The Magazine


The Centennial of a Great American Composer, Jazz Musician, and Businessman

May 3, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 31 • By ERIC FELTEN
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There is something peculiarly American about Ellington. His music was rooted in popular culture and practiced at the dangerous intersection of art and commerce. But rather than forcing Ellington to sell out, the demands of the marketplace kept him from wasting much time down blind alleys. That's one reason Ellington's high ambitions didn't lead him into the "mathematical" compositions that laid waste to a generation of serious composers. It's also a reason he avoided the lazy, snide impulse of modern art (supported by university or government subsidies) to ignore or insult its audience.

The entrepreneurial Ellington had to appeal to his audiences and did so enthusiastically. There was nothing insincere when he would shout at the crowd, as he always did: "Love you madly!" And one expression of loving them madly was not playing down to them but raising them up to an appreciation of some of the finest and most complicated American music ever made.

Fletcher Henderson didn't have what it took to compete in the brutal band economy, but Ellington embraced the fact that his music had to be made within the business of music. "Competition," he told jazz historian George Simon, "only makes you play better."