Taking the A train – Duke Ellington

It has been difficult to complete this post today. Following the death of Prince Rogers Nelson overnight, News services have stated that:

 “Prince stands on a par with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis as authentic geniuses in music”

 Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington died in May 1974, at the age of 75, of lung cancer and pneumonia. More than 12,000 people attended his funeral.

Born and raised in Washington DC Duke was based in New York City from the mid-1920s onward, leading a sextet that grew in time into a 10-piece ensemble. Extended residencies at the Cotton Club in Harlem lead to Duke enlarging his band to 14 musicians and to expand his compositional scope. Duke made hundreds of recordings, appeared in films and on radio, and toured Europe.

Some of the members of Duke’s orchestra are considered to be among the best players in jazz. The Duke Ellington Jazz Orchestra is the best-known orchestral unit in the history of jazz. Some of the members remained with the orchestra for several decades. Duke’s inventive use of the orchestra, his eloquence and charm, elevated the perception of jazz. This continued after his death, leading to the award of a special Pulitzer Prize for music in 1999.

Duke wrote more than one thousand compositions often collaborating with others. In a career that lasted over 50 years many of his works are considered Jazz standards. “Caravan,” (which was central in the Movie whiplash) “Take the A Train” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)” have produced millions of dollars in revenue over the years. Duke referred to his music as American Music rather than be pigeonholed by the genre of Jazz.

Duke’s heirs sold the American rights to his compositions in the 1980s.

The appeal of his Jazz Orchestra waned following the Second World War and Duke struggled financially. However an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, in 1956, led to a major career revival and further world tours. Duke continued to perform with the orchestra until his death.

His only son Mercer said that when he died Duke was broke

“All Pop left me were Harry Carney, Cootie Williams and a few scraps of paper,”

referring to two of the famous musicians who had been in the band since the 1920’s. However this wasn’t quite true as his estate was valued at $200,000 (excluding royalties, copyrights and manuscripts) when the Courts granted administration to Mercer

At the time of his death many of Duke’s compositions had deteriorated over the years, the musical arrangements surviving only in the memory of the Orchestra’s musicians.Mercer took over as musical director of the Orchestra, however as the older players left the band the character Duke had invested the band quickly dropped away.

Duke’s estate continues to earn money through song royalties, music publishing rights and licensing fees. Duke left a rich legacy of his own classic compositions as well as the Duke Ellington Orchestra

However  Duke’s estate has been involved in a number of disputes famously with  the estate of his long term collaborator Billy Strayhorn, about the ownership of compositions and the distribution of royalty payments; More recently Duke’s estate lost an appeal against EMI Music Publishing, regarding a royalty split agreement.

Duke Ellington left an artistic legacy that is matched by few others. In not leaving a Will he wasn’t able to direct his estate in the way that he wished.

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