The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington

Anna Celenza – Johns Hopkins University

About Duke Ellington and His Musical Style

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899 – 1974) was one of the most prominent musical figures of the 20th century. Although his music was often defined as “jazz,” he sought to create a body of music “beyond category.” In fact, he preferred to be called simply an “American” composer. The breadth of Ellington’s output was astounding. In addition to writing hundreds of jazz standards, including “Mood Indigo” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” he served as the leader of America’s most stellar big band for nearly a half century and composed numerous film scores, musicals and large-scale orchestrated works. Even more importantly, he was one of the most prominent Black public figures in American history.

Duke Ellington Music & History 

Born and raised in Washington, DC, Ellington was acutely aware of American politics. All his life, he served as a leader committed to civil rights, equality, and America’s role in the world. Although nearly 50 years have passed since Ellington’s death, his music still permeates society, not just in the jazz club or concert hall, but also via film, advertising, and the art of sampling. What is it about Ellington and his music that has made his legacy so enduring? Using music examples, film clips, and historic photos, Professor Celenza will explore a range of answers to this question and reveal the genius of Duke Ellington as a pianist, bandleader, composer, and public intellectual.

Discussion Questions From The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington

  1. How did Ellington’s formative years in Washington DC shape his approach to music composition?
  1. Ellington belonged to the first generation of musicians raised on recorded music, film, and radio. In what ways do you think this technology helped and/or hurt his career?
  1. The US State Department’s Jazz Ambassador Program was a product of the Cold War. Do you think jazz served as an effective weapon for promoting Democracy? Why do you think Ellington was chosen for the program in the 1960s?

Learn More about Duke Ellington’s Music

Learn more about Duke Ellington’s music by checking out our wide array of music history lectures here.