May 24: Duke Ellington Passed Away on This Day in 1974

0 Posted by - May 24, 2021 - Gone But Not Forgotten, On This Date

Photo credits: Gordon Parks/The Library of Congress

*Previously published by Joyce Jones, c/o BET

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, (pictured far right) the recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and several other honors, died on May 24, 1974, in New York City.

Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, to musician parents. He composed his first piece of music, “Soda Fountain Rag,” at age 15, based on his job as a soda jerk. At age 17, he passed up an art scholarship to study at the Pratt Institute in New York to become a professional musician (Jones, 2014).

Some of his most memorable compositions include “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” and “Sophisticated Lady.” In addition to making hundreds of recordings and music created for a broad range of settings, from the cathedral to the stage, he appeared on radio and in film.

More than 12,000 people attended Ellington’s funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It was a very sad day (Jones, 2014). However, a silver lining one could be observed on the day when this truly legendary man would be buried at last; legions of people had their lives touched positively by “the Ambassador of Jazz.”

“A genius has passed,” noted Ella Fitzgerald, one of Ellington’s fellow black musicians who came to pay their last respects.

Reportedly, the last words Ellington famously said were, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”

References: Jones, J. (2014 May 24) This Day in Black History: May 24, 1974. The BET Network.

* writer/historian Victor Trammell edited and contributed to this report.

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