In the early 1970s, the University of Wisconsin-Madison made an extraordinary gesture for the time. It granted jazz composer Duke Ellington an honorary doctorate and mounted a weeklong festival of his music. It even gave Duke and the members of his orchestra the rare opportunity to conduct master classes.
In the most extraordinary gesture of all, Gov. Patrick Lucey proclaimed "Duke Ellington Week" throughout the state. Ellington considered this one of the greatest honors he ever received, especially since America's cultural gatekeepers had been slow to recognize jazz as a legitimate art form.
Duke expressed his gratitude in a suite written just for us, called "UWIS." It's his musical portrait of the state, painted in a dazzling range of colors.
In his 70s, the old master wasn’t resting on his laurels. He continued to experiment with jazz form, even scoring his first polka. That nod to Wisconsin tradition delighted the crowd when Ellington performed it at the UW festival.
About "UWIS," Ellington said, "I tried to evoke some of the happiness that Wisconsin and the inhabitants of that state had given me."
On the eve of the Isthmus Jazz Festival -- occurring June 20-21 at the UW Memorial Union -- listen to this audio commentary on Ellington's love letter to the University of Wisconsin. It originally aired on Wisconsin Public Radio's Wisconsin Life.