Why music should not be your mistress

Duke Ellington is a jazz legend and one of America’s greatest composers.  Music was always his highest priority. In his autobiography, he made this clear. “Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one,” he wrote.  


“Duke Ellington having his dinner at the Hurricane with his wife, Bea Ellington, and a friend” – Gordon Parks, Library of Congress (Biographical Note: While Bea did live with Ellington, they were never married.)

Not surprisingly, Duke Ellington’s relationships reflected his priorities. His first marriage ended in separation, and his subsequent relationships were turbulent.  

There was no large city, no small town in the country where an old friend or an old girl or both did not wait for the next one-night visit. These friendships too were for life, but they suited Ellington best because they were renewed, enjoyed, and suspended again, usually within a twenty-four-hour period. The secret of Duke’s security was constant movement. – Ellington in Private, The Atlantic, May 1975 

Music, it seems, was not a convenient mistress. 

Every musician has to have a passion for their craft. But that passion, if not balanced, can be poisonous to our relationships.

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other.” – Matthew 6:24

If we neglect our closest relationships as we pursue our creative impulses, we lose much more than we gain.

A good friend in my band at church summed up the relationship he has with his musical career.

“Music is what I do. It’s not who I am.”

He is a man who loves God, a soon-to-be husband to his fiancée, a faithful employee, a sincere friend. He has made strong relationships his highest priority.

He is also a great musician. But the former qualities above outweigh the latter.

We will be remembered for what we loved. We can choose to be remembered for our devotion to music. There’s nothing wrong with working to reach a legendary level as Ellington did.

But it is better to be remembered for our devotion to others.

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