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Duke Ellington: Life and Music Principles Essay

Two Principles of Life and Music

As I believe, Duke Ellington is a great example of a role model for all young people, who are just starting to live their own life. If one performs a deep analysis of Duke Ellington’s personality, one will most likely discover that Duke was committed to two basic principles, which he applied to his life and music alike. First, music is an indicator of freedom, and it itself can be a person’s freedom. Second, if you do something – music or anything else – work hard and never be satisfied with what you have already done.

For an African American man, who Duke was, the concept of freedom was not some notional scholarly speculation. In his times, the position of African Americans was still complicated; they still remembered segregation, and some of them, like Duke’s mother, were children of former slaves. When Duke has just begun his career, jazz, the music associated with the black people, was believed to be the non-professional, criminal music of the obscene. It was not respected or taught at art schools. However, the view of Duke on this subject was completely different: “Jazz,” he has once said, “is a good barometer of freedom” (Tucker & Ellington, 1995, p. 295). Duke connected jazz with the American ideas of freedom. He refused to follow white canons of music and created his own canons. He believed that music could make him free – and it did.

Having achieved a lot, Duke never stopped to rest on laurels. He said he would never ever be satisfied. Having held one concert, he started preparing for the next one. Having created a sophisticated composition, he knew that he would write an even more sophisticated one. Having earned an award, he knew that there were still many awards to get. Even after his death, Duke continues to win prizes and people’s hearts, as if he is still working without rest.

The Outstanding Characteristics of Ellington’s Music

Hundreds of pages can be written about the special aspects of Duke’s music. I would like to emphasize those of them that impresses me the most.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in Duke’s music is his constant experimenting. Working out a particular, stable style and stick to it for the rest of the music career was certainly not for Duke. Surprising instrument combinations, complicated interlacement of voices and tunes, melodies of different styles taken from different cultures (European classic, Latino, jungle, and many others), to mention just a few of Duke’s experiments. Listening to Duke’s songs may make you want to restart a song several times to catch and feel each line, each tune, and each voice.

Uniting the talents of a great composer and a manager, Duke was always able to make a perfect choice of performers. He could find out what a person’s outstanding ability is – a strong voice, an unusual manner of playing an instrument, or anything else – and, bringing that person to his band, he did his best to incorporate their sound into the sound of the band. As a result, Duke’s music is harmonic, like a well-working mechanism.

Finally, Duke’s music is suitable for all moods and occasions. If the listeners want some joyous dances, Duke will give them swing. If they want something moody and depressing, he has sad and sentimental tunes. If they want a deep sense, he will give them the entire African American history in one “Black, Brown, and Beige.”

Having noticed these outstanding characteristics of his music, how strange it is to know that Duke never actually demonstrated any signs of pride. “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues,” he has once said with his usual modesty (Barber, Barber, & Barber-Leclerc, 2013, p. 64).

Evaluation of His Achievements

Duke Ellington, being a living legend, has, of course, numerous achievements to be mentioned and revered. One of Duke’s great achievements, which is, however, rarely spoken about, is the fact that he built his life to be what he wanted it to be. Despite belonging to a discriminated group, Duke managed to capture the dream that he pursued. Without proper music education, that was in the hands of white people and did not cover black culture, Ellington has become a great musician, popular worldwide.

The other achievement of Ellington that impresses me personally is that he evolved as a great leader, particularly band leader, both in music and in life. He went a long way from a young boy, who did not know how to lead others and how to incorporate the sound of his piano to the overall sound of the band, to a skillful manager, who operates an entire band as if it were a single instrument.

Finally, the thing that applies to the lives of many young people, myself included, is that Duke was never afraid to break rules. He honestly was not scared of the bad reputation of jazz, nor he was reluctant to change the rules of jazz itself. He was not afraid of mixing different kinds of music, creating strange instrument combinations or including unusual sounds to his compositions. Among other things, this has made him a legend.

Duke Ellington in “Love You Madly”

“Love You Madly” is a two-hour 1973 documentary devoted to the personality and music career of Duke Ellington and directed by Ralph J. Gleason, an eminent jazz critic. Not only was the documentary nominated for an Emmy, but it also won the approval of Duke himself: he called it “the best film about Duke Ellington ever made” (Nishimoto, 2006, p. 1).

Being a close acquaintance of Ellington’s, Gleason managed to capture various aspects of Duke’s personality. The film presents Ellington not only as an on-stage musician; it also demonstrates him as a person behind the scene. Gleason shows how Duke composes his songs, how he behaves on the scene, how he charms the audience, plays piano, and even flirts with ladies. The film is composed of concert videos, close shots, and informal filming of Duke doing whatever he pleases, which creates the portrait of a free, happy, nonchalant man.

The film allows us to perceive Duke as an ordinary American; instead of showing him as an unapproachable legend, the documentary presents him as a simple man, who can be understood by and close to any fellow American. At the same time, Duke is portrayed as part of the African American community. His African American identity is by now means blurred in the film; conversely, it is emphasized that the achievements of Duke in the field of jazz should be placed in a broader context, that these are the achievements of the African American community and African American music. In such a way, the film allows a viewer to comprehend the multiple facets of Duke’s personality: Duke as a person, as a composer, performer, American, and African American.


Barber, D., Barber, J., & Barber-Leclerc, M. (2013). Becoming the blues: A family memoir. Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse LLC.

Nishimoto, D. (2006).Web.

Tucker, M., & Ellington, D. (1995). The Duke Ellington reader. New York City, New York: Oxford University Press.

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1. IvyPanda. "Duke Ellington: Life and Music Principles." July 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/duke-ellington-life-and-music-principles/.


IvyPanda. "Duke Ellington: Life and Music Principles." July 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/duke-ellington-life-and-music-principles/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Duke Ellington: Life and Music Principles." July 29, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/duke-ellington-life-and-music-principles/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Duke Ellington: Life and Music Principles'. 29 July.

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