Considered by many to be the greatest American composer in history, Duke Ellington and his music influenced millions of people over the course of his 50-year career. Thanks to a body of work that transcends boundaries and renews itself through every generation of fans and music lovers, his legacy continues to live on and will endure for generations to come.
Ellington liked to describe those who impressed him as "beyond category." Because of the unmatched artistic heights to which he soared, no artist deserves this description more than Ellington himself. He is best remembered for the over 3,000 songs that he composed during his lifetime – titles like "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," "Sophisticated Lady," "Mood Indigo," "Solitude," "In a Mellow Tone," and "Satin Doll." When asked what inspired him to write, he replied, "My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people."
Ellington's popular compositions set the bar for generations of brilliant jazz, pop, theater, and soundtrack composers to come. While these compositions guarantee his greatness, what makes Duke an iconoclastic genius and an unparalleled visionary are his extended suites. From 1943's Black, Brown and Beige to 1972's The Uwis Suite, Ellington used the suite format to give his jazz songs a far more empowering meaning, resonance, and purpose: to exalt, mythologize, and re-contextualize the African-American experience on a grand scale.
Duke Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973 – the highest civilian honors in each country. He died of lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday, and is buried in the Bronx. At his funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion: "It's a very sad day ... A genius has passed."
Although Ellington himself has passed, his music lives on, as does the orchestra that bears his name. A world-class big band, The Duke Ellington Orchestra continues to perform Duke's music at venues worldwide, preserving the legacy of one of this country's greatest national treasures.
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