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A Tribute to Duke Ellington

Posted April 10, 2024

April is Jazz Appreciation Month and this year, April 29 marks Duke Ellington’s 125th birthday. AILEY tips its hat to the jazz legend and recognizes the enduring impression he left on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American music and art.

In 1970, when Alvin Ailey was in Toronto with Duke Ellington to work on The River, a ballet for American Ballet Theatre, Mr. Ellington used to go to Mr. Ailey’s hotel room at four in the morning, knock on the door, and say, “Are you ready to work?” and he was always ready.

Nat Orr and Elbert Watson in Alvin Ailey’s The River. Photo by Haruhisa Yamaguchi.

Nat Orr and Elbert Watson in Alvin Ailey’s The River. Photo by Haruhisa Yamaguchi.

Since he was a teenager, Mr. Ailey had admired the composer’s work. He was living in Los Angeles with his mother when he first saw Duke Ellington and his band live. "I used to see this amazing-looking man in a white suit with slicked-back hair sitting at a white piano,” he remembered from watching them play at the Orpheum, the Lincoln Theater, and Hotel Dunbar. “That was when I began to worship him from afar.”

Fatefully, the two properly crossed paths the year that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was born. Following the success of the Company’s first concert in March 1958, Mr. Ailey presented a second concert featuring Blues Suite on December 21. Duke Ellington was seated in the audience, and admired Mr. Ailey’s work so much he began visiting the Company in rehearsals.

In 1963, Mr. Ellington invited Mr. Ailey, his company of dancers, and Talley Beatty, to contribute to his work My People. The score was a centennial celebration marking the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. When he saw Mr. Ellington become overwhelmed by the responsibilities of directing such a large production, Mr. Ailey stepped in to assist.

After he saw that I had some talent for staging, he let me help him in any way I saw fit,” Mr. Ailey wrote. "Duke and I got to be rather friendly."

Mr. Ailey frequently used Mr. Ellington’s music for his ballets, as he did for First Negro Centennial (1963) and Reflections In D (1963). However, The River (1970) was the first time Mr. Ellington created a composition specifically as a ballet score. The two worked together closely—those 4am sessions a regular occurrence. Mr. Ellington sent snatches of the score four bars at a time, a difficult challenge for the choreographer who felt he couldn’t create with incomplete music. Mr. Ellington told Mr. Ailey, “If you stopped worrying about the music and started worrying about the choreography, you’d be better off.” They pushed and pulled each other, but the final work was as assured as anything either of them had created.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s 'The River'. Photo by Johan Elbers.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s The River. Photo by Johan Elbers

The impression Mr. Ellington left on Mr. Ailey as an art-eager teenager lasted the rest of their lives. Making it his life’s missions to pay back his idol with recognition, Mr. Ailey organized two massive tributes to the jazz legend in the 1970s: the first was a CBS special called “Ailey Celebrates Ellington,” hosted by Gladys Knight, and the second was at Lincoln Center for which he commissioned choreographers to make new works to Mr. Ellington's music. Two new ballets came out of the CBS special—The Mooche (1975) and Night Creature (1975)—while the centerpiece of the Lincoln Center festival was Pas de Duke, a duet between Judith Jamison and Mikael Baryshnikov, all of which have become Company favorites. Sadly, Mr. Ellington died before he could see either of these tributes.

I just wish I could have done the festivals while he was still alive. As giants go, Duke Ellington was one of the largest and grandest of them all,” said Mr. Ailey.

Many artists have been indebted to Mr. Ellington’s pioneering artistry, and his insistence that jazz hold its rightful place among the highest forms of American art. Mr. Ailey especially recognized the debt owed his mentor. “I’d like to build a statue of him,” Mr. Ailey once told the New York Times, “standing on the Palisades over in New Jersey, with his head thrown back the way it was, his hands on his hips, looking over at the part of the city he loved best.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s 'Night Creature'. Photo by Johan Elbers.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s Night Creature. Photo by Johan Elbers

Explore some of the ballets from the Company's repertory featuring Duke Ellington's music, including:

Night Creature

The River

The Mooche

Pas de Duke