Ellington’s afro-modernist vision in the 1920s

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


If, as an older man, Ellington placed high value on music "beyond category," then his first decade in New York proved the musical and social value of that notion and established career patterns that extended to the end of his life. The categories that both challenged and spurred Ellington were jazz and race. By 1930, he had made the first in a series of claims about striving to develop a new kind of race music. "I am not playing jazz," he said, "I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people." In the later 1930s he noted that his aim had "always" been to develop "an authentic Negro music." He insisted that he did not play jazz because when he began his career, he recalled, "jazz was a stunt." Such insistence served as an antidote to persistent stereotypes about both jazz and African Americans, and the further we get from its original context, and the more the discourse about jazz (from textbooks to television documentaries) treats Ellington's music as jazz, the more difficult it becomes to fully engage with Ellington's stated vision. By saying he wanted to cultivate a kind of music that was more than jazz, "more than the 'American idiom'," and "definitely and purely racial," Ellington articulated a broad vision that implicitly defied the narrow frames of the era's racial discourse. As a musician who strove both to develop the idioms associated with African Americans, especially the blues, and to cultivate a sophisticated, cosmopolitan artistic persona, Ellington was an early exemplar of Afro-Modernism and the New Negro project of redefining the black experience in American life, as a southern and largely rural population migrated en masse to the urban north. And beginning in the 1920s, Ellington proved again and again that he could at once fulfill and foil the expectations that audiences placed on black musicians.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781139021357
ISBN (Print)9780521881197
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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