Duke Ellington dies

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.”


What hath God wrought?

In a demonstration witnessed by members of Congress, American inventor Samuel F.B. Morse dispatches a telegraph message from the U.S. Capitol to Alfred Vail at a railroad station in Baltimore, Maryland. The message–“What Hath God Wrought?”–was telegraphed back to the Capitol a more

Copernicus dies

On May 24, 1543, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus dies in what is now Frombork, Poland. The father of modern astronomy, he was the first modern European scientist to propose that Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. Prior to the publication of his major more

Brooklyn Bridge opens

After 14 years and 27 deaths while being constructed, the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River is opened, connecting the great cities of New York and Brooklyn for the first time in history. Thousands of residents of Brooklyn and Manhattan Island turned out to witness the more

The Bismarck sinks the Hood

On this day in 1941, Germany’s largest battleship, the Bismarck, sinks the pride of the British fleet, HMS Hood. The Bismarck was the most modern of Germany’s battleships, a prize coveted by other nation’s navies, even while still in the blueprint stage (Hitler handed over a copy more

Goldwater suggests using atomic weapons

Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona), running for the Republican Party nomination in the upcoming presidential election, gives an interview in which he discusses the use of low-yield atomic bombs in North Vietnam to defoliate forests and destroy bridges, roads, and railroad lines more

MLB holds first night game

The Cincinnati Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies 2-1 on this night in 1935 in Major League Baseball’s first-ever night game, played courtesy of recently installed lights at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The first-ever night game in professional baseball took place May 2, 1930, more

Joseph Brodsky is born

Today is the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky, born this day in St. Petersburg, Russia. His poetry treats such universal topics as life, death, and the meaning of existence. Brodsky’s early poetry won critical acclaim, but the Soviet government considered him a loafer and more

Riot erupts at soccer match

A referee’s call in a soccer match between Peru and Argentina sparks a riot on this day in 1964. More than 300 fans were killed and another 500 people were injured in the violent melee that followed at National Stadium in Lima, Peru. The match was a qualifier for the 1964 more

Lori Ann Auker disappears from a parking lot

Lori Ann Auker, a 19-year-old pet shop worker, disappears from Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. After failing to show up for work, her car was found the next day in the parking lot of the Susquehanna Mall where The Pet Place was located. Police had no clues as to what had more

John Foster Dulles dies

After battling cancer for nearly three years, former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles dies. Dulles served as secretary of state from 1953 until shortly before his death in 1959 and was considered one of the primary architects of America’s Cold War foreign policy during that more

Battle of North Anna continues

Union General Ulysses S. Grant continues to pound away at Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the engagement along the North Anna River in central Virginia, that had begun the day before. Since early May, Lee and Grant had been slugging it out along an arc from the more