The Marketing of Duke Ellington: Setting the Strategy for an African American Maestro

Article excerpt

Before Duke Ellington's rise to fame in the late 1920s and early 1930s, no African American had ever been so widely hailed around the world as a serious artistic figure, without the stereotypes usually affixed to African American entertainers. In the era of harsh Jim Crow denigration and violence, before the Civil Rights Movement made organized protest common for African Americans to register their desire for equal rights, Ellington subverted and undercut racial stereotypes, changing the images and possibilities for African Americans in the mass media. Ellington accomplished this feat over his long career by creatively celebrating the African American experience. He did not fight for civil rights in the manner of political activists, but contributed much to that cause, most of it unrecognized because it lay outside the annals of racial protest. The African American media dubbed him a leading "race man." Ellington's beliefs concerning racial equality were molded during his youth in the turn-of-the-century Washington, DC, where an emphasis on African American identity, pride, and history was imparted to African American children, who were taught to command, rather than demand, respect. (1) For Ellington, encouraged by this early experience, the most effective African American protest in the American scene was to live and create in a way that undermined racial barriers and stereotypes. The marketing of Ellington successfully met those objectives and laid the basis for the support of a lifetime of creativity.

The field of music proved an optimal venue for Ellington to contest the boundaries of American racial life. Music could subvert stereotypes about how African Americans dressed, acted, and created. More importantly, music was less programmatic than words, and more readily gained an unresisting hearing than the speeches and writings of African American spokespersons. Music was less tied to demands of acceptance for a particular position, and served as a form of activism that reflected Ellington's long-term priorities of infiltration and circumvention, rather than confrontation. The origins of the image and publicity campaign engineered by Irving Mills, Ellington's manager from 1926 to 1939, and Ellington himself, show how much the racial changes in the United States owed to infiltrators like Ellington who softened up the enemy so that protest could develop effectively. Through the creative and groundbreaking use of radio, recordings, sheet music, advertising, stagecraft, and an eclectic approach to music making, the marketing of Ellington challenged and changed notions of race and cultural hierarchy in the United States.

In the fall of 1926, Irving Mills became Duke Ellington's manager, publisher, and business partner. Recognizing Ellington's special talents and character, Mills designed and carried out a vastly influential blueprint for marketing that made Ellington an international figure, and cemented his reputation as an important composer. With the formation of a national music market in the 1920s, aided by the coming of radio and more affordable phonographs, recording artists more than ever required powerful management to obtain a position to compete. (2) Success at the local level would not be as profitable or dependable as in decades past. To compete in this new mass media at the highest level, recording artists needed more than a solitary manager. They needed an agency behind them, armed with numerous people supervising the various aspects of an artist's career and remuneration, including recordings, sheet music, touring, film, merchandising, promotion, and newspaper publicity. In his creation of the Mills Artists agency in the late 1920s, Mills devised an early and successful version of how a music business firm should operate in the expanding national music marketplace.

This kind of intensive national media promotion and marketing proved especially important for African American artists. …