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The music and influence of Duke Ellington is both timeless and universal. His more than 3,000 musical compositions have entertained millions around the world – both during his lifetime and after his death. Among his most famous titles are: "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing", "Sophisticated Lady", “Solitude”, and "Mood Indigo". Duke Ellington's popular compositions set the bar for generations of brilliant jazz, pop, theatre and soundtrack composers to come. Many of today’s most accomplished artists freely acknowledge the influence Ellington’s unique talents have had on their own musical careers.
And Ellington’s popularity endures. His music has been heard and appreciated by contemporary audiences through his contributions to the popular HBO television program The Sopranos and for the song “Caravan”, which was featured in the recent Oceans Thirteen (2007).
Duke Ellington formed his own orchestra in 1928 and between 1927-1932 he was one of the most popular attractions at New York’s famed Cotton Club. Ellington made his first European tour in 1933 and began his annual Carnegie Hall concerts between 1943-1950. He appeared on Broadway in Jump for Joy and Beggars Holiday, among other productions. He also appeared in motion pictures, debuting as a piano player in the 1934 Mae West-starrer Belle of the Nineties. He often appeared as “himself” onscreen, in such films as Murder at the Vanities (1934), Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Date with Duke (1947). His remarkable talent and cheery, upbeat personality was always a welcome sight for movie audiences. He made his ciematic swan song in an uncredited bit as Pie Eye in the 1959 Otto Preminger-directed Anatomy of a Murder, for which he received a Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album, Background Score from Motion Picture or Television. In 1962 he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture for Paris Blues.
While his film credits were few, Ellington appeared regularly on television in such popular programs as Frankie Laine Time, The Steve Allen Show and The Dean Martin Show. In 1968 he teamed up with jazz singer Barbara McNair for the TV special The Barbara McNair and Duke Ellington Special.
During his career, Ellington received many awards and tributes. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson presented Duke Ellington with the Prtesident’s Gold Medal. Three years later President Richard Nixon awarded Ellington the Presidential Medal of Freedom, stating: “In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke.”
In addition to his 13 Grammy Awards, Ellington received the Pulitzer Prize and was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1973. In 1971 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971, while in 1978 he was Charter inductee of the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Twelve years after his death, in 1986 a 22-cent United States Commemorative stamp featuring his image was issued.
Duke Ellington was a true renaissance man and perhaps the original “hipster”. He was one of the twentieth-century’s best-known and well-respected African-Americans, who possessed a universal appeal which allowed him to transcend countless boundaries. He represented style, sophistication, elegance and cool. As both a composer and a bandleader, his reputation has increased since his death.
At his funeral, Ella Fitzgerald noted: “It’s a very sad day . . . A genius has passed.”
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