Jazz icon battled records companies during his life, but his works are more popular than ever today

By David Hajdu
Updated May 31, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

With rock & roll replacing the swingin’ sound on the pop charts in the early ’60s, Columbia Records canceled Duke Ellington’s recording contract. One of the company’s executives broke the news bluntly with words that, in retrospect, seem ironic: ”You’re just not selling records.”

”I’m puzzled,” said Ellington. ”I thought you were supposed to sell records and I was supposed to make music.”

That he did — from the 1920s, for more than half a century, obsessively driven by an inexhaustible muse that stopped for no trend. The creator of more than 3,000 musical works, Ellington composed or co-composed film scores (Anatomy of a Murder), Broadway musicals (Beggar’s Holiday), ballet scores (The River), and concert pieces both for his own ensemble and symphonies (New World A-Comin’), as well as dozens of hit songs (”Mood Indigo,” ”Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”). All the while, he maintained his own orchestra of virtuosos and a ludicrously grueling 12-month-a-year touring schedule. If you went to his 1974 spring show at the Multi-Purpose Building in Rolla, Mo., you saw Ellington make one of his last appearances, eight weeks before he died on May 24 of lung cancer at age 75.

Since his death, however, the music Ellington made has prevailed over all the record-company types he suffered in his time. Today, not only is he regarded as one of the century’s most original composers, but he is moving more product than ever before. There are now more than 1,500 CD releases bearing his name in print, the largest catalog in jazz and one of the largest in any genre. Meanwhile, ensembles such as the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra are now performing Ellington’s work with all the reverence traditionally granted the classical canon.

He would have reveled in it. Raised in a middle-class black section of Washington, D.C., Edward Kennedy Ellington earned his lifelong nickname as a young boy, through his practiced air of privilege. ”The old man always thought of himself as a real aristocrat — he valued respect above all else and worked his whole life for it,” said Ellington’s son, Mercer, who took over his father’s orchestra in 1974. (Mercer himself died at the age of 76 earlier this year, leaving the orchestra in the hands of his daughter Mercedes.) ”He’s what jazz is,” says trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis, who’s carrying on the Ellington tradition for the ’90s. ”His music sounds like America.”