March into the archives : Duke Ellington

The following summary of Duke Ellington's career was published in BMA Magazine on 17 February 2000, ahead of Wynton Marsalis leading the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra in a performance of Ellington's songs.

In 1917 when 'Duke' Ellington was eighteen, he'd wanted to become a painter. In the decades that followed, Ellington remained a painter although it was in the guise of a jazz composer.

In conducting his orchestra Ellington arranged music as though it were colour on a canvas, with deft movements of his hand (the piano his brush) he would sketch sonic landscapes and illustrate a path for the other musicians.

Yet Ellington should not be viewed as a maestro in the mold of European composers like Mozart; the Duke's talent was to recognise and arrange melodies that were created through the improvisation of his band. Most Ellington pieces were collective arrangements and as much the music of each individual member but Duke headed the collective.

It was through a dynamic willpower that Ellington stamped his ideas onto his musicians and, while he developed their talents, this leadership is his claim to authorship.

Duke Ellington has earned his stature in the history of jazz for many reasons and it has been claimed that he founded a number of innovations. These included the tune 'Caravan' written by his Puerto Rican-born trombonist Juan Tizol in 1937, which paved the sub-genre of latin jazz; and, perhaps more importantly, the history of jazz bass stretches through Ellington's work form the first recording with an amplified bass, 'Hot and bothered' in 1928, through to the influential playing of Jimmy Blanton in the 1940s, who helped make the instrument what it is today.

Above all, Ellington's career had longevity. From his start with a five-piece combo, who (according to popular myth) were so poor they had to split a hotdog between them to keep from starving, the Duke headed the most significant big band in an era when big bands were like pop groups are today.

His final landmark was the '70th birthday concert' which was chosen in 1969 as 'Jazz record of the year' all over the world. On 25 May 1974 Ellington died of pneumonia in a New York hospital, only a few weeks after musicians including Leonard Bernstein and Miles Davis had paid homage to him on his 75th birthday.

The importance of his music cannot be overstated.