Duke Ellington knew how to swing. Ellington (1899–1974) was one of the most prolific and influential songwriters of the 20th Century, a purveyor of what he liked to call American Music (he eschewed being labeled as “just” a jazz artist). You know him, even if you don’t think you know him: “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Mood Indigo,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” are but slivers of his deep (and deep-felt) compositional and performing catalog.
One particular set of highly attuned ears that were influenced by Ellington’s magic happen to belong to Joe Jackson. Yes, that Joe Jackson, he of the skinny-tie New Wave scene of the late ’70s who began reinventing himself at the dawn of the ’80s and never looked back. “I was always ready to move on,” Jackson, 58, said matter-of-factly over lunch in midtown Manhattan this past spring. (Well, to clarify, I had lunch; Jackson was content with “just water.”) “It never occurred to me that listeners may not have been ready to hear it. I thought the whole idea of being an artist was to do something different than everyone else.”