Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and jazz-orchestra leader, whose career spanned more than fifty years as he led his orchestra from 1923 until his death. Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, DC, on April 29, 1899 to James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. Daisy and J.E. were both pianists. Daisy primarily played parlor songs and J.E. preferred operatic arias. James Ellington made blueprints for the United States Navy. At the age of seven, Ellington began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him to live elegantly. Ellington’s childhood friends noticed his bearing of a young nobleman, and began calling him Duke.
Though Ellington took piano lessons, he was more interested in baseball. He went to Armstrong Technical High School in Washington, where he was studying commercial art, and got his first job selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games. In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe, he wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag” (also known as the “Poodle Dog Rag”). Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday’s Poolroom at the age of fourteen. Hearing the poolroom pianists play ignited Ellington’s love for the instrument and he began to take his piano studies seriously. Ellington began listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in Washington, but in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where he vacationed with his mother during the summer months. Dunbar High School music teacher Henry Lee Grant gave him private lessons in harmony. With the additional guidance of Washington pianist and band leader Oliver “Doc” Perry, Ellington learned to read sheet music. Ellington started to play gigs in cafés and clubs in and around Washington, D.C. and his attachment grew to be so strong that he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1916.
Working as a freelance sign-painter from 1917, he began assembling groups to play for dances, and in 1919 met drummer Sonny Greer from New Jersey who encouraged Ellington’s ambition to become a professional musician. He also had a messenger job with the U.S. Navy and State Departments. At first, he played in other ensembles, and in late 1917 formed his first group, “The Duke’s Serenaders” His first play date was at the True Reformer’s Hall, where he took home 75 cents. Ellington played throughout the Washington, D.C. area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. The band included childhood friend Otto Hardwick, who started on string bass, then moved to C-melody sax and finally settled on alto saxophone; Arthur Whetsol on trumpet; Elmer Snowden on banjo; and Sonny Greer on drums. The band thrived, performing for both African-American and white audiences, a rarity at the time. Ellington married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson (d.1967), on July 2, 1918, when he was 19. After their marriage, on March 11, 1919, Edna gave birth to their only son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.
When his drummer Sonny Greer was invited to join the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York City, Ellington made the fateful decision to leave behind his successful career in Washington, D.C., and move to Harlem, becoming one of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance. The young band played at rent-house parties for income. In June 1923, a gig in Atlantic City, NJ, led to a play date at the prestigious Exclusive Club in Harlem. This was followed in September 1923 by a move to the Hollywood Club – 49th and Broadway – and a four-year engagement. The group was initially called Elmer Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra. They renamed themselves “The Washingtonians.” Snowden left the group in early 1924 and Ellington took over as bandleader. After a fire, the club was re-opened as the Club Kentucky (often referred to as the “Kentucky Club”).
Ellington made eight records in 1924, receiving composing credit on three including “Choo Choo.” In October 1926, Ellington made a career advancing agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills, giving Mills a 45% interest in Ellington’s future. In September 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club, and the offer passed to Ellington after Jimmy McHugh suggested him and Mills arranged an audition. At the Cotton Club, Ellington’s group performed all the music for the revues, which mixed comedy, dance numbers, vaudeville, burlesque, and music. The musical numbers were composed by Jimmy McHugh and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (later Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), with some Ellington originals mixed in. Weekly radio broadcasts from the club gave Ellington national exposure.
Ellington’s film work began with Black and Tan (1929), a nineteen-minute all-African-American RKO short in which he played the hero “Duke.” Ellington’s first period at the Cotton Club concluded in 1931. Ellington signed exclusively to Brunswick in 1932 and stayed with them through late 1936 (albeit with a temporary 1933-34 switch to Victor), when Irving Mills moved him from Brunswick to Mills’ new Master label. Ivie Anderson was hired as their featured vocalist in 1931, she is the vocalist on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932). Other records of this era include: “Mood Indigo” (1930), “Sophisticated Lady” (1933), “Solitude” (1934), and “In a Sentimental Mood” (1935). While the band’s United States audience remained mainly African-American in this period, the Ellington orchestra had a huge following overseas, exemplified by the success of their trip to England in 1933 and their 1934 visit to the European mainland.
The English visit saw Ellington win praise from members of the “serious” music community, including composer Constant Lambert, which gave a boost to Ellington’s interest in composing longer works. Those longer pieces had already begun to appear. He had composed and recorded Creole Rhapsody as early as 1931 (issued as both sides of a 12″ record for Victor and both sides of a 10″ record for Brunswick), and a tribute to his mother, “Reminiscing in Tempo”, took four 10″ record sides to record in 1935 after her death in that year. Symphony in Black (also 1935), a short film, featured his extended piece ‘A Rhapsody of Negro Life’. It introduced Billie Holiday, and won an Academy Award as the best musical short subject. Ellington and his Orchestra also appeared in the features Murder at the Vanities and Belle of the Nineties (both 1934),
From 1936, Ellington began to make recordings of smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) drawn from his then-15-man orchestra and he composed pieces intended to feature specific instrumentalist, as with “Jeep’s Blues” for Johnny Hodges, “Yearning for Love” for Lawrence Brown, “Trumpet in Spades” for Rex Stewart, “Echoes of Harlem” for Cootie Williams and “Clarinet Lament” for Barney Bigard. In 1937, Ellington returned to the Cotton Club which had relocated to the mid-town Theater District. Well known pieces continued to be recorded, such as “Caravan” in 1937, and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” the following year. The 1930s ended with a very successful European tour just as World War II loomed in Europe.
Ellington’s long-term aim was to extend the jazz form from the three-minute limit, of which he was an acknowledged master. While he had composed and recorded some extended pieces before, such works now became a regular feature of Ellington’s output. The first of these, “Black, Brown, and Beige” (1943), was dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, and the place of slavery and the church in their history. Ellington debuted Black, Brown and Beige in Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, beginning an annual series of concerts there over the next four years. Jump for Joy, a full-length musical based on themes of African-American identity, debuted on July 10, 1941 at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. A Broadway production of Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday, his sole book musical, premiered on December 23, 1946, under the direction of Nicholas Ray.
In the early post-war years, the music industry’s focus was shifting away from the big bands to the work of solo vocalists such as the young Frank Sinatra gaining popularity. The new small-group form of jazz, bebop, allowed club owners of smaller venues to draw in the jazz audience at a fraction of the cost of hiring a big band. Ellington continued on his own course through these tectonic shifts. He was able to tour most of Western Europe between April 6 and June 30, 1950. During the tour, according to Sonny Greer, the newer works were not performed, though Ellington’s extended composition, Harlem (1950) was in the process of being completed at this time. Ellington later presented its score to music-loving President Harry Truman.
Although Ellington’s career was generally at a low ebb in the early 1950s, his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956, returned him to wider prominence and exposed him to new audiences. The feature “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” comprised two tunes that had been in the band’s book since 1937 but largely forgotten. In 1957, CBS (Columbia Record’s parent corporation) aired a live television production of A Drum Is a Woman, an allegorical suite. Festival appearances at the new Monterey Jazz Festival and elsewhere provided venues for live exposure, and a European tour in 1958 was well received. Such Sweet Thunder (1957), based on Shakespeare’s plays and characters, and The Queen’s Suite (1958), dedicated to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, were products of the renewed impetus which the Newport appearance helped to create. The late 1950s also saw Ella Fitzgerald record her Duke Ellington Songbook (Verve) 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’.
Ellington at this time (with Strayhorn) began to work directly on scoring for film soundtracks, in particular Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with James Stewart, in which Ellington appeared fronting a roadhouse combo, and Paris Blues (1961), which featured Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as jazz musicians. Ellington and Strayhorn, always looking for new musical territory, produced a suite for John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday. Ellington was now performing all over the world; a significant part of each year was spent on overseas tours. He wrote an original score for director Michael Langham’s production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, which opened on July 29, 1963. Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, but was turned down. The Pulitzer Prize for music was eventually awarded posthumously in 1999.
In September of 1965, the first of his Sacred Concerts was given its premiere. It was an attempt to fuse Christian liturgy with jazz. This concert was followed by two others of the same type in 1968 and 1973, known as the Second and Third Sacred Concerts. Ellington continued to make vital and innovative recordings, including The Far East Suite (1966), New Orleans Suite (1970), Latin American Suite (1972) and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), much of it inspired by his world tours. Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon in 1969, an Honorary PhD from the Berklee College of Music in 1971, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country. Although he made two more stage appearances before his death, Ellington performed what is considered his final “full” concert in a ballroom at Northern Illinois University on March 20, 1974. Ellington died from lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday.
Though widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington himself embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a “liberating principle,” and referred his music to the more much more general category of “American Music,” rather than to a musical genre such as “jazz.” Ellington originated over 1,000 compositions, often in collaboration with others; his extensive repertoire is also the largest recorded legacy in jazz, with much of his extant work having passed into standards. He composed many extended compositions, or ‘suites’, as well as further shorter pieces, recorded for most American record companies of his era at some point, and appeared in several films, scoring several, and composed stage musicals. Due to his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and thanks to his eloquence and extraordinary charisma, he is generally considered to have elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on a par with other traditional genres of music.
My collection includes the following works by Ellington:
Come Sunday, from Suite Black, Brown, and Beige (1944).
Far East Suite (1966): Isfahan, and Ad Lib on Nippon.
Harlem: A Tone Parallel to Harlem (1951).
Solitude (1934) in Translubency (1945).
Something to Live For (1939).
Sophisticated Lady (1932).
Take the “A” Train (1941).
Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (1941).