It is hard to believe, but in 1997, when this statue of Duke Ellington was erected, it was the first-ever New York City monument to a black artist and the first memorial in the U.S. to Ellington. The project, originally conceived by American cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short, took 18 years to come to fruition. Money was not the issue - the $1 million dollars needed was raised rather quickly. It was permission from the various city agencies, commissions and community boards that became a quagmire.
Short was inspired by a visit to Paris. From the New York Times:
The project had its beginning in a stroll Mr. Short took in 1979 through a park in Nice, France, five years after Ellington's death.
''I simply came across this very modest bust of Louis Armstrong and I thought, how strange that here, in France, they have found time and space for a tribute to a black American jazz musician, but in New York I could think of nothing like that,'' Mr. Short said.
His initial idea was to get friends to put up the money for a similar modest bust of Duke Ellington somewhere in the city.
Mr. Short formed a nonprofit organization, the Duke Ellington Memorial Fund, and went looking for an artist. The search led him to Robert Graham, a California-based sculptor whose work includes the Olympic Gateway constructed for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and the Joe Louis Memorial in Detroit.
It was Mr. Graham who felt that a bust of Ellington was not appropriate. ''He felt it should be something grand and elegant, the way he perceived Duke Ellington to be,'' Mr. Short said.
A number of sites were considered, eventually settling on Frawley Circle at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, at the Northeast corner of Central Park - a symbolic gateway to Harlem, where Ellington spent most of his life. An 8-foot-tall statue of Duke Ellington and an open grand piano stand atop a disk supported by three pillars - each pillar comprised of three nude caryatid figures representing the muses, nine in all. The entire 25-foot-tall memorial is done in a black patinated bronze.
The intersection, renamed the Duke Ellington Circle, was redesigned as two semicircular plazas and forms an amphitheater for musical performances. Now, in memory, music and bronze, the Duke lives on...