Nothin' without God: Duke Ellington's Prayerful Music

By Steed, Janna Tull | The Christian Century, October 12, 1994 | Go to article overview

Nothin' without God: Duke Ellington's Prayerful Music


Steed, Janna Tull, The Christian Century


IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE another jazz musician or contemporary composer receiving the adulation that Duke Ellington has inspired. The release of "Mood Indigo" in 1930 established his fame, while the praise of Stravinsky, Milhaud and others won him early recognition as a serious composer. By the time of his death in 1974 the man and his music had become legendary, and the legend has only grown since then. A Smithsonian Institution exhibit, now touring the country, presents a broad-stroke portrait of the man and his music. (Until mid-December the exhibit is at the museum of African American History in Detroit.) Greater depth and detail are found in Mark Tucker's The Duke Ellington Reader and John Edward Hasse's biography, Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington (both published in 1993). The more Ellington's music and his influential role in 20th-century American culture are studied, the more towering his figure becomes. Yet despite a spate of biographies and critical studies since his death, the private man behind the "love you madly" persona remains an enigma.

Edward Kennedy Ellington came of age with jazz and shaped it as a piano-laying big band leader who kept his sidemen together and on the road for more than 50 years. Through early work in radio and film and later in numerous television specials, he became a symbol of black achievement and pride, his sartorial elegance and verbal panache setting him apart from other popular entertainers. He lived and worked through the era of Jim Crow, maintaining a quietly stubborn sense of his own worth and that of his race. In tours of Europe, the Soviet Union, Africa, Latin America and the Far East, he served as an artistic ambassador for his country and a musical translator for those cultures when he came back home.

Although Ellington is best known for such jazz standards and popular tunes as "Satin Doll," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Solitude," "Caravan" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," he also wrote ballet and movie scores, sacred music, an opera and many orchestral pieces that some critics judge to be his most enduring legacy. He often composed collaboratively, especially with Billy Strayhorn, but Ellington's distinctive stamp makes his music unlike any other. He worked through the medium of his orchestra, using timbres, sonorities and tonal colors like an artist's palette. He played with compositional structure and elements, creating stunningly fresh collages out of old and borrowed material.

ELLINGTON'S MUSIC taps a vein of universal experience that includes pathos, sensuality, melancholy, joy, reverence and wonder. His creativity was fed by a deep connection with his racial, religious and cultural roots. Early in his career Ellington was fond of saying, "I don't write jazz. I write Negro folk music."

In his 1973 autobiography Ellington credited his mother--clearly the great love of his life--with teaching him about God and inspiring a deep confidence in God's love and guidance. Ellington grew up in Washington, D.C., then a Negro cultural center. As a child he was taken to 19th Street Baptist Church and John Wesley AME Zion Church. In adolescence he apparently strayed from the strict teachings and sedate ethos of these churches, but as a young man he read the entire Bible several times and began a study of black history and folk music. According to several accounts, he read the Bible and prayed regularly while on the road. Close associates knew of his unconventional habits and character flaws yet saw him as a religious man. He always wore a gold cross given to him by his sister Ruth. Artifacts catalogued in archives at the Smithsonian include Bibles, prayer books, Forward Day by Day publications and other religious reading material (all annotated and well marked), as well as rosary beads and crucifixes.

Ellington once wrote obliquely about himself and a "glimpse of God": There was a man who was blessed with the vision to see God. …

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