People (including myself) like to go on about how Prince was this and Prince was that: “He was Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Michael Jackson all rolled up in one.” The Purple One was a lot of things, and he had a lot of major influences, but one of the least mentioned seems the most obvious to me. He was a generation’s Duke Ellington.
At a Prince show, you could get your swing on, feel the funk, dance like crazy, and learn a whole lot about music, simultaneously. His music wasn’t just a party; it was a class in session. Two generations before, Duke was remaking jazz, swing, African sounds, and blues to create a revolutionary, sophisticated sound. Similarly, you never knew what you might hear on a Prince record, but it was guaranteed to be complex; drawn from so much musical history, with rich, surprising arrangements. His performance was that of a star and a storyteller. His story was the entire history of music, paying tribute to those musicians who came before him and building upon what had already been created. As a performer, he would flaunt his talent, often playing every instrument on stage. Nonetheless, he connected with his audience, shredding and maintaining captivation. He challenged us to grow while giving the best show there was to see.
Duke did that for sixty years, in a career spanning from 1914 to 1974, and a shrine was built in his name at Lincoln Center for him to live on and continue to influence us. Prince was right under our noses the whole time, walking the walk, constantly building upon the musical world’s material, like Duke. He was severely underappreciated, and it’s a sad fact that his death will launch him into artificial popularity. Who will take his place?