A few years ago, Zachary Woolfe, a New York Times critic and editor, posed a question: What are the five minutes or so that you would play for a friend to convince them to fall in love with classical music? How about Mozart? Or the violin? Or operates?
Over the course of more than 25 entries, dozens of writers, musicians, critics, scholars and other music lovers attempted to answer, sharing their passions with readers and one another.
Now, we’re shifting the focus to jazz — and what better place to start than with Duke Ellington? A nonpareil composer, pianist and bandleader, he arrived in New York from Washington, DC, just as the Harlem Renaissance was getting underway; soon, the Duke Ellington Orchestra had become the soundtrack to an epoch. He grew to be a Black American icon on the national stage, and then an ambassador for the best of American culture around the world. Jazz’s status as a global music has a lot to do with Ellington: specifically, his skill as a leader, collaborator and spokesman, who rarely failed to remind his audience of him, “We love you madly.”
Here are 13 tracks that we think will make you love Ellington. Enjoy the listening, and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.
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Darcy James Argue, bandleader
An underappreciated part of Ellington’s artistry is his mastery of misdirection. You think you know where the music’s going … then you blink and realize Duke’s taken you on a wild detour. This sleight-of-hand animates the A-side of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” Ellington’s 1937 inverted arch-form masterpiece. It’s a blues; what could be more straightforward? But Ellington bobs and weaves, stretching out chords and turnarounds, twists the 12-bar form back on itself like an ouroboros, and careens through a dizzying set of modulations: five keys in under three minutes! But the journey isn’t just loud to soft — it’s discombobulation to clarity. The ’56 live version from Newport is legendary for the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’s immortal 27-chorus “wailing interval,” but it’s “Diminuendo” that sets the stage.
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Ayana Contreras, critic
Mahalia Jackson’s resonant yet winged vocals float masterfully across the expressive string and horn arrangement of “Come Sunday,” Ellington’s ode to the singular day that Black workers historically, clad in Sunday best, could shed the sweat and grit of labor: emerging as glistening butterflies , gathered to praise the Lord. According to Irving Townsend’s 1958 liner notes for “Black, Brown and Beige,” the album it’s taken from, Jackson “hums an extra chorus as if she were aware of the power of her performance de ella and wanted to let it linger a moment more .” Of course she knew. “Come Sunday” communicates with crystal clarity Ellington’s admiration for laborers and his elegant insistence on unconditional respect.
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
Here’s Johnny Hodges, delivering four minutes of the most seraphic alto saxophone playing to be found on record, on this chestnut from Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite.” That title is more or less a misnomer: Almost every piece in the suite has a Middle Eastern inspiration. And Strayhorn — Ellington’s composing and arranging partner of over 25 years — actually wrote “Isfahan” before their visit to that Iranian city in 1963. (Its original title was “Elf.”) This is one of Strayhorn’s classic cascading melodies, and the arrangement is Ellingtonian balladry at an apex, with its luxuriously dragged tempo and drumlike dabs of trombone harmony. As usual, it’s a featured band member that really makes the recording — this time, Hodges, cradling each note between his teeth from him, firm but not too tight, smearing and giving them all kinds of feeling without muddying or obscuring a thing. It’s a standard, but when’s the last time you heard a pianist cover this tune? That’s Hodges’s doing.
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Billy Childs, pianist
I cannot listen to the first 50 seconds of the opening credits to “Anatomy of a Murder” without seeing shapes: Cubist shapes like a Picasso painting, with fragmented shards of sound from the different sections of the band, punctuated by the pointillistic drum pattern. From the opening “wah” of the cupped trombone, through the white-hot trumpet bursts, to the saxophone mini-cadenza, this piece grips me like a vise. The main body of the tune, a gutbucket blues passacaglia over which trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and piano solo, conjures in my mind a sublime sense of foreboding which perfectly sets up the mood for the entire movie.
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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer
Duke Ellington always had this way of pulling strong emotions from the keys of his piano. On the 1962 version of “Solitude,” featuring the bassist Charles Mingus and the drummer Max Roach, Ellington properly evokes the feeling of isolation through sullen, spacious chords reflecting dark and light textures. Where the 1934 original elicited a certain optimism, this one, from the album “Money Jungle,” sounds gloomier — headphone music made for inclement weather. By the time Mingus and Roach arise near the song’s back end, Ellington has locked into the upper register of his solo, shifting the sound from ambient to a bluesy number with light drum brushes and subtle bass. It was a grand victory lap for one of jazz music’s pioneers.
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Harmony Holiday, poet
Mingus and Roach accompanied Ellington on the first recording of “Fleurette Africaine,” for “Money Jungle.” Left alone with his reflection of him in this solo version, Duke’s sway and almost-smile conjure longing and remembrance. He plays with the ghosts of his friends from him and spares them blunt nostalgia. He hesitates as if approaching a sacred altar of sound, and then surrenders to his solitude from him, allowing himself to be haunted by their absence from him but not diminished by it. This version is more jagged than the original, as Ellington confronts the missing tones by blurring them with his own. For a man who spent so many years maintaining a large orchestra that could play back the tones he heard in his head from him, Ellington seems to find the most solace alone. It’s as if all of that time spent in public was in pursuit of this isolated spiral, either as a soloist or with the phantoms of a couple of friends in a garden he invented for them. He’s soloing here, but he’s not alone, which would be frightening if it weren’t so beautiful.
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Maurice Jackson, jazz historian
“Black, Brown and Beige” encapsulates the full orchestration of Ellington’s work. The suffering of Black people through the wailing of the trumpeter Rex Stewart. Their struggles through the saxophonist Harry Carney’s musings. Triumphs using the “tom tom” of the drums. Duke called it “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” dedicated to Haitians who fought to save Savannah, Ga., from the British during the Revolutionary War. “I have gone back to the history of my race and tried to express it in rhythm,” Ellington said. “We used to have a little something in Africa, ‘something’ we have lost. One day we shall get it again.”
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David Berger, musician and scholar
Recorded March 6, 1940 — the first Ellington recording session with Ben Webster’s tenor saxophone and Jimmy Blanton’s propulsive bass completing what I would call the greatest band in jazz history. If Ellington’s oeuvre can be reduced to the marriage of the unschooled and the sophisticated, “Ko-Ko” is his finest example: a three-chord minor blues that tightly develops the motif introduced in the first measure through six dissonant, wild and imaginative choruses , serving notice on jazz composers and arrangers for decades to come. Modern jazz began here with an explosion.
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Jon Pareles, Times chief pop music critic
Ellington’s music stayed open to jazz’s younger generations. “In a Sentimental Mood,” from an album he recorded in 1962 with John Coltrane and members of his quartet, leans into the ambiguities of a composition first heard in 1935. Ellington’s opening piano figure tiptoes around the chords it implies; Coltrane’s saxophone wafts in as if the melody is nearly too exquisite to disturb. Later, Ellington’s piano solo summons and then dissolves its own hints of 1930s swing, and Coltrane just teases at his own sheets-of-sound approach before returning to the grace of the original melody. The track is a paragon of mutual respect and shared, subtle exploration.
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Miho Hazama, bandleader
The happiest music in the world! I’ve had the privilege of conducting this “Nutcracker” suite a couple of times, and it always makes me wish I had annual gigs to keep performing it every holiday season. With a huge admiration for Ellington and Strayhorn, who wrote specific notes for each band member, this score is phenomenally done. The performance on the record is hard-swinging, exhilarating and authentic, from one of the orchestra’s later golden ages.
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Fredara Hadley, ethnomusicology professor
“A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” from Ellington’s score for the 1935 film “Symphony in Black,” demonstrates his deep engagement with the moods and shades of Black life. In nine minutes he moves us musically from the plodding pulse of work songs to the swing of 1930s Harlem nightclubs. He matches the drama and the wail in “The Saddest Tale” with the beauty and the contemplation of “Hymn of Sorrow.” This music isn’t a treatise; it is a rhapsody in the best sense, in that each musical vignette is full of heart and intimate understanding of the joys and pains of Black humanity.
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William Klein, bandleader
I was immediately captivated by the storytelling of this tune — simple, yet profound and witty. The core of “Searching (Pleading for Love)” relies on the conclusion, which he states at the very beginning of the piece, as an intro, like a narrator sharing what it’s all about in a prologue. The theme follows a standard model: three times an idea and a conclusion. The bridge of the tune modulates two times, and that conclusion motif is present throughout. Right at the climax he varies it, giving a sense of pleading. His use of sound and space is just his own. Even on a trio recording like this, you can definitely hear the big band in his playing from him.
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Seth Colter Walls, Times music critic
I recommend including this 1936 masterpiece in party playlists. When “Exposition Swing” comes on—with Ellington’s locomotive writing pulling listeners aboard—watch as guests tilt toward your speakers. Next, Harry Carney opens his baritone sax feature with a strutting, descending figure. As he finishes the solo, the orchestra cheers him with a modernist swell built from sustained tones, complex and cool. After another minute of dexterous soloist-and-orchestra interplay, stride-piano and blues accents from Ellington trigger the piece’s climactic phase, which incorporates collective shouts of that same descending motif heard during Carney’s opening. It’s a perfect hangout in microcosm.
Song excerpts via Spotify and YouTube.