Duke Ellington Statue
This monumental sculpture by Robert Graham (1938-2008) was dedicated on July 1, 1997 at the circle defining the northeast corner of Central Park at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, and honors American jazz pianist, composer and orchestra leader Edward “Duke” Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974).
Born in Washington, D. C., Ellington was the son of a butler and “a young woman so proper she would countenance neither birth control or lipstick.” Early piano lessons had little influence on the later musical genius, and he was “at first too lazy, and later too superstitious to learn to read music.” Yet in 1916 Ellington made his first professional appearance, and by 1918 had formed a band.
Ellington’s first attempt to break into the New York jazz scene in 1922 met with failure, but he returned the following year, and found regular work at the Hollywood Club at West 49th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. The pace of performing quickened, and Ellington’s band recorded Black and Tan Fantasy in 1927. The band took on several accomplished musicians, including saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and the enriched orchestra had a regular engagement at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club from 1927 to 1931. Ellington’s contributions as a composer of great chromatic range and complexity established his band as the premier jazz orchestra of that generation, surpassing even that of Fletcher Henderson.
The remainder of his life was spent composing and performing, and his various bands toured extensively in America and abroad. Several of his short works, such as Mood Indigo, In a Sentimental Mood, and Sophisticated Lady are acknowledged classics, and Ellington also composed more extensive concert pieces, which he performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
In 1979 singer, pianist and jazz interpreter Bobby Short formed a committee whose intent was to commission a major permanent sculpture honoring Ellington. The Duke Ellington Memorial Fund selected contemporary artist Robert Graham to create this sculptural tribute.
Los Angeles based artist Robert Graham was well-known also for his monument to boxer Joe Louis in Detroit, Michigan, his Olympic Gateway in Los Angeles, California, and for his tableau at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Monument in Washington, D. C. His artistic conception for this monument depicts an upright Duke beside his piano, supported by a matrix of female nudes the artist likened to the ancient Greek muses. The muses rest atop three columns which support a gilded bronze dome.
Though the sculpture is representational, it is meant to evoke the intangible qualities of Ellington’s lasting musical artistry, and to serve as a bridge between elegant Fifth Avenue, pastoral Central Park and the Harlem community where “the Duke” achieved much of his fame. When the sculpture was unveiled in 1997, no less than three New York City mayors—Edward I. Koch, David N. Dinkins and Rudolph W. Giuliani—delivered remarks, and musical entertainment included such esteemed performers as Mr. Short and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
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