…Duke Ellington? Ellington, like Armstrong, was one of the inarguable sequoias of the music, easily the one who most developed his talent in every direction. While Louis Armstrong is surely the greatest of all jazz players, Ellington is the greatest of all jazz musicians. Armstrong laid down everything anyone had to know if he or she was going to play or sing jazz. He also, as Wynton Marsalis points out, did something of much deeper intellectual significance than any other jazz artist: Armstrong discovered how to play the sound of the blues through harmonic progressions of popular songs that were not blues, while meeting the challenge of playing those chords correctly. “Even Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Monk, and Coltrane,” as Marsalis says, “didn’t achieve anything on that level of musical sophistication, and we were talking about profoundly brilliant musicians.”
Duke Ellington, however, is another kind of case. What he did with the sound of New Orleans music, the innovations of Armstrong, the piano stylings of the Harlem stride players, the blues, Negro folk materials, Tin Pan Alley, and the remade techniques from the European concert music that appealed to him, hasn’t even a close second. When we examine the material itself, there is no other conclusion that we could come to, especially when the issue is sustained development in fruitful directions.