Duke Ellington

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Duke Ellington in 1971

Edward Kennedy Ellington (April 29, 1899May 24, 1974) was an American jazz composer, pianist, and band leader. Although a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, in the opinion of Gunther Schuller and Barry Kernfeld, "the most significant composer of the genre", Ellington himself embraced the phrase "beyond category", considering it a liberating principle, and referring to his music as part of the more general category of American Music.




  • It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).
    • Song title (1932).
  • I think of music sometimes in terms of color [...] and [in a furnace] I like to see the flames licking yellow in the dark and then pulsing down to a kind of red glow.
  • [Sights enabling musical inspiration] The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician [...] Things like the old folks singing in the moonlight in the back yard on a hot night, or something someone said long ago. I remember I once wrote a sixty-four-bar piece about a memory of when I was a little boy in bed and heard a man whistling on the street outside, his footsteps echoing away. Things like these may be more important to a musician than technique.
  • As Bach says [...] if you ain't got a left hand, you ain't worth a hoot in hell.
  • [Expressing a liking for trains] Folks can't rush you until you get off.
  • You can't write music right [...] until you know how the man that'll play it plays poker.
  • [Y]ou've got to write with certain men in mind. You write just for their abilities and natural tendencies and give them places where they do their best—certain entrances and background stuff. You got to know each man to know what he'll react well to. One guy likes very simple ornamentation; another guy likes ornamentation better than the theme because it gives him a feeling of being a second mind. Every musician has his favorite licks and you gotta write to them.
  • I know what sounds well on a trombone and I know what sounds well on a trumpet and they are not the same. [...] I know what Tricky Sam can play on a trombone and I know what Lawrence Brown can play on a trombone and they are not the same either.
  • My band is my instrument more than the piano.
  • Playing "Bop" is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.
    • Look (August 10, 1954).
  • [Asked about the vogue for Rock 'n' Roll and calypso] [N]o matter what you call it, music is as good as it sounds. Music is an oral art. Until you hear it, it is not music and if it sounds good it is good.
  • The piano players were very important in the early days, and the great piano players were always on the East Coast; there never was anybody in the West who could play two notes. (By West I mean New Orleans; in those days there was no other West to speak of, west of that.) Jelly Roll Morton, who was mainly a writer and had more music published than anyone else, played piano like one of those high school teachers in Washington; as a matter of fact, high school teachers played better jazz. Among other things, his rhythm was unsteady; but that's the kind of piano the West was geared up to. On the other hand, the piano players on the East Coast did the most impossible things. If you dig up the early piano rolls or records by James P. Johnson, you will hear the most beautiful and perfect performances. Willie "The Lion" Smith was a giant of those days, too. It is one of my great regrets that when the Lion used to come up to my house I didn't have a recording machine so that I could preserve some of those early performances of his.
    • From "Appreciations: The Encyclopedia of Jazz," transcription of a recording made by Ellington at Leonard Feather's request, in The Encyclopedia of Jazz (1960) by Feather, p. 14


  • It's like an act of murder; you play with intent to commit something.
    • On jazz New York Herald Tribune (July 9, 1961).
  • There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind ... the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it's successful; if it doesn't it has failed.
  • Every man prays in his own language.
    • Section title and eponymous song of A Concert of Sacred Music (1965).
  • How can anyone expect to be understood unless he presents his thoughts with complete honesty? This situation is unfair because it asks too much of the world. In effect, we say, "I don't dare show you what I am because I don't trust you for a minute but please love me anyway because I so need you to. And, of course, if you don't love me anyway, you're a dirty dog, just as I suspected, so I was right in the first place." Yet, every time God's children have thrown away fear in pursuit of honesty-trying to communicate themselves, understood or not, miracles have happened.
  • Fate is being kind to me. [...] Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.
  • [Asked about his "fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young" comment] What else could I have said? [...] In the first place, I never do give any thought to prizes. I work and I write, and that's it. My reward is hearing what I have done, and unlike most composers, I can hear it immediately. That's why I keep these expensive gentlemen with me. And secondly, I'm hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without, let us say, official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European music–classical music, if you will–is the only really respectable kind. I remember, for example when Franklin Roosevelt died, practically no American music was played on the air in tribute to him. We were given a dispensation, I must admit. We did one radio program dedicated to him. But by and large, then as now, jazz was the kind of man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with.
    The word 'jazz' has been part of the problem [...] It never lost its association with those New Orleans bordellos. In the nineteen-twenties, I used to try to convince Fletcher Henderson that we ought to call what we were doing "negro music". But it's too late for that now. The music has become so integrated you can't tell one part from the other as far as color is concerned. Well, I don't have time time to worry about it. I've got too much music on my mind.
  • Roaming through the jungle of "oohs" and "ahs," searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitivity with the mind of a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats.
    • Music Is My Mistress (1973).

Quotes about Ellington

  • Louis Armstrong was on J-and never got off his J-never, never stopped. I mean for all intents and purposes, died with his trumpet in his hand. So did Duke Ellington, all those people who inspire one, who inspire me. Duke was still going on the road right up till the last. Louis Armstrong still on the road till the very last. I appreciate that, I respect it and I am grateful for it. I am grateful, in the name of my grandson I am grateful.
  • Of course anything that Duke does I like. He just seems to have a sixth sense about things turning out so good ... But I especially like the marriage between strings and what he did with the band. He didn't confine the strings to just whole notes and half notes, which most guys do, but he gave them little pizzicato things and little staccato things in there, which works out beautifully ....
  • Well, that's about the quintessence of slick, professional, expert, boring arrangement. I couldn't say offhand who it was. As I say, I haven't heard jazz for a year. I found it dull—the last word in polish and professionality [sic]—but dull.
    • Leonard Bernstein, circa 1953, reviewing Ellington's recording of "Satin Doll" for DownBeat‍'‍s "Blindfold Test"; as quoted in The Encyclopedia of Jazz (1960) by Leonard Feather, p. 474
  • That's wild! I'll start off with five stars and work backwards from there. Now there, to me, is the most perfect band in existence, whether you're thinking of it orchestrationally or in terms of Duke's immensely creative writing. I can't think of anybody I admire more than this man; nobody could even be compared with him, except Billy Strayhorn. Duke does something with this old, tired instrumentation of trumpets, trombones and saxophones, and he has a perfect way of utilizing the men's specific sounds. Anything he plays is a work of art. The band is out of tune, for instance, and it doesn't even matter. They almost have their own brand of intonation. Duke can take an exotic-sounding idea and create something – you might call it sophisticated crudity. It gives both the qualities that I look for – an earthy quality and the sophisticated quality.
  • As Duke Ellington once said, "the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Elkton." [...] About that Wellington guy, I wouldn't know. Duke Ellington, yes. As for that Eton business — well, I married my first wife in Elkton, and I always hated the place. It musta stuck.
    • Babe Ruth, attempting unsuccessfully—during a partially scripted radio interview, broadcast live on August 13, 1930—to deliver a familiar but evidently apocryphal quote, followed by his explanation for that failure; as quoted in The Tumult and the Shouting; My Life in Sport (1954) by Grantland Rice; reprinted in "The World I Loved — Part 1: My Baseball Hall of Fame" by Rice, in The New York Herald Tribune (October 3, 1954), pp. 8-9
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