Poster Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington's 'The Queen's Suite' was inspired by natural events in his travels.
Rhapsody in Black

Duke Ellington defied mid-20th century labels with 'The Queen's Suite'

Rhapsody in Black - Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington played a key role in the Harlem Renaissance as a leader and innovator. Today, however, he’s primarily recognized for his jazz and swing music.

In the early to mid-20th century, the “jazz” label was stamped on practically every Black artist in New York’s Upper West Side. While it’s fair to say Ellington’s dominance in swing and dance music had no equal, he had a few other visions kicking around in his tool box.

Some of those visions included dance pieces, concertos, suites, movie soundtracks, music to accompany Shakespeare’s themes, TV show themes, ballets and Broadway shows.

He never had aggressive ambitions where classical music was concerned, but he had the training. He yearned to be part of the members-only concert crowd that was not known for racial inclusivity. With that in mind, he wrote some memorable suites.

A good one to start with is The Queen’s Suite. Ellington was presented to Queen Elizabeth II at an arts festival in Yorkshire in 1958. They tied up the reception line for a few minutes, exchanging royal pleasantries, and he (supposedly) politely flirted with her!

Soon afterward, Ellington outlined the movements of The Queen's Suite. He recorded it with his orchestra the following year and sent it to the queen. It's not clear whether Queen Elizabeth ever listened to it.

The suite’s six parts were inspired by natural events in his travels. One movement was based on a bird call Ellington overheard in Florida. Another movement depicts the northern lights with a ballet of hundreds of lightning bugs, accompanied by a chorus of bullfrogs. The Queen’s Suite is basically a look at North America that a British queen would never have been hip to.


Host: Vernon Neal

Producer: Dan Nass

Writers: Andrea Blain and Scott Blankenship

Executive Producer: Julie Amacher

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About Rhapsody in Black

Where we turn up the voices of Black artists in the world of classical music, with host Vernon Neal.

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