One of the greatest jazz bandleaders, arrangers, recording artist, and composers of all time is none other than Duke Ellington. Born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C., Ellington was destined for musical talent. His family was musically talented; both of his parents could play piano even though neither could read music. Ellington did not grow up in a poor family; and he had educational advantages that many black musicians in his time didn’t have. He received the nickname “Duke” from a fellow classmate, because of his elegant way of dressing and his regal behavior.
While in school elementary school, he received piano lessons, and by the time he reached high school, he was already performing locally. He was also a fairly good painter and won a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. But his art career was overshadowed by his love for music.
Music won his heart, so art wasn’t in the picture. At the age of 17, he wrote his first song, “The Soda Fountain Rag”, which was his debut.
In 1919, Ellington’s son Mercer was born. With encouragement from Fats Waller, Duke moved to New York with his newly formed group, The Washingtonians. He later formed the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which by 1930 had grown to include 12 musicians. During these early years in New York, Ellington developed skills that he would carry throughout his entire career. He evolved from band member to leader and performed in a variety of clubs. His writing and arranging skills also evolved and became more defined.
These new skills would be his unique compositional style. Some of Ellington’s new influences were stride piano players like Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson and ragtime piano players.
One of the best career moves made by Ellington was his booking at The Cotton Club in Harlem, New York. His band was established house performers there from 1927 to 1932. Ellington’s influence on the jazz community was definite from that point on. Radio broadcasts from the club made Ellington famous across America and also gave him the financial security to assemble a top notch band that he could write music specifically for. Musicians tended to stay with the band for long periods of time. For example, saxophone player Harry Carney would remain with Duke nonstop from 1927 to Ellington’s death in 1974. In 1928 clarinetist Barney Bigard left King Oliver and joined the band. Ellington and Bigard would later co-write one of the orchestra’s signature pieces “Mood Indigo” in 1930.
In 1929 Bubber Miley, was fired from the band because of his alcoholism and replaced with Cootie Williams. Ellington also appeared in his first film “Black and Tan” later that year. The Duke Ellington Orchestra left the Cotton Club in 1931 (although he would return on an occasional basis throughout the rest of the Thirties) and toured the U.S. and Europe. During Duke Ellington’s tenure at the Cotton Club, he had gone from an aspiring New York bandleader to a leading figure in the world of jazz. He had become well known far beyond New York. Along with the Cotton Club reviews, he had made many records, radio broadcasts, special performances, and even film appearances. He officially had a national following, and he needed to create new music that would address both his national and international audiences. Ellington was set to accomplish new things in the world of jazz.
Ellington’s band was ahead of their time style wise, and they could really swing. Ellington’s first great achievements came in the three-minute song form, and he later wrote music for all kinds of settings: the ballroom, the comedy stage, the nightclub, the movie house, the theater, the concert hall, and the cathedral. Ellington’s different music styles became more pronounced and recognizable.His first style was his jungle style, which included much growling on the instruments. This style was built around the raucous playing of Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, and Tricky Sam Nanton. The song “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” is a good example of this style of playing. The floor shows were elaborately designed around the music the band played. His next style was his mood style, is known for his exquisitely beautiful ballads played by saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Some of his most known mood style selections are “Solitude”, “Prelude to a Kiss”, and “Lotus Blossom”.
Another style is his concerto style, in which he featured Cootie Williams, Jimmy Hamilton, and Barney Bigard. By the early 1940s, Ellington experimented with extended composition and his orchestra toured the US and Europe extensively. In 1943, Ellington inaugurated a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall with the premiere of Black, Brown, and Beige. He continued to expand the scope of his compositions and activities as a bandleader throughout his life. His foreign tours became increasingly frequent and successful; his travel experiences served as the inspiration for his many works about people, places and trains. He wrote nearly two thousand compositions before his death in 1974. His fourth style was his standard style, where he approached his arrangements in the same manner as the other big bands. He also had a dance style that kind of coincided with his jungle style.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Ellington Orchestra was able to make the change from the Hot Jazz of the 1920s to the Swing music of the 1930s. The song “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” even came to define the era. This ability to adapt and grow with the times kept the Ellington Orchestra a major force in Jazz up until Duke’s death in the 1970s. Throughout the Forties and Fifties Ellington’s fame and influence continued to grow. The band continued to produce Jazz standards like “Take the ‘A’ Train”, “Perdido”, “The ‘C’ Jam Blues” and “Satin Doll”. In the 1960s Duke wrote several religious pieces, and composed “The Far East Suite”. He also collaborated with a very diverse group of musicians whose styles spanned the history of Jazz. He played in a trio with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, sat in with both the Louis Armstrong All-Stars and the John Coltrane Quartet, and he had a double big-band date with Count Basie.
Duke Ellington influenced millions of people both around the world and at home. He gave American music its own sound for the first time. In his fifty year career, he played over 20,000 performances in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East as well as Asia. The extent of Ellington’s innovations helped to redefine the various forms in which he worked. Duke Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, along with 13 Grammys, the Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country.
Simply put, Ellington transcends boundaries and fills the world with a treasure trove of music that renews itself through every generation of fans and music-lovers. His legacy continues to live on and will endure for generations to come. His son Mercer Ellington took over his band after his death, and his grandson Paul Ellington is over the Ellington Estate now. The Ellington Fund helps to fund the Ellington School of Arts where students are inspired to achieve their highest musical capabilities. Duke Ellington is truly a classic indeed.