Beyond Category: The Sartorial and Musical Elegance of Duke Ellington

Referring to Duke Ellington as regal or soigné isn't so much a compliment as it is an accurate description of this peerless jazz icon whose career spanned more than a five decades. A composer of music for everything from film (1961's "Paris Blues) to Broadway (1947's "Beggar's Opera") to ballet (1970's "The River" with Alvin Ailey), Mr. Ellington's urbane bearing and dapper style are nearly as legendary as his music.

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C. in 1899, the man who would be celebrated as "America's most sartorially correct musical genius," inherited his impeccable sense of style from his father, James Edward Ellington. A butler and a caterer who sometimes worked at the White House, the elder Ellington occasionally brought home fine wines and other treats from his jobs and passed on his knowledge of etiquette and fine living to his son. Duke's son, Mercer Ellington, once noted that the family table was set in the same manner as the tables in the homes where James Ellington worked.

The name "Duke" was bestowed upon him by childhood friends who admired him for his sharp, trend-setting style. He wore suits and ties even to high school and once blew everyone away at a party when he showed up in a shimmy back herringbone suit that was shirred and pleated in the back—a style that no one else was wearing at the time. In his heyday, a separate baggage car was necessary to house scenery, lighting and the fabulous wardrobe needed for his state-of-the-art shows. His personal style, from top hats and tails to his sleek, classic suits inspired imitators and fascinated admirers. 

Ellington’s smooth manner, not surprisingly, also worked quite well with women. When he received the Medal of Freedom at the White House in 1969, Ellington turned to then first lady Pat Nixon and asked, "Mrs. Nixon, have you heard of the White House Ordinance? There is a law that no First Lady can be prettier than a certain degree, and you are exceeding the legal limit." The amused Mrs. Nixon replied, "I've heard about you."

The highest praise Mr. Ellington would give to anyone was to say that they were "beyond category." As the greatest American composer of the 20th century, that is the least we can say about him.

Nichelle Gainer is a beauty, fashion and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines and websites including GQ, InStyle, Glamour, Newsweek.com and Essence.com. She is currently working on the book version of Vintage Black Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter at  @VintageBlkGlam