Duke Ellington was a pioneer of ‘protest’ music

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C. Raised by parents who were both talented musicians, Ellington became totally engrossed in music at an early age. Due to his parents’ success, Ellington grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood and began studying music and piano at the age of seven. He was nicknamed “Duke” because of his “gentlemanly ways” when he performed. At the age of 15, Ellington wrote his first composition titled Soda Fountain Rag while working as a soda jerk. His natural talent was obvious, and he was offered a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York, which he declined. Instead, Ellington followed his passion for ragtime and began playing professionally at the age of 17.

In the 1920s, Ellington began performing in Broadway nightclubs as the bandleader of a sextet, which eventually grew to a ten piece ensemble. He sought out musicians with unique playing styles, such as Bubber Miley, (who is famous for using a plunger to make the “wah-wah” sound) and Joe Nanton, who first introduced the trombone “growl.” Ellington made hundreds of recordings with his bands, appeared in films, and toured Europe on two occasions in the 1930s.

Ellington’s fame rose significantly in the 1940s when he composed various masterworks, including Concerto for Cootie, KoKo and Cotton Tail. It was Ellington’s “sense of musical drama” that made him stand out. His “blend of melodies, rhythms and subtle sonic movements gave audiences a new experience — complex yet accessible jazz that made the heart swing.”

In the early 1960s, Ellington embraced recording with artists who had been friendly rivals in the past, or were younger musicians who focused on later styles. The Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras recorded together with the album First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (1961). During a period when Ellington was between recording contracts, he made records with Louis ArmstrongColeman HawkinsJohn Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Max Roach, which produced the Money Jungle (United Artists) album. Duke turned 65 in the spring of 1964, but showed no signs of slowing down as he continued to make vital and innovative recordings, including The Far East Suite (1966), New Orleans Suite (1970) and Latin American Suite (1972), much of it inspired by his world tours. Ellington performed what is considered his final full concert in a ballroom at Northern Illinois University on March 20, 1974.

Reminiscing in Tempo (1935)

The song Reminiscing in Tempo is a sober recording about the loss of Ellington’s mother in 1935. She was 56 years old, and her death had a profound effect on Ellington and his musical style. A few months after her death, upon riding with his band on a train through the South, Ellington began to write what would emerge as a “musical memorial” in Reminiscing in Tempo. Ellington described in an interview that the song was meant to be a “detailed account of my aloneness after losing my mother… Every page of that manuscript was dotted with smears and unshapely marks caused by tears that had fallen.”

Eddie Lambert, a scholar who focuses on Ellington’s musical career, contends that “the design of the piece is based on constant variation and development of the main material and of supplementary motifs. Emotionally, the music gradually clouds over, sinking deeper into darkness and despair, and then works through to a final section which allows a brighter, more optimistic conclusion … Ellington’s use of the band is tightly controlled and the soloists are used solely for contrasts of color, texture, and phrasing… It is impossible to find in all of Ellington’s vast output a work where he more consciously uses the orchestra as a medium of his own personal expression.”

Come Sunday (1943)

Duke Ellington and his orchestra debuted Come Sunday at their first Carnegie Hall concert on Jan. 23, 1943. An excerpt from the original suite, the song strongly evokes Black spirituality, both musically and emotionally. At its 1943 premiere, a violin and an alto-saxophone presented the supremely tender melody (one in a highly embellished version, the other straightforward). Extracted from the suite, however, Come Sunday quickly became a jazz standard that any instrumental configuration could tackle.

While the song has an evident gospel feel (and is described as a hymn), its lyrics symbolize the struggle that Black Americans faced at the time. Jim Crow laws and segregation were at the forefront of American domestic policies, and the lyrics represent Ellington’s desire for his people to keep believing that change would come.

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty,
God of love, please look down and see my people through.I believe God is now, was then and always will be.
With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.

Ultimately, Come Sunday is a song for the people, and can be easily adapted to symbolize various social, emotional, or psychological issues. The song has been covered by many artists, including Mahalia Jackson.

Black, Brown and Beige (1943)

Perhaps one of Ellington’s most poignant protest songs is Black, Brown, and Beige, which also made its debut at the first Carnegie Hall concert in 1943. It represents three distinct parts of Black American history and the struggle of his people in an overtly racist and discriminatory society. In his autobiography, for example, Ellington maintains: “Black, Brown, and Beige was planned as a tone parallel to the history of the American Negro, and the first section, Black, delved deeply into the Negro past. In it, I was concerned to show the close relationship between work songs and spirituals. Work Song, used in many forms, recognized that a work song was sung as you worked, so that there was a place for the song and a place where you grunt.

“The second section, Brown, recognized the contribution made by the Negro to this country in blood. We began with the heroes of the Revolutionary War, the first of three dances, West Indian Dance, being dedicated to the valorous deeds of the seven hundred free Haitians of the famed Fontages Legion who came to aid the Americans at the siege of Savannah.”

The third movement, Beige, portrays African Americans from the end of the First World War until the time that the piece was composed: the middle of the Second World War. It starts with a raucous intensity that reflects the boisterous spirit of the 1920s. In Ellington’s words, the music represents “the common view of the people of Harlem, and the little Harlems around the U.S.A., as just singing, dancing, and responding to the tom-toms.”


Biography.com Editors. “Duke Ellington: 1899-1974” Biography.com. April 2, 2014, https://www.biography.com/musician/duke-ellington

Sawyer Theriault. “Duke Ellington’s Jazz Narrative of the African American: Black, Brown, and Beige” Inquiries. 2011, Vol. 3, No. 6, http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/547/duke-ellingtons-jazz-narrative-of-the-african-american-black-brown-and-beige