Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington, Jazz Musician, NYC

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Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899-May 24, 1974) was an American jazz composer, pianist, and band leader who has been one of the most influential figures in jazz, if not in all American music. As a composer and a band leader especially, Ellington's reputation has increased since his death, with thematic repackagings of his signature music often becoming best-sellers.

A man of suave demeanor and puckish wit that masked occasional brusqueness, Ellington preferred to call his style and sound "American music" rather than just jazz, and liked to describe those who impressed him as "beyond category," including and especially many of the musicians who served with his orchestra. Some of them were considered among the giants of jazz in their own right-particularly reedmen Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, and Paul Gonsalves; trumpeters Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Clark Terry, William "Cat" Anderson, and Ray Nance (who also played violin), trombonists Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Lawrence Brown, and Juan Tizol, bassists Jimmy Blanton and Oscar Pettiford, as well as drummers Sonny Greer, Louis Bellson, and Sam Woodyard.

Many of these musicians remained with Ellington's orchestra for decades. While many were noteworthy in their own right, it was Ellington's musical genius that melded them into one of the most well-known orchestral units in the history of jazz. His compositions were often written specifically for the style and skills of these individuals, such as "Jeep's Blues" for Johnny Hodges, "Concerto for Cootie" (Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me) for Cootie Williams and "The Mooche" for Tricky Sam Nanton. He also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, such as Juan Tizol's "Caravan" and "Perdido" which brought the "Spanish Tinge" to big-band jazz.

Ellington was one of the twentieth century's best-known African-American celebrities. He recorded for many American record companies, and appeared in several films. Ellington and his orchestra toured the United States and Europe regularly before and after World War II.


Ellington's father, James Edward Ellington, born in Lincolnton, North Carolina, USA on April 15, 1879, was the son of a former slave. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 with his small family. Ellington was born to J.E. and Daisy Kennedy Ellington who lived in the home of his maternal grandparents at 2129 Ward Place, NW in Washington D.C. J.E. made blueprints for the United States Navy; he also worked as a White House butler for additional income. Daisy and J.E. were both piano players, and at the age of seven Ellington began taking piano lessons from a Mrs. Clinkscales who lived at 1212 Street NW. The Clinkscales address is often, but erroneously, given as Ellington's childhood home.

In his autobiography Music is my Mistress Ellington comments he missed more lessons than what he attended, feeling at the time that playing the piano was not his talent. Over time, this would change. Ellington sneaked into Frank Holiday's Poolroom at age fourteen and began to gain a greater respect for music. Hearing a mentor play the piano ignited Ellington's love for the instrument and he began to take his piano studies seriously.

Instead of going to an academically-oriented high school, he attended Armstrong Manual Training School to study commercial art. Three months before he was to graduate, he left school to pursue his interest in music, and at the age of seventeen, he began performing professionally. Ellington never made broad claims for his piano playing, saying that many Washington piano teachers were superior. The British pianist Stan Tracey has countered this by claiming that Ellington 'had chops', but often chose to focus on the melody that sprung from a number rather than to show off his technical ability.

Ellington married Edna Thompson when he was 19, in 1918. She was his childhood sweetheart.

Ellington began his artistic career as a sign painter in Washington, D.C., but by 1923 he had formed a small dance band known as The Washingtonians (which included drummer Sonny Greer), and moved to New York City. Shortly thereafter, the group became the house band of the Club Kentucky (often referred to as the "Kentucky Club"), an engagement which set the stage for the biggest opportunity in Ellington's life. In 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem's Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington. With a weekly radio broadcast and famous clientele nightly pouring in to see them, Ellington's popularity was assured. In 1929 Ellington and his band appeared in the short film Black and Tan.

Ellington's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956 was to return him to wider prominence. The feature "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue", with saxophonist Paul Gonsalves's six-minute saxophone solo, had been in the band's book since 1937, but on this occasion it nearly created a riot. The revived attention should not have surprised anyone - Hodges had returned to the fold the previous year, and Ellington's collaboration with Strayhorn had been renewed around the same time, under terms which the younger man could accept. Such Sweet Thunder (1957), based on Shakespeare's plays and characters, and The Queen's Suite the following year (dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II), were products of the renewed impetus which the Newport appearance had helped to create.

The late 1950s also saw Ella Fitzgerald record her Duke Ellington Songbook with Ellington and his orchestra, a recognition that Ellington's songs had now become part of the cultural canon known as the "Great American Songbook".

In the early 1960s, Ellington was between recording contracts, which allowed him to record with a variety of artists mostly not previously associated with him. In 1962, he participated in a session which produced the "Money Jungle" (United Artists) album with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and also recorded with John Coltrane for Impulse, who also recorded Ellington and his Orchestra with Coleman Hawkins. Musicians who had previously worked with Ellington returned to the Orchestra as members: Lawrence Brown in 1960 and Cootie Williams two years later. Ellington was by now performing all over the world, a significant portion of each year was now spent making overseas tours, and he formed notable new working relationships, among which included the Swedish vocalist Alice Babs, and South African musicians Dollar Brand and Sathima Bea Benjamin

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