Issue Number 25: Leadership and Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899 – 1974) was an American composer, pianist and orchestra leader. The son of a White House butler, he dropped out of high school to pursue a career in music and became perhaps the most important composer in the history of jazz.

His music stretched beyond jazz to blues, gospel, popular and classical. His career spanned fifty years and included not only leading his orchestra, but also composing an enormous songbook, writing movie scores, and making several world tours. He is generally considered to have raised jazz to the level of classical music. Duke Ellington called his music “American Music.” His orchestra included some of best musicians of the time, and many of them stayed with him for decades.

One of the things that made Ellington such a great leader was that he often composed music specifically for the style and skills of his musicians, such as “Jeep’s Blues” for Johnny Hodges (alto saxophone), “Concerto for Cootie” for Cootie Williams (trumpet), and “The Mooche” for Tricky Sam Nanton (trombone) and Bubber Miley (trumpet and cornet). He also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, such as “Caravan” and “Perdido” by Juan Tizol (trombone). During a time when it was common for orchestras to stay together for only a few years, Ellington led his orchestra for over fifty years, from 1923 until his death in 1974.

Being a musician myself, or at least an aspiring one, I have a particular appreciation for Ellington’s generosity. He could have written music any way he wanted, but he wrote music that featured the musicians in his orchestra – their strengths, their preferred methods of playing and the way they made decisions about the music they played.

Recast in leadership terms, Ellington delegated work to his staff based on what he knew about them. His conversations with the members of his orchestra consisted of beats and measures while ours consist of verbs and nouns, but they were conversations nonetheless. The result was a body of musical literature that is still being studied and appreciated.


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