Duke Ellington is 109 today, and still going strong. It was probably in 1960, not long after we had moved to Vancouver Washington, that my father dragged me out of bed down to the record player to hear an album he had just brought home. I recognized the piece--but it wasn't the same, somehow. It was the overture to the Nutcracker, but being played by a jazz band of some kind. My father, knowing that I was a fanatic about observing the artist's intentions, not to mention that I was at that time (I was in fourth grade) a Tchaikovsky enthusiast, figured that I would be outraged.
But I wasn't, for some reason. Instead I was fascinated by the pieces--the similarities and differences from the canonical version, so to speak. This wasn't like the usual vulgarization of high art--Tony the Tiger singing about Sugar Frosted Flakes to the tune of Beethoven's fifth or the like--this was more like a dialog between musicians from different eras. The result: I went through the family music collection and listened to all the Duke Ellington I could get my hands on.
There's no real point to this story--it's just how I happened to encounter the music of the greatest twentieth-century American composer. Again, happy birthday, Duke Ellington, wherever you are.