The highest compliment Edward Kennedy Ellington knew how to pay to a fellow musician was to refer to him as being “beyond category.” If any label could possibly capture the essence of Ellington himself, it would be that one. In a career spanning five decades, the man they called “Duke” put an indelible stamp on 20th-century American music as an instrumentalist, as a composer and as an orchestra leader. Equally at home and equally revered in the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall, if any musician ever defied categorization, it was Duke Ellington. Fifty years after becoming a household name, and without slowing down professionally until the very end, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington died on May 24, 1974, at the age of 75.
One of the keys to understanding Duke Ellington’s persona is to know how and when he received his noble nickname. Unlike Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, who were called the King and Queen of their respective genres because of their professional accomplishments, Edward Ellington became the Duke because of his suave demeanor and elegant bearing while still a schoolboy in Washington, D.C. As Studs Terkel put it, “His casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman.” The same qualities would remain with Ellington throughout his adult life.
Even if Ellington had limited himself to being a composer, he would deserve a reputation as one of the 20th century’s best purely on the strength of “Mood Indigo” (1930), “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932), “Sophisticated Lady” (1933) and “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” (1940). But Ellington was much more than a composer. His Duke Ellington Orchestra served as an incubator for some of the greatest instrumentalists of the jazz age and became famous for a sound that no other orchestra could mimic. As the conductor/composer Andre Previn once said in comparing Ellington to another jazz orchestra leader of far more modest talent: “Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, ‘Oh, yes, that’s done like this.’ But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound and I don’t know what it is.”
The style of music that brought him to fame passed in and out of fashion over the decades following his commercial peak, but Ellington himself was never content to work within that style anyway. Over the course of his career, Ellington never stopped pushing himself into new territory, from long-form orchestral jazz compositions to sacred church music. “Every morning you wake up, it’s a new day, isn’t it?” he once said. “Is there any reason why a human being shouldn’t be influenced by a new day?” Jazz historian Ralph Gleason called him “The greatest composer American society has produced.” Duke Ellington himself would likely have been satisfied with simply “beyond category.”