By Jake Lewis
Jazz has long been recognized as one of America’s truly original art forms. Combining Western European classical music, African culture and improvisational technique, jazz assembled an entirely new musical language. The progressive genre also played a major role in ushering in the civil rights era decades before it began to gain traction on a nationwide level. As jazz gained popularity outside of the African-American community, Black musicians were beginning to receive recognition as legitimate composers, with many going on to perform at some the world’s most legendary venues such as the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall.
One of the most iconic African-American musicians of the jazz era was Duke Ellington. He is widely considered one of the greatest jazz composers of all time. His work not only catapulted jazz into the mainstream, but also brought along with it an impassioned message of equality that helped fuel the civil rights movement. As we near the 60th anniversary of his visit to the University of Utah in 1961, it is important we look back on how far Black musicians have come and draw on the significance of the trail Ellington blazed for civil rights in America.
Born in Washington, D.C., into a burgeoning Black middle class at the turn of the 20th century, Ellington’s family tried to shield him from many of the hardships of segregation that plagued the nation’s capital. Duke developed a sense of racial pride and social justice, which he carried with him throughout his decades-long career.
Ellington first broke on to the scene at a previously White-only venue known as the Cotton Club in Harlem. Ellington and his all-Black band quickly gained notoriety as some of the best jazz musicians in New York. It wasn’t until his 1932 album, It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing, that Ellington began seeing worldwide praise. Despite all of his success, Duke and his band still faced roadblocks when it came to segregation, even after White band managers attempted to protect the band. Even in more progressive regions like the Northern and Western United States, Black musicians were victimized by unexpressed segregationist policies. While passing through on tour, Duke and his band were denied service at a cafe in a Salt Lake City hotel in 1940. (Scott and Brooks)
This encounter in Utah did not stop Ellington from making a return to Utah, however. In 1961, Duke and his band came to the University of Utah October 4, 1961, for a performance at the Union Ballroom. The concert is first advertised in the September 22, 1961, issue of the Daily Utah Chronicle, with subsequent advertisements following on September 29, October 3, and October 4, 1961. Tickets cost just $1.75-$2 for students to attend the event.
Deseret News Music Editor Harold Lundstrom attended the event and recalled the concert in his October 5, 1961, column. Lundstrom remarked that Ellington’s work was incredibly influential for many artists throughout the jazz world. “The longer I sat listening to Duke Ellington Wednesday evening in the spacious Union Building ballroom on the University of Utah campus, the more I realized the fact that more ideas have been borrowed from him by jazz composers, arrangers, and band leaders than any other figure in jazz history.”
The concert included more than a dozen of Ellington’s most accomplished works, such as “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and even his own rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.” Throughout the concert, Lundstrom noticed a theme in Ellington’s melodies. Although split up by breaks in-between songs, Lundstrom believed that Duke’s compositions were constructed collectively, an uncommon trait in the improvisational world of jazz.
Despite recognizing the melodic themes carefully laid out in Ellington’s compositions, Lundstrom briefly mentioned, but failed to grasp Duke’s message of the tribulations of an African-American man in segregated America. “Best of all, in this day, sans the “angry young Negro” all of Duke’s music ends on a note of hope!”’ remarks Lundstrom in his October 5 review.
It is unfortunate that Duke Ellington’s visit to the University of Utah did not receive the fanfare it would have today. It is, however a reflection of its time. A segregated America was unable to acknowledge Duke’s brilliance that a modern audience would surely appreciate today. Duke’s struggles helped pave the way for modern African-American artists to thrive today. Without Ellington and the jazz movement’s push for desegregation, it hard to imagine where we would be today.
Jake Lewis is a senior at the University of Utah. He is majoring in communication with an emphasis in journalism.
“Jazz Concert Set,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, September 22, 1961, 4.
“Duke Ellington Sets Jazz Concert Wednesday,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, September 29, 1961, 1.
“Jazz Duke Plays Peer Gynt in Royal Program for Utes,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, October 2, 1961, 1.
“Student Activities Add Spice to Campus,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, October 3, 1961, 3.
Harold Lundstrom, “The Duke and Improvisation,” The Deseret News, October 3, 1961, 15.
“Duke Ellington to Present Jazz Concert,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, October 4, 1961, 1.
Harold Lundstrom, “Sentimental Ellington Also Sophisticated,” The Deseret News, October 5, 1961, 48.
Scott, Michelle R. and Earl Brooks. “Duke Ellington’s melodies carried his message of social justice,” The Conversation, April 24, 2019.