Friday, January 13, 2012

All That Jazz: Sir Duke

Stevie Wonder: Sir Duke


Those of us living in and around Washington, D.C., have many reminders that this is Duke Ellington's home town. There's a Duke Ellington Bridge, leading into the hipster Adams Morgan area. The Duke Ellington School for Arts serves as the city's performing arts high school. Until recently, D.C.'s premiere jazz festival bore Ellington's name. Venues like the Lincoln Theater and the Bohemian Caverns boast "Duke Ellington played here" credentials. A larger-than-life mural of Ellington looks out onto the Shaw neighborhood. Ellington even appears on the back of D.C.'s "state" quarter, issued in 2009 (making him the first African-American honored by name on U.S. money).

Yet one of the most enduring tributes to Ellington isn't found in the city in which he was born. It's in the grooves of a hit record by Stevie Wonder, "Sir Duke." Released in 1977, three years after Ellington's death, the song became one of Wonder's biggest chart successes. Besides mentioning Ellington, "Sir Duke" also name checks Count Basie, Louis Armstrong ("Satchmo"), Ella Fitzgerald and Glenn Miller. The sound of "Sir Duke" doesn't necessarily remind you of Ellington; indeed, the horns that dominate the arrangement are reminiscent of Miller's stylings. But, it's clear from the song's title and the lyrics that Wonder considers Ellington to be "the king of all." "I knew the title from the beginning," Wonder said of the song, during a Billboard symposium in 1977. "[I] wanted it to be about musicians who did something for us. So soon they are forgotten." Wonder said he just wanted to show his appreciation -- and, well, you can feel it all over.

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