The Great Duke Ellington and the bona fide D.C. quarter minted in his honor. (image courtesy of BET)
The existence of music itself is reason enough for some of us to approach each day with an attitude of gratitude but–some of its more accomplished craftsmen and craftswomen provide us with real opportunities to stop, look, listen, and celebrate, especially with Jazz Appreciation Month only a few days away. That’s exactly what lovers of fine lyrics and melodious genius have already started doing in regard to the 100th anniversary of the birth of songwriter Johnny Mercer, born November 18, 1909, in Savannah, Georgia; and the 110th anniversary of the great jazzmaster Duke Ellington, born April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C.
It may sound intellectually elitist to celebrate genius for its own sake but in fact a celebration of accomplished creative genius is almost never just for its own sake. Courageous genius begets new creative vision, which often begets new jobs, which in turn pulls off that much discussed trick of the times by stimulating the economy at one level or another. On the way to helping establish the foundation of jazz with more than 1,000 orchestra arrangements, the creation of Swing Music, and winning three Grammy awards at the first ever ceremony for the event, Ellington successfully kept his band gainfully employed throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s and during the politically volatile decades that followed.
Mercer’s success also added substance to the financial livelihood of others during a career that generated a catalogue of more than a thousand lyrics for songs featured in movies, on Broadway, radio, and, of course, personal stereos around the globe. One generation after another has grown up singing along to his lyrics for the film and stage classic Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Hollywood’s ultimate movie man, Clint Eastwood, paid notable tribute to Mercer when as he featured his songs on the soundtrack for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Mercer himself picked up Oscars for four songs: "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" (1946); "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" (1951); "Moon River" (1961); and "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962).
Ellington and Mercer joined creative forces with songwriter and arranger Billy Strayhorn in 1953 to pen the ever popular Satin Doll . It may not at first appear very significant to note famous musicians teaming up to compose a classic song but in this case it was and is. Why? Because it exemplified the power of musical creativity, and creative camaraderie, to overcome the racism that dominated the times. Mercer was known to cut loose every now and then with racially derogatory language; and Ellington was known as the man who broke down many racial barriers in clubs that welcomed black entertainment but declined black customers. Therefore, the partnership formed between their exceptional minds represented a small political victory of sorts.
PART 2 COMING SOON