Deep back in the day — when it was harder for black folks to get anywhere near money, much less on it — Edward Kennedy Ellington spoke to us all. From close to the dawn of jazz and well into an era crowded with uneven yet adventurous experimentations in the form, Duke Ellington set the standard for musicianship, invention and style. With between 3,000 and 5,000 compositions to his credit, some of it among the most indelible and necessary music this or any nation has ever produced, the Duke can claim the United States as his realm, first one crowded with inspiration, later one inhabited by legions of his still adoring fans.
“His grand aesthetic vision was to bring work songs, spirituals, blues, and ragtime together with jazz, that aesthetic idiom of great latitude,” Stanley Crouch observed in a Slate essay in January 2005. “Ellington combined his sources with more blistering force, imagination, and understatement than anyone had before him, inventing variations and grooves along the way. He produced music that would not only extend the reaches of jazz but would become one of the largest and most original bodies of American music ever created.”
Clearly, the Duke’s realm was America. All that realm needed was a coin, and on Tuesday, courtesy of the United States Mint, we got one.
For the first time in American history, a coin placed in general circulation will feature the likeness of a single African American: the Duke sits at a piano on the reverse of the new quarters just issued by the Mint. They’ll be available in bulk quantities (bags and rolls) for about another seven weeks or so.
The Ellington coin, part of the series documenting moments and figures in history from each of the 50 states, represents the District of Columbia, where he was born in April 1899 and where he lived, in the district’s U Street Corridor, artistic if not literal home to Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and other titans of jazz. In some ways it’s an obvious nod to the clout and presence of Black History Month and, to a lesser extent, the groundbreaker-in-chief now occupying the Oval Office.
But credit the Mint for a decision that recognizes the cultural symmetry in play regardless of the date on the calendar.
Rather than bearing the likeness of a statesman, writer or politician, or someone whose exploits resonated from the remove of an earlier national era, the first general-circulation coin portraying a solitary African American bears the likeness of a man whose musical influence is very much in general circulation — its style and rhythms and invention foundational to the American songbook, its presence part of the American fabric.
Duke won nine Grammy awards in his lifetime of 75 years, four more posthumously, along with any number of other plaudits and honoraries bestowed upon him. Live long enough and you'll get every accolade there is to get.
The ingenious triumph of this award from a grateful nation lies in its everyday grandeur, its ordinary ubiquity — the ubiquity of a quarter in your pocket and music in the air.
You can buy the new Duke Ellington quarters in counts of 100 for $32, and change.
The coins will tarnish long before the music does.
Image credits: Duke Elllington, New York City, May 1943, by Gordon Parks. Coin: U.S. Mint.