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The first real composer of African-American music, the most prolific, and certainly the most important was Edward Kennedy Ellington born in Washington D.C. in 1899. Already composing in his teens, Ellington's success as an innovator continued until his death at 74. You can find his music free on itunes.
The orchestra was his instrument. Although an excellent pianist in the rambunctious post-ragtime/boogie woogie style, his compositions transcended style and even today many of his works sound avant-garde. His influence on all big bands to this day and all composers forever can be witnessed by his enormous repertoire.
In essence the Duke Ellington Orchestra had many guises.
1. His sacred works, though less-known, point to the synthesis he hoped would eventually occur between jazz, classical, and religious music.
2. He was the first to write music for specific players. This resulted in a repertoire of special works featuring the wonderful soloists that stayed with his band through decades.
3. Ellington could present an entire evening of concert music using many of his extended works. Most artists would concentrate on the short three minute form that 78 rpm records afforded. Although creating hundreds of pieces for this format, Ellington also wrote long, extended pieces obviously meant for performance. Later when 33 rpm became the norm, these extended works could be recorded in their entirety to the delight of new generations.
4. World music, today's catch-all category, may well have been conceived by Ellington as he prepared his band for pieces like "Caravan," "Latin American Suite," and his Africa-based work.
5. Ellington's band could be sweet. A repertoire loaded with songs like "Prelude to a Kiss," "Sophisticated Lady," "Satin Doll," "Daydream." Made an evening with his orchestra into a romantic night out.
6. Finally as a composer, he could point to a quite modern repertoire of experiments and orchestral textures. Ellington loved color--sight and sound. His titles even reflect this: "On a Turquoise Cloud," "Mood Indigo," "Black and Tan Fantasy."
7. As a popular composer Ellington can claim "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Solitude," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "In a Mellotone," and many more including movie scores for Paris Blues, Anatomy of a Murder, Asphalt Jungle, Assault on a Queen.