The Duke’s bittersweet final night

By Alex Fiore

Sometimes he coughed up blood.

Sometimes his knees ached and his back strained when sitting down.

When Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington took the stage inside NIU’s University Center on March 20, 1974, the cancer that destroyed his lungs had turned the vibrant young man who introduced jazz to the masses into a shell of his former self.

The cancer and pneumonia would claim him two months later, just weeks after his 75th birthday.

The greatest jazz composer the world has known was well-traveled. From the Washington, D.C., grit where he was born in 1899 to the smoky Cotton Club of Harlem’s urban sprawl to the Rhode Island dust of the Newport Jazz Festival, Ellington made thousands of stops during his illustrious career.

His final stop would be in DeKalb, Illinois.


“The Duke,” as he was affectionately known, was sick, and everybody knew it.

Ellington had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1973, and the ravaging effects of the disease were evident at his final full orchestra performance.

Ellington was in noticeable pain, grimacing and out of breath, letting loose booming coughs during the show. Agony washed over his leathery face, and Ellington labored to move across the stage.

But, as Ellington (always the consummate professional) would say, “the show must go on.”

Though he was a skilled piano player, Ellington’s true tool was the people at his disposal.

“His orchestra was his instrument,” says Ronald Carter,NIU coordinator of jazz studies and Jazz Ensemble director.

Ellington’s song book contains a stupefying amount of classic material. Ellington compositions like “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Mood Indigo” and dozens more have become jazz standards.

The performance was just another example of Ellington’s mastery of the jazz medium.

“The characteristics of Ellington’s style were evident [that] night,” wrote Northern Star reporter Carol Fouke in 1974. “Old favorites and new pieces manifested vigor, elegance, sophistication and an interweaving of solo and group portions of the numbers. The fun, wit and rapport with the audience introduced Ellington and his ‘cats in the band’ not only as great performers but also as persons with a bit of mischief in them.

The performance saw Ellington make masterful use of his “instrument,” twisting through classic compositions like “Mood Indigo”and “Lotus Blossom,” the former highlighted by an appearance by vocal soloist Tony Watkins.

One of the hallmarks of the Ellington orchestra was the use of plunger mutes on brass instruments like trumpets and trombones. The mute is simply the rubber part of a toilet plunger and is used to alter the sound coming out of the instrument.

That night’s guest trumpeter was Cootie Williams, a jump blues musician from Alabama whose use of the plunger is often credited with influencing renowned trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Ellington’s orchestra popularized the use of the plunger mute, which NIU jazz assistant professor Arthur Davis says gives brass instruments elements of the human singing voice.

“It creates a very humanlike quality,” Davis said. “It creates a very vocal sound.”

Despite his poor health, Ellington found bouts of energy to antagonize the crowd, chiding the crowd to stay out late and earn an encore.

Yet by the time the performance was over, there was no question the end might be near for Ellington.

Fouke wrote, “Band members in conversation recognized Ellington’s poor health, and several said if Ellington dies, it seems the band will too. Many members would not want to continue with anyone else.”

Sure enough, the Duke’s condition worsened, and Ellington would pass in the next 60 days.

The legend was gone. The man who hopped on stage to show J.P. Johnson he could play “Carolina Shout” better than its composer when he was a teenager was gone. The man who became a leader of the Harlem Renaissance was gone. The man who turned jazz into art was gone.

The man died, but the music has not.


“Duke’s presence in jazz is inestimable,” Davis said. “Every great modern jazz musician has been influenced by Duke Ellington.”

Davis, who was at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign the day before Ellington performed at NIU, had the opportunity to see Ellington.

Ellington gave a rare clinic in Urbana, espousing decades of wisdom to eager students.

“I’ll never forget it,” Davis said.

Carter agrees that Ellington exhibited a vast influence on jazz, from the sophistication of the performance to the technicality of the compositions.

“He set a professional standard in music,” Carter said. “He wanted to bring a feel of sophistication to the music. Duke was able to do that.”

As with most things, stories are lost to history or reduced to bullet points and facts. The Duke’s bittersweet final performance may be destined for trivia nights and tour group factoids, but know the performance was more than just a date. NIU was lucky enough to host a legend in the twilight of his career. The Duke was sick yet gave NIU the performance it was due.

NIU reciprocated the respect, naming the ballroom where his final full orchestra performance took place after him in 1980.

Throughout the years, Ellington developed a tradition with orchestra. If an orchestra member passed away, the piece on which they were featured was retired, never to be performed by Duke Ellington & His Orchestra again.

The practice is unique: classic tunes and fan favorites were retired over the years because of the respect Ellington had for his orchestra members. The orchestra was his instrument, and no one played it better.