Two of my musical inspirations are Duke Ellington and of course, Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson would be an obvious inspiration for any 80’s baby and Duke Ellington is an obvious inspiration for any student of jazz. I admire their musical innovation and influence on popular music, but my admiration goes deeper.
Duke Ellington and Michael Jackson were two African-American artists that were so excellent in their craft that they helped to redefine what it means to be “black” in a culture where being “black” meant something derogatory and marginalized in the majority of society.
Duke Ellington is truly the King of Swing Jazz music. Benny Goodman was branded with the title, “King of Swing”, but Goodman himself admitted that he could not light a match to Duke and the other black jazz musicians that would hang out in Harlem, NY. As a matter of fact, Benny Goodman and his band members would go to Harlem after their gigs to learn how to play jazz at the jam sessions with black musicians. He and his band had a lot to risk with their reputation back then by seeing black people as equals and in certain areas superior.
During that era, Duke Ellington’s sophisticated music was called, “Jungle Music”. What a derogatory term to one of America’s greatest composers?
Ellington was aware of the racism and aware that he was not getting the respect that he deserved as the great artist he was. He had to sleep on the bus (not the hotel) and go to the bathroom on the side of the road when he was on tour. Instead of turning bitter, he used his injustice as a motivation to do something greater.
During that time, the music industry tried their best to marginalize black musical artists by promoting them as uneducated, untamed, jungle like entertainers. Duke Ellington got his nickname, “Duke” because of his regality. Part of Duke’s motivation to carry himself in a regal manner was to redefine to the ignorant, what “being black meant”.
To be “black” has always been something of dignity and honor to black people in America, even when there was a lot of rebranding to define black as something dishonorable.
The longevity of Duke’s character paved the way for other black intellectual musicians and artists.
By the time Michael Jackson came along, our country matured to the point where it wasn’t okay to call black music, “jungle music”, but it was unimaginable for a black artists to get world wide super star status similar to The Beatles.
During Michael Jackson’s peak, he added another definition of what it means to be black and the abilities that black people can achieve. Now we live in an error where a musical superstar can be any race or ethnicity. Thanks to these two men and others.
I’m sure that you all have seen plenty of Michael Jackson videos. Here is a video of a Duke Ellington composition.