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Jazz musician Duke Ellington eating at a restaurant.

The Discrete Pleasure of the Great Duke Ellington: Food


The taste for sensible appetites led Duke Ellington to star in some involuntarily comical scenes that offer us a different side of his genius.

Duke Ellington’s figure might seem monstrous in size, taking into account the enormous genius he displayed as a jazz player, which led him to become one of the pillars of the genre; he would also eventually determine his incontrovertible validation within the musical sphere.

Nonetheless, there is a lesser known, but not less interesting, biographical stage: his legendary taste for the pleasures of sex and food, sensitive appetites, hedonistic ones, that for many are an essential part of everyday life, a type of inalienable justification for life, the necessary acknowledgement of the intellectual, artistic and aesthetic satisfactions.

In a parallel manner, Ellington cared about his appearance, and his inclinations can be traced back to a single common source: the somewhat limited financial background he grew up in, in contrast with the comfortable lifestyle he led after his musical career took-off.


In the musician’s biography, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, by Terry Teachout, features a story that reveals more than the gargantuan appetite of ‘Dumpy’, (a nickname used by his friends describing his appetite), which also reveals the paradoxical and unintentionally comical situations that he experienced when he faced the tension between the irresistible food and the restraint he felt obliged to show —in order to take care of his physical appearance. For this reason, Duke was say he was on a diet and would immediately embark on a Dionysian banquet; after he’d finished, he would top things off with the food he ate remain slim.

Duke, who is always worrying about keeping his weight down, may announce that he intends to have nothing but Shredded Wheat and black tea. . . . Duke’s resolution about not overeating frequently collapses at this point. When it does, he orders a steak, and after finishing it he engages in another moral struggle for about five minutes. Then he really begins to eat. He has another steak, smothered in onions, a double portion of fried potatoes, a salad, a bowl of sliced tomatoes, a giant lobster and melted butter, coffee, and an Ellington dessert — perhaps a combination of pie, cake, ice cream, custard, pastry, jello, fruit, and cheese. His appetite really whetted, he may order ham and eggs, a half-dozen pancakes, waffles and syrup, and some hot biscuits. Then, determined to get back on his diet, he will finish, as he began, with Shredded Wheat and black tea.

The scene, which is unintentionally funny, shows us a different side of this brilliant musician and composer, which somehow completes and perhaps enables us to understand the uncontrolled nature behind his creative genius.


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