Duke Ellington: Inventor of American Music

By: Dylan Rodgers

Next to a miniature concert grand piano, Duke Ellington stands immortalized in bronze in Frawley Circle.  This monument was the first in New York City to be built in honor of an African-American.  It was built in 1997 in a semi-circular plaza at the gateway to Harlem on 5th Avenue and 110th Street.  Towering above the public in Harlem, the place where he transformed the face of American music, Duke and his piano are supported by nine caryatid figures holding the immense weight of his legendary prowess.

Edward Kennedy Ellington composed over 3000 songs in his fifty year career.  He played over 20,000 performances in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia.  He became a worldwide legend in jazz where he consistently transcended the norm, pushed the envelope, and reinvented the structures and sounds associated with his genre of music.  Duke Ellington called his music "American Music" while beating a new path in musical history that cannot be categorized, only followed.


Duke Ellington received the President's Gold Medal in 1966 from Lyndon Johnson, the Medal of Freedom in 1969 from Nixon, 13 Grammy Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, and the French Legion of Honor in 1973.  His amazing career set the groundwork for jazz and all music that jazz inspired (rock, blues, alternative, modern classical, pop, and basically all others).  Duke drew his inspiration from his culture claiming that he, "[tried] to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people."

With Harlem as his muse, amongst other great musicians, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Duke Ellington transformed the face of music entirely.  With all this in perspective, it is hard to tell whether those nine caryatid statues on the Duke Ellington memorial are holding him up or keeping him from flying away.  As he had shown throughout his career, he cannot be kept within boundaries or categories.  Duke Ellington even transcended the boundaries of death as his work continues to inspires and live within all the music of the 21st century and well into the future.