Washington, DC’s 5th Gift to the World-Music (Duke Ellington)

My portion of this 5th Gift to the World is a tribute to the coolest musical Washingtonian ever – Edward Kennedy Ellington, the Duke.

Many people may associate Duke Ellington with New York (thanks in part to the classic “Take the ‘A’ Train”) but his roots were firmly planted in DC, and especially in the U Street neighborhood where he grew up and had his musical start, from his birth here in 1899 to his departure for Harlem in 1923. PBS did a brilliant documentary on “Duke Ellington’s Washington” a while back, and its website also gives an overview of Black Broadway and Shaw. The Howard Theater, the Whitelaw Hotel, True Reformers’ Hall, all are landmarks still visible today that featured prominently in his life. DC’s great Ellington School for the Arts bears his name and the spirit of his legacy proudly, and we now even have a jazz festival in his honor.

Thanks to my jazz-loving father, I was exposed to Ellington’s music as a small child (though as Duke once said naughtily, “By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”). I find his brilliance undimmed – jazz with the backbone of classical training, complexity of rhythm, and essence of cool unmatched. I especially love his piano improvisations, but I really can’t pick any favorites. I just know that when I walk down U Street and look up at the mural bearing his image, I think of him decked out in that seriously spiffy tuxedo, smiling at the audience, and saying farewell with, “we love you, madly.” Genius.

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