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World honors Ellington's 100th year

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Soon after the appearance of the Rusty Saber column about the resurgence of swing music and dancing, news began to filter out about the planned celebration of Duke Ellington's 100th birthday. A grand thing to celebrate!

Although I don't really think of Duke Ellington as a "swing musician," he is certainly associated with swing because he led a big band during the Swing Era. I think of him as a gifted jazz composer, conductor and performer. As a lifetime jazz enthusiast, I think of him as perhaps the finest musical talent (not just jazz) of the century.

Ellington was much more than the leader of a swing band during the golden time of the big bands. His music legacy demonstrates what I have known to be true for many years: Jazz is a uniquely American art form. It is America's classical music, and Duke Ellington is its Mozart.

Indicative of his impact on 20th century music not just American music, Ellington is a world music icon is the fact that his 100th birthday, April 29, was recognized around the world, and a number of events will take place during the remainder of the year. I wonder if there is any musical talent today whose birthday will be celebrated 100 years from now?

For instance, will the multi-talented Marilyn Manson be so remembered? (Multi-talented in that he appears to be able make screeching and grunting noises with his singing voice, and walk at the same time.) I don't think so.

In fact, I can think of no present musical talent whose work will be celebrated 100 years from now. Elvis Presley? Although not a current talent, his name is the only one that comes to mind. I'm doubtful. If generations to come are like the present one and presume that history didn't exist before them, then even the "King" might rate only a cursory "Elvis who?" on the centennial of his birth.

But not so Duke Ellington. His talent and influence was too great to be ignored at the end of the century he owned.

Duke Ellington headed up a band for 50 years, during which many of the giants of jazz, true legends, performed as sidemen. A musical genius, Ellington attracted the most artistically gifted musicians and arrangers of the time. More than 2,000 original compositions by Ellington and band members were performed during the band's lifetime.

Those who have recently "discovered" Ellington through the swing resurgence probably are unaware of the depth of his talent. Oh, sure, most everyone is familiar with mega-hits "Take the A Train," "Solitude," "Sophisticated Lady" and many, many more. But Ellington took jazz into rarely charted waters with classically based works such as "Black, Brown and Beige," "A Drum is a Woman" and "Far East Suite."

Like composer George Gershwin, jazz musicians Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck and symphony conductor and pianist Andre Previn (a bit of trivia: for a time in the 1950s, the Andre Previn Trio's album of songs from "My Fair Lady" was at the time the best selling jazz album ever), Duke Ellington drew jazz and classical music together where they belong.

How important was Ellington? USA Today quotes author and long-time Ellington friend, Albert Murray, as saying, "When he went to England in 1933, they were calling him the first real American composer." (1933 was a long time before the arrival of the Swing Era.)

"The greatest all-around musician this country has produced," said John Hasse, author of a Smithsonian Institute Ellington biography.

Way back when I became a jazz fan, it was Duke Ellington who confirmed that I had been won over to an artful, sophisticated music, one that would hold me fast for more years than I care to admit.

A number of special edition Ellington CDs have been or will be issued, including the largest set ever, 24 CDs, made up of only his RCA recordings. He recorded for several other record companies. Can you say prolific?

Bradford Marsalis, jazz and classical trumpet player and director of jazz for the Lincoln Center, has dedicated the entire 1999 Lincoln Center concert season to a Duke Ellington salute. An honorary Pulitzer Prize is to be awarded, albeit 25 years after his death 25 years too late.

Duke, I know you're up there performing heavenly concerts in the sky. As they say, you da man, Duke. Happy 100th.

(Joe McAdoo is former chairman of the communication department at Drury College and a Springfield public relations consultant.)

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