Sir Duke is the King of Quarters

If you want to take the A train, it will cost you two bucks – or eight Ellingtons.

The U.S. Mint has released a special-edition quarter featuring composer Duke Ellington – making him the first African American to fly solo on circulated U.S. currency.

Ellington’s appearance on the quarter, which also honors his hometown of Washington, D.C., is a fine tribute to a musician who was an American trailblazer in so many other ways. His talent defied easy categorization during a six-decade career that produced popular hits, hot jazz and modern classical works. As Ellington was fond of saying, there are only two kinds of music: the good kind and the other kind.

It seems fitting Ellington is being honored in Washington at the same time as the man who hailed him in song as “Sir Duke.” Stevie Wonder is set to receive the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song Wednesday and will perform at the White House for the First Couple (the concert is scheduled to be broadcast Thursday on PBS).

In many ways, Wonder is a key successor to Ellington – possessing a keen popular sensibility while pushing musical boundaries. On Monday, Wonder and a 21-piece orchestra played "Sketches of a Life," a 20-minute classical composition he premiered as part of a Library of Congress commission.

No word on whether Wonder will sing “Sir Duke” during the White House gala, which also will feature Tony Bennett, who knows a thing or two about putting across an Ellington tune. But either way, the spirit of Sir Duke will be in the house.

After all, in many ways, Ellington and Wonder are two sides of the same coin.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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