Duke Ellington

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Duke Ellington, shown in 1971

Edward Kennedy Ellington (April 29, 1899May 24, 1974) was an African 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).
  • Playing "Bop" is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.
    • Look (10 August 1954).
  • 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 (9 July 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.
  • 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).
  • Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.
    • At age 66, on being passed over for an award (Pulitzer Prize for music) in 1965, as quoted in The Christian Science Monitor (24 December 1986).
  • If it sounds good, it IS good.
    • J.D. Moore's Ten Commandments for The Studio
  • By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with.
    • Nat Hentoff, At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (2011).

Quotes about Ellington[edit]

  • 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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