I’m not on Facebook very often, but was responding to a friend’s list of his 10 favorite albums and wrote “Duke Ellington is my hero.”
Well. Ellington has been my hero for a long time, even though for much of that time I’m not sure I had a good bead on what having a hero meant. I can remember being faintly embarrassed during a job interview many years ago when I volunteered Ellington was my hero, not so much for it being Ellington as for the fact that I had a hero at all – shouldn’t you outgrow such things?
Duke Ellington is my hero exactly because I can’t outgrow him. My parents bought me his “Music Is My Mistress” when I was 17 or 18, and even though I knew almost nothing about his music, I knew I was in the presence of the kind of adult I wanted to be, someone who had an authority about what he did, how he carried himself. That I have not been like that at all doesn’t diminish my admiration for Ellington (or Bruce Springsteen, who is rock’s equivalent band leader, I think) in the slightest.
And that’s the thing: yes, Duke Ellington wrote the largest amount of the greatest music of the 20th century, but even more important to me, he kept a band together. For decades, and for the singular purpose of being able to hear what he wrote. Ellington compromised when he had to (and he genuinely loved to entertain, a trait that is undervalued), he played the hits, he stayed out on the road well past the age when a sensible man would have pulled back. But he never stopped, and he was always working on the next project.
Ellington was not perfect; he was vain, and had weaknesses as a band leader – the world famous orchestra was less a tight ship than a loosely knit (sometimes barely held together) collection of prima donnas who were not, to be charitable, disciplined in any way other than the music they made. He was a human, just like the rest of us, which makes what he achieved all the more remarkable. (There’s a lot to read about Ellington right now: a new, warts and all biography by Terry Teachout I haven’t started yet but which looks good; a great, deep dive by Ethan Iverson; Harvey Cohen’s 2010 biography/social history, which some people didn’t like but I find engrossing.)