April 29, 1899, Washington, D.C.
May 24, 1974, New York City
Edward Kennedy Ellington
- President Lyndon Johnson presented Duke Ellington with the Presidents Gold Medal in 1966
- President Richard M Nixon presented Duke Ellington with the Medal of Freedom in 1969
- 13 Grammy Awards, from 1959 to 2000
- Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, 1999
- Awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1973
- A United States Commemorative stamp with his image was issued in 1986.
Pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington wasn’t comfortable with the term “jazz.” He hoped to create music that was unclassifiable. Although initially inspired by ragtime piano, and making use of improvisation and harmonies rooted in the jazz tradition, he thought of his compositions as American classical music. His tireless efforts allowed him to remain one of the foremost composers during his 40-year career despite the changing face of the music scene. A constant dreamer, Ellington’s band was a medium of personal expression for himself and for his musicians.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., the young Ellington was dignified and self-confident, earning the nickname “Duke” for his noble grace. His father worked as a butler and his mother was the daughter of a slave, and both taught their son the importance of education and hard work. Duke began playing the piano at age seven, but his deep love for music didn’t spark until he was a teenager, after he discovered the ragtime playing of pianist James P. Johnson. Soon Duke had a repertoire of original tunes, and he developed a career playing piano in Washington, D.C. clubs.
Moving to NY:
In 1923, Duke moved to New York City, where the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, attracting black intellectuals, artists, and musicians to celebrate and explore black culture and creativity. Duke joined the band of another Washington, D.C. musician named Elmer Snowden. The band, called “The Washingtonians,” was made up of seven instrumentalists, and they played regularly at the Hollywood Club in Manhattan.
A series of events led to a sudden rise in Duke’s fame. First, Snowden left the group in 1924. Duke stepped in as bandleader and took on the role of composing for the band. Next, Sidney Bechet
, the famed soprano saxophone player from New Orleans joined the ensemble. His virtuosity and gritty New Orleans style brought attention to Duke and his small orchestra. In 1927, after cornet player and bandleader King Oliver declined an offer for a regular gig at Harlem’s Cotton Club, Duke and his band stepped in.
The Cotton Club engagement gave Duke immense exposure, broadcasting performances on the radio and attracting large, mainly white crowds. Soon Duke’s music, which reflected the black experience in Harlem with its bluesy melodies and exotic rhythms, fell into popularity with black and white audiences. At the Cotton Club, Duke’s orchestra had the responsibility of providing music to accompany various performances, including vaudeville, burlesque, and comedy acts.
The Great Depression:
Duke’s popularity grew in the late 1920s. He made several recordings and his music reached audiences across the nation and in Europe. However, during the early 1930s, as the Depression took hold of the United States, the music industry suffered severely as did Duke’s career. Sales of recordings dropped significantly. To earn money, Duke took his orchestra, which had grown to 15 members, on the road to tour across the country.
Duke's reputation as a serious musician flourished during this period. His compositions grew increasingly nuanced and intricate. However, swing music, the new dance-oriented style played by big bands, was all the rage. For this reason, the 1930s marked a challenge for the composer, who struggled to compose popular music that remained rich and innovative. Duke overcame the challenge, writing some of his best-known compositions during the decade, including “Mood Indigo,” “It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart.”
Duke’s story isn’t complete without the mention of composer, lyricist, and arranger Billy Strayhorn. Classically trained, Strayhorn became Duke’s guide and collaborator. His arrangements added polish and sophistication to Duke’s compositions, and he composed the band’s best-known song, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Until his death in 1967, Strayhorn was Duke’s creative partner. Duke referred to him as “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine."
Perhaps one of the reasons for Duke’s success was his dedication to the members of his orchestra. Many of the musicians remained loyal members for decades, most famously baritone saxophone player Harry Carney, who played in the group for 45 years. Duke composed his works with the specific sounds of his instrumentalists in mind, and often featured them in concerto-like extended compositions. Other musicians who rose to fame in the group include alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, bassist Jimmy Blanton, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, and trumpeters Cootie Williams and Clark Terry.
Newport Jazz Festival, 1956:
With the advent of bebop and the decline of the large jazz ensemble, Duke fell out of the limelight in the late 1940s and early 50s. Despite having to stop touring widely, and losing his recording affiliation with Capitol Records, he persisted, taking any gig he could get.
Luckily, in 1956, an especially spirited performance at the Newport Jazz Festival brought attention back to Duke and the Ellington Orchestra. The piece “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” featuring an electrifying solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonzalvez, had the audience on their feet and cheering wildly. Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn, who left the group to pursue individual projects, had recently returned, injecting a new life into the band. For the remaining years of the Duke’s career, the orchestra was engaged with various jazz festivals, recording, and touring.
Duke Ellington led his orchestra until May 24, 1974, when he died of lung cancer at age 75. His music is still played today, many of his compositions having become standards in the jazz repertoire. His grandson, Paul Ellington, leads the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which continues to tour internationally. He is considered one of the great American composers, and classical and jazz musicians alike study his genre-defying music.