Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

Composer • Piano

• 1899 1974


One of the most formidable talents in American big band jazz, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington aspired to be a serious composer regardless of genre. Although Ellington was fully capable of producing straightforward music for dancing and pure entertainment, he also wrote harmonically sophisticated jazz works with striking timbral colorings, as well as compositions for the classical concert hall. In the 1930s Ellington and his arrangers brought a lusher, more original sound to large-ensemble jazz, combining instruments in unexpected registers while he, as pianist, remained silent through much of any given piece.

Ellington made his professional debut at age 17 as a pianist strongly influenced by ragtime. He moved from Washington, D.C., to New York in 1923 to play with a septet called the Washingtonians; over the next four years, this group gradually expanded to a ten-piece band. Ellington began to achieve prominence during his stint at the Cotton Club in the late '20s; he and his band, now swollen to 12 musicians, recorded extensively, and in 1930 the song "Mood Indigo" became a worldwide hit. In the 1930s Ellington finally defined his own sound: a band of six brass players, four reeds, and a four-piece rhythm section. Not long before World War II, Ellington signed on Billy Strayhorn as second pianist and arranger, a collaboration that would produce a series of especially rich works.

The band continued to grow in the 1940s but the personnel roster became unstable; Ellington began turning his attention increasingly to ambitious works for the concert hall rather than the dance hall. His first widely heard multi-movement work for full orchestra (he'd composed others in the 1930s) was Black, Brown and Beige, written for a Carnegie Hall concert in 1943; many more suites followed from the '40s through mid-'60s.

Ellington wrote his first full-length film score in 1959 for Anatomy of a Murder; he had contributed to earlier films, including The Asphalt Jungle, and would occasionally write for films into the late '60s. Although he continued to lead his band on worldwide tours until his death and record jazz with such young artists as John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, as a composer the elderly Ellington tended to focus on liturgical music, including a series of "sacred concerts" composed between 1965 and 1973. These commenced with In the Beginning God, for jazz orchestra, narrator, chorus, soloists, and dancer.