artdukecoinLast week, the US Mint released a new quarter for the District of Columbia featuring the late American composer Duke Ellington .

This event didn’t receive the fanfare of the recent Obama Inauguration, but equally symbolic, Duke Ellington is the first African-American to appear on a circulating coin and he is a deserving recipient of this honor.

Born in Washington, DC in 1899, Ellington’s contributions to the American songbook may never have another rival. He was a passionate and intense composer who wrote and recorded more than 3,000 original songs including jazz standards ‘Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” “Caravan,” “Take The A Train” and volumes of other material.

My musical education in high school was built upon this music as Sullivan Central High School band director Bill Canny introduced our jazz group to these songs and I’m still thankful for that introduction many years later.

Duke passed on in 1974 at the age of 75 and may very well be one of America’s greatest composers.

What’s more significant about this artist is the the significance of his work in a racially charged era. Duke and his band were the most popular acts in the country and traveled in private rail cars coast to coast performing with musicians that included Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald.

In the mid-twentieth century, live music was one of America’s favorite past-times and big bands would dress with impeccable style and work together celebrating elegant functions that provided a romance still evident in the black and white photos of the times.

Ellington’s music made such an impact on the culture he even made his way into American cinema and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 for his score to ‘Paris Beauty.”

Wynton Marsalis speaks about Ellington in his book, “Moving To Higher Ground” and describes him as a “man for all people and the most unwavering example in jazz of pure dedication and ceaseless productivity.”

Duke Ellington’s music has such sophistication it deserves all the attention a quarter can give to this iconic figure. The music swings like no other and celebrates the joy, the reverie and spirit of a gilded age.

Marsalis also states in his new book, “I believe that to know the essence of a thing requires returning as closely as possible to the origin of the that thing.”

When it comes to jazz and great American popular music, Duke is a great history lesson.

In honor of this man and his music, here’s an important element in the YouTube archive featuring Ellington with the great drummer Louie Bellson who died just a few weeks ago on February 14th.