.”
Let the record reflect that Ellington was an African original. He never denied “everyday African people” in the United States, the Caribbean nor Mother Africa.
While Ellington has been gone for 40 years, his memory has been kept alive by African artists in the decades before and after his passing.
The hip-hop generation was introduced to him in the 1990s with the film Love Jones, when Larenz Tate seduced Nia Long with Ellington and John Coltrane’s “In A Sentimental Mood.”
In the 1980s, Prince used to break into Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The A Train” regularly during concerts. Stevie Wonder evoked Ellington’s memory in the 1970s with the song “Sir Duke.”
When Ellington was still in the land of the living in the 1960s, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden and Fred Cash (The Impressions) recorded a beautiful rendition of Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Still many of the readers of this essay are asking: Who was Duke Ellington and why is he important today?
The dictionary of global culture says this about Ellington: “African American jazz musician. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, he was a pioneer of the ‘big band’ sound in jazz, introducing complex arrangements that required both improvising and the ability to read scores.
Renewed for his extended, abstract compositions, which employ such techniques as irregular phrasing, chromaticism, and unresolved modulations. Ellington is often considered the first jazz composer.”
Ellington was down with black consciousness before it became in vogue in the 1960s, long before James Brown sang, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Ellington commented on taking pride in your roots. In the 1930s, Ellington pointed out, “We must be proud of our race and heritage, we must develop the special talents which have been handed down to us though generations, we must try to make our work express the rich background of the Negro.”
Don’t let the word “Negro” fool you. He composed the song “Black Beauty” for actress Florence Mills in 1928 some 40 years before it became fashionable to be black. Ellington knew what the Black Panther Party and others would later find out¬—that culture was necessary but not sufficient.”
In 1944, Ellington composed works commemorating black freedom fighters: Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman.
Ortiz M. Walton pointed out in his 1972 book, Music: Black, White & Blue, “None of the latter group has been recorded, since the record industry is not concerned with portraying black history as much as making a profit.”
Very little has changed since 1972. Danny Glover was given money by the then President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez to do a film on Haiti’s Toussaint L’Ouverture. It never saw the light of day.
Ellington journeyed to Africa four years earlier than the Black Panther Party. He brought his orchestra to Dakar, Senegal to perform at the World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966.
The Black Panther Party opened an office in Algeria on September 1, 1970.
Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes pointed out that during one of Ellington’s visits to England in the 1930s, Ellington discovered King George had a bigger collection of his records than he had.
However, Ellington’s being embraced by royalty never made him lose sight of working class people.
Here is how Ellington described what happened at the concert: “When the time for our concert comes, it is a wonderful success.
We get the unusual diplomatic corps down front, but the cats in the bleachers really dig it.” That was important to Ellington.
Ellington’s band was an all-African orchestra almost from the beginning. When his band began in Washington, D.C. in 1918, many of the members had Southern roots.
However, when he later brought his band to New York he drafted Juan Tizol, a Puerto Rico-born trombonist. He also added another trombonist Joe ‘Tricky Sam” Nanton who was a New Yorker with both Caribbean and Garveyite roots.
Years later Ellington would recruit Paul Gonsalves tenor saxophonist with Cape Verdean roots.
While Ellington grew up in the United States, he traveled to over 60 countries and was a “roots” man.
In describing his first experience on African soil, Ellington said, “After writing African music for 35 years, here I am at last in Africa.”
Norman (Otis) Richmond, aka Jalali, was born in Arcadia, Louisiana, and grew up in Los Angeles. He left Los Angles after refusing to fight in Vietnam because he felt that, like the Vietnamese, Africans in the United States were colonial subjects.
His column Diasporic Music appears monthly in The Burning Spear newspaper.
Richmond is currently working as a producer/host of Saturday Morning Live on Radio Regent (radioregent.com.) He can also be heard on Diasporic Music on Uhuru Radio (uhururadio.com)


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