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Duke Ellington, In Film and Onstage

Duke Ellington  

Duke Ellington possessed an uncanny ability to convey different moods with his music and tell a story in sound. In film and theater work, Ellington found yet another arena in which to showcase and develop this ability, to the delight of audiences.

Hear about Duke Ellington's theatrical leanings
(Voices of biographer John Edward Hasse, singer Joya Sherrill, granddaughter Mercedes Ellington, bandleader David Baker)

Ellington first demonstrated his ability to write music for the theater in 1924, when he co-wrote a successful, all-black musical revue called Chocolate Kiddies, starring legendary actress Josephine Baker.

Beginning in 1927, Dukeís three-year engagement as house bandleader at Harlemís famous Cotton Club further whetted his appetite for writing show music. Surrounded by glamorous entertainers, he was called upon to support such acts with a wide variety of musical settings, delivering outstanding results.

Meanwhile, technological innovations were beginning to allow for better sound recording. Hasse describes Duke's early mastery of the electronic microphone, which better captured his bandís exquisite sound. In addition, Ellington and his band had the right looks for presentation on screen.


Duke was handsome, elegant, well-mannered, and well-spoken, plus he made a point to present his band members in top form. Moreover, his broad appeal transcended racial barriers. As a result, in 1929, Ellington landed a role in a high-profile short film drama titled Black and Tan.

Ellington soon became popular around the Hollywood studios, making several more film shorts. In 1930, he was asked to appear with his orchestra in an Amos and Andy comedy film, Check and Double Check. Amos and Andy were black characters portrayed by white actors in blackface.

While such racial indignities were tolerated in this era, Ellington's portrayal on the screen actually had a reverse effect. He exhibited a level of dignity, grace and style that shattered the stereotypes so prevalent in show business at the time.

Later, Ellington made much bolder statements with his scores for the 1935 film Symphony in Black and the 1941 stage musical Jump for Joy. These works celebrated the beauty and struggles of Duke's racial heritage and told a sympathetic story about African-American life.

Symphony in Black featured the Ellington orchestra; biographer John Hasse notes "it was the first time a motion picture sought to integrate music with screenplay completely."

Ellington intended Jump for Joy for Broadway, a goal that was denied despite a successful run in Los Angeles and rave reviews. While yielding eventual hits like "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," the musical was politically controversial in its presentation of African-Americans and boldly defiant of commonly held stereotypes. Meanwhile, the difficult economics of getting a musical on Broadway further exacerbated Ellington's problems in breaking into this scene.


In 1957, Ellington wrote, presented and narrated an hour-long musical dance suite for television titled A Drum is A Woman. The work tells the history of jazz, from it's African roots to America and starred actress Carmen Delavallade (left).

Listen to Carmen Delavallade on A Drum is A Woman

In the late 1950s, Duke found himself in demand in Hollywood again. He composed a groundbreaking score for Otto Premingerís film Anatomy of a Murder. According to trumpeter Terence Blanchard, "Itís one of those film themes that has changed the course of film scoring." Jazz critic Tom Piazza called the score, "the closest thing we have to a vernacular American symphony."

Ellington revisited important themes of his racial heritage on stage in 1963 with My People, an ambitious statement about the African-American experience. Though applauded by many, the show had critics who felt Ellington's treatment of racial issues was too subtle.

Listen to bandleader David Baker discuss My People

While acknowledging the brilliance in the individual components of Ellington's film scores, Baker notes that Ellington did not commit the time necessary to develop his full potential with this form. Despite his groundbreaking achievements for both film and stage, Ellington spread his time and resources very thin.

Duke toured with his band constantly from 1931 until his death in 1974, and consistently wrote innovative material for these performances. But Ellington's efforts for film and the stage were integral to his unrelenting pursuit of musical innovation and they remain vital elements in his tremendous legacy as a composer.

Web Resources

More InfoThe Official Duke Ellington Web Site