The Harlem Renaissance has played a major influence on my personal style. It was first known as the “The New Negro Movement” and later referred to as the “Harlem Renaissance”. The cultural movement spanned from the late 1910’s to the 1930’s. During this time, Harlem became the epicenter for black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars. Many of them escaped the South’s oppressive caste system to freely express their creativity. During that time, men conveyed elegance and class on a consistent basis. They treated women with respect and the term “ratchet” was unfathomable. Several musicians made enormous contributions to the movement, such as Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and Willie “The Lion” Smith. However, in my humble opinion, Duke Ellington led the charge with his style and his musical talents.
Duke Ellington, whose real name was Edward Kennedy Ellington, was an American pianist, songwriter and conductor. He called his music “American Music” rather than jazz. He was born into a secure middle-class family in Washington, D.C. in 1899. His family encouraged his interests in the fine arts and as a result, he learned to play the piano at the tender age of seven. He continued on to study art in high-school and was awarded a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. However, he did not attend the institution. Instead, he began performing professionally at age 17 after being inspired by Ragtime performers.
In 1923, Ellington moved to New York City and performed in various Broadway nightclubs. He led a sextet (musical group of 6 members) that later grew into a 10-piece ensemble. And after extended residencies at the Cotton Club in Harlem, he increased his band to 14 musicians. His band was comprised of many influential jazz artists such as trumpeter Cootie Williams, cornetist Rex Stewart, trombonist Lawrence Brown, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. With these phenomenal musicians, Ellington recorded thousands of classics such as “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing”, “Mood Indigo”, and “Sophisticated Lady.” When asked what inspired him to write, Ellington replied, “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people”.
Ellington is a 13-time Grammy Award Winner and in 1966 he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Legion of Honor by France, and the Pulitzer Prize. He also has a United States Commemorative stamp with his image on it. Mr. Ellington brought a level of style and sophistication to the world of music that was never seen before and he continues to receive widespread recognition for his contributions.