Duke Ellington

1899 1974

Duke Ellington

Composer • Piano


Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was an American pianist, composer and one of the most renowned bandleaders in jazz. As the founder and leader of the Ellington Band he wrote and recorded some of the enduring classics of the swing and big band eras, many of which would go on to become part of the American Songbook and be performed and recorded by every major name in jazz. With a career spanning 50 years and a diverse catalogue of literally thousands of works, he is one of America’s most prolific composers.

Ellington was raised in Washington D.C. in a comfortable home with two musical parents. From the first time he played piano at the ago of seven his life had a single-minded purpose, so much so that he dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to pursue a career in music. Two years later, he married his high school girlfriend Edna Thompson and, together with their newborn child, moved to New York City in 1923 to play with his band the Washingtonians. This band played swing and dance music in a “jungle” style that was more aggressive than their contemporaries.

Although he was heavily inspired by stride and ragtime piano legends such as James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, Ellington soon began to synthesize his own brand of what he simply called “American music,” a style which was deceptively complex and heavily rooted in the African American tradition. By the mid 1920s the beginnings of what would become the Ellington Band were already starting to form, first as a sextet but slowly expanding to include 10, then 12 musicians and finally a full big band.

The Ellington Band quickly grew in fame as well as in terms of personnel. In 1927 they started a three-year residency at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. This would prove to be a major break for Ellington, as regular radio broadcasts of the concerts helping the Band to reach a national audience. At the same time, they were hired to play Broadway shows, notably the musical Show Girl, which featured the music of George Gershwin, and appeared on several movie soundtracks.

The 1930s saw a cosmic shift within the Ellington Band due to the addition of several notable musicians. The addition of bassist Jimmy Blanton completely revolutionized the role of his instrument with his powerful walking bass lines and virtuosic solos. Ben Webster added a huge range of emotion on the tenor saxophone with a tone ranging from warm and mellow to harsh and brazen when called for. Finally and perhaps most importantly was the friendship and musical collaboration that developed between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn did not take an active part performing with the ensemble but rather worked with Ellington behind the scenes. Many of the Ellington Band’s signature hits were in fact composed or arranged wholly or in part by Strayhorn, most notable the Band’s new theme song,Take the A Train.

The 1940s saw the pinnacle of Ellington’s success as his band churned out one award-winning album after another. Dozens of songs composed during this time would come to be elevated to the status of jazz standards, including It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing, Sophisticated Lady, Ko-Ko,and Satin Doll.

The U.S. entry into World War II and the concurrent recording ban initiated by the American Federation of Musicians proved to be a great challenge for Ellington. Although he was unable to record any albums and with touring to Europe out of the question, Ellington was still able to make this period productive by beginning to focus on longer compositions more inspired by classical forms. His famous suiteBlack, Brown and Beige premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1943 as the first in a series of annual concerts. This was one of many extended suites that would represent some of the most ambitious writing of his career and like many of his works from this period it depicts the experience of African Americans. As Ellington himself said, “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people.”  

Ellington’s popularity waned after World War II, as the public moved on from the swing and big band era and bands began to shrink in size. Although his songs no longer regularly reached top ten status Ellington did not allow this to curtail his musical endeavors, maintaining a busy tour and recording schedule and continuing to come up with an increasingly diverse catalogue, including symphonic works such asNight Creature, a series of sacred music concerts, and several more film scores, includingAnatomy of a Murder, which won him three Grammy Awards.

Ellington’s popularity enjoyed a renewal in 1956 after a memorable concert at the Newport Jazz Festival. That year he appeared on the cover of Time magazine and released a live recording of the Band’s performance at Newport, which would become the bestselling record of his career and introduce him to a new generation of jazz listeners. Shortly afterwards he began what would essentially become a never-ending world tour, taking him from Europe and Latin America to the Middle East and Asia (the inspiration for hisFar East Suite and many other works.) Even his death in 1974 could not halt the success of the Ellington Band, which continued to tour for many years under the leadership of his son Mercer Ellington.

Duke Ellington died on 24 May 1974. His last words were: "Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered."