Bandleader, composer, pianist
To tell the story of Duke Ellington is to tell the story of jazz; to tell the story of his orchestra is to tell the story of his compositions. The man, the music, the life that he lived, the compositions that he wrote, and the orchestra that he fronted were one and the same. As jazz critic Ralph Gleason wrote in 1966, "the man is the music, the music is the man, and never have the two things been more true than they are for Ellington." Duke Ellington is one of the most important figures in the history and development of American music. Often referred to as the greatest single talent in the history of jazz (for many, the history of music), he was variously referred to as "The Aristocrat of Swing," "The King of Swing," and "The King of Jazz."
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. The youngest of two children, his parents were James Edward "J.E." Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. His mother, a Washington, D.C., native, was a housewife; his father, a North Carolina native, was a butler, caterer, and finally a blueprint worker in the Navy Yard. His mother was a high school graduate and his father had an eighth-grade education. Both were well-spoken however, and sought only the best for Duke and his sister Ruth. As Ellington recalled in his autobiography, Music is My Mistress, he was "pampered and pampered, and spoiled rotten as a child." He was almost an adult when his sister was born.
Both parents played the piano, the mother "by note" and the father "by ear." Duke Ellington began taking piano lessons at the age of seven, studying with a local piano teacher called Miss Clinkscales. Unofficially he was guided by pianists Oliver "Doc" Perry, Louis Brown, and Louis Thomas. Piano was not his recognized talent initially; he leaned to drawing and painting. The other interest was baseball—seeing it played. As he wrote in his autobiography:
The only way for me to do that was to get a job at the baseball park... I had to walk around ... yelling, "Peanuts, popcorn, chewing gum, candy, cigars, cigarettes, and score cards!"... By the end of the season, I had been promoted to yelling, "Cold drinks, gents! Get 'em ice cold!"
Other early employment included dishwashing at a hotel and soda jerking at the Poodle Dog Cafe. As a result of the latter employment, he wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag," which met with favorable approval. He was a student at Armstrong High School but dropped out just three months short of graduation. Having won a poster contest sponsored by the NAACP in 1917, he was offered a scholarship by the Pratt Institute of Applied Art in Brooklyn but turned it down in order to pursue music full time. Ellington received his diploma in 1971, long after he was the recipient of several honorary doctorates. "I needed this diploma more than anything else," he wrote in his autobiography.
One of his first professional jobs as a musician was playing for a half magic, half fortune-telling act. One individual was featured; Ellington was the backup, with the job of matching the featured artist's moods. Then he became relief pianist for the leading local pianist. According to Ellington in his autobiography:
I was beginning to catch on around Washington, and I finally built up so much of a reputation that I had to study music seriously to protect it. Doc Perry had really taught me to read, and he showed me a lot of things on the piano. Then when I wanted to study some harmony, I went to Henry Grant.
The nickname "Duke" was given to him even before high school. It was a childhood friend who noted Ellington's impeccable taste in dress, food and lifestyle. He carried himself like one of means. He was a natural aristocrat, tall, debonair and urbane, with a sophisticated manner at all times.
Ellington formed his first band, The Duke's Serenaders, in 1917. The band's first job was at the True Reformers Hall in Washington, D.C. For five dollars a night (total), they played at dance halls and lodges. During the day, Ellington operated a sign and poster business. He also played with other bands, led by a contractor. When the contractor sent Ellington's band out on a job, one which paid $100, the contractor instructed Ellington to take $10 and bring him the remaining $90. Discovering this aspect of the business, within a short period, Ellington had assembled several bands and was supplying the city with "a band for any occasion."
Ellington also supplied bands for the wealthy in nearby Virginia. His personal earnings increased to $10,000 a year. He married his childhood sweetheart, Edna Thompson, in 1918. By age 20, Ellington was able to buy a house for his parents and purchase an automobile. Son Mercer, who in later years joined the band as trumpeter and road manager, was born in 1919.
The Duke's Serenadersa trio made up of Ellington on piano, Otto Hardwick on saxophone, and Sonny Greer on drumsmade its first trip to New York City in 1922, working with the clarinetist and leader Wilbur Sweatman. After a short while, they returned to Washington, not quite ready for the requirements of "the Big Apple." One year later, upon the suggestion of pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller, the trio, along with trumpeter Arthur Whetsol and banjoist Elmer Snowden, returned to New York City. This move brought an end to his marriage.
The five-piece band worked under the name The Washingtonians originally under the leadership of Snowden. Ellington assumed the group's leadership in 1924 and expanded the number to nine. By the time the band moved to the Cotton Club in 1927, it had grown to 11 musicians. Nightly radio broadcasts enhanced the band's popularity throughout the country. Joel Dreyfuss of The Washington Post for May 25, 1974, wrote:
The Cotton Club was a perfect place for him to develop his skills as a composer. There were new stage shows frequently and Ellington was required to write fresh music to accompany the shows, dance routines and tableaux. His tenure at the Cotton Club led to important recording contracts and between 1928 and 1931 he made more than one hundred and sixty recordings.
In 1929, the band played its first Broadway musical, Show Girl, and made the first of many films, Check and Double Check, in 1930. Other film appearances followed: Murder at the Vanities, Belle of the Nineties, A Day at the Races, Cabin in the Sky and Reveille with Beverly.
Ellington began experimenting with extended compositions in 1931, with the writing of Creole Rhapsody. He inaugurated a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City in January 1943. On this occasion, the band performed Ellington's monumental work Black, Brown and Beige. The annual Carnegie Hall concerts continued until 1955, with Ellington writing a new work for each occasion, including Liberian Suite, Harlem, Such Sweet Thunder, New World A Comin', and Deep South Suite. Written in 1963 for the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in Chicago was his "My People". There were five film scores provided by Ellington: Anatomy of a Murder, Paris Blues, Assault on a Queen, The Asphalt Jungle and Change of Mind. In 1957 he wrote the score for the television show production A Drum is a Woman (CBS). In 1970 he composed the ballet, The River, for Alvin Ailey and the American Ballet Theater.
The band's first trip to Europe took place in 1933, followed by another in 1939. Foreign tours became more and more frequent: to the USSR, Japan, and Australia, with return visits to Europe. An entire section of Music is My Mistress is devoted to the 1963 State Department Tour, a trip that he referred to in the book as "one of the most unusual and adventurous" the band had ever taken.
Ellington worked 20 hour days and was referred to as "the busiest man in the business." Ellington wrote in the foreword of the piano version of his Sacred Concerts:
The incomparable Ellington Orchestra ... was the only musical aggregation in the world playing 52 weeks a year and rarely with a day off. ... Little wonder that President Nixon appointed the personable Dr. Duke Ellington official goodwill envoy for American music abroad.
Ellington rarely featured himself as a soloist, though he was an extremely capable pianist. Instead, he fed ideas to the band. Wrote musicologist Eileen Southern, "His music represented the collective achievement of his sidemen, with himself at the forefront rather than the sole originator of the creative impulse." Ellington's bands were unique. As jazz historian Dan Morgenstern indicated:
The development of Ellington's band followed that of jazz bands in general. His originality expressed itself in what he did with this format and instrumentation, which was to imbue it with an unprecedented richness of timbre, texture and expressiveness. ... Each member of the ensemble was an individual voice, each had a special gift, each contributed to the totality of what could be called an organism as well as an organization.
Gleason in Celebrating the Duke reminded us that:
Duke lived well. He came from a family that lived well. ...He traveled in the 30s on his tours of the United States not on a bus, but in two railroad cars. "That was the way the President traveled."
Duke himself reminded us:
It's a matter of whether you want to play music or make money. I guess I like to keep a band so that I can write and hear the music the next day. The way to do that is to pay the band and keep it on tap fifty-two weeks a year. ... [B]y various little twists and turns, we manage to stay in business and make a musical profit. And a musical profit can put you way ahead of a financial loss.
The collection of instrumentalists playing Ellingtonia for close to half a century included Harold Baker, Sidney Bechet, Louis Bellson (the band's first white member), Barney Bigard, Jimmy Blanton, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Wilbur DeParis, Mercer Ellington (Duke's son), Tyree Glenn, Sonny Greer, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Russell Procope, Elmer Snowden, Rex Stewart, Billy Strayhorn (Ellington's collaborator, protégé, and alter ego), Clark Terry, Ben Webster and Cootie Williams.
Dreyfuss in The Washington Post for May 25, 1974, divided Ellingtonia into three periods: (1) the 1920s and 1930s, when he established his trademark—the large orchestra with virtuoso instrumentalists, (2) the 1940s, when he reached a height of productivity and became a culture hero, and (3) the period following his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956—Ellington's most adventurous. This was the period when he concentrated on extended works, including a satirical suite for the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut; My People, which traced the history of blacks in America on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; and his Sacred Concerts. The first of his sacred concerts was performed in 1965, at Grace Cathedral Church in San Francisco, California; the second, in 1968 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City; and the third, on United Nations Day in 1973 at Westminster Abbey in London.
Ellington wrote in the introduction to the score Sacred Concerts Complete: As I travel place to place by car, bus, train, plane ... taking rhythm to the dancers, harmony to the romantic, melody to the nostalgic, gratitude to the listener ... receiving praise, applause and handshakes, and at the same time, doing the thing I like to do, I feel that I am most fortunate because I know that God has blessed my timing. ... When a man feels that that which he enjoys in his life is only because of the grace of God, he rejoices, and sometimes dances.
Dreyfuss contended that Ellington's greatest contribution was perhaps "forcing the critical world to deal seriously with jazz as an art form." Most Ellington historians would concur with this assessment. Jazz journalist Leonard Feather wrote, "It is... Ellington ... of concert halls, cathedrals and festival sites around the world that deserves his longest life of all."
Ellington was deservedly honored during his lifetime. Recognition includes: the Spingarn Medal (NAACP, 1959); a gold medal from President Lyndon B. Johnson (1966); Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Science, 1968, 1969, 1973); National Association of Negro Musicians Award (1964); appointment to the National Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts (1968); Pied Piper Award (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, 1968); Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Richard M. Nixon (1969); Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1971); Down Beat Awards (Duke Ellington Band)First Place (1946, 1948, 1959, 1960, 1962-72); Esquire magazine (Duke Ellington Band), and the Gold Award (1945, 1946, 1947). He received honorary doctoral degrees from 16 institutions. In 1965 the Pulitzer music committee recommended Ellington for a special award, but the full Pulitzer committee turned down the recommendation.
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington died at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center on May 24, 1974. He had cancer of both lungs and a week prior to his death developed pneumonia. After his death, Western High School in Washington, D.C., was renamed The Duke Ellington School for the Arts. The Calvert Street Bridge, also in the nation's capitol, was named The Duke Ellington Bridge. Streets, schools, art centers and scholarships throughout the country have been named in his honor. The first of The International Duke Ellington Conferences was held in 1983, and continue annually. The U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp on April 29, 1986.
In 1988 the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington acquired more than 200,000 pages of documents reflecting his life and career, following more than three years of negotiation with the Ellington estate. The acquisition was made possible by a special $500,000 appropriation from Congress. Included were more than 3,000 original and orchestral compositions, 500 studio tapes, scrapbooks of world tours, more than 2,000 photographs, programs, posters, awards, citations and medals. The American Masters series, focusing on the cultural contributions of prominent American artists, included a twopart documentary on the music and influence of Ellington. "A Duke Named Ellington" was aired on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) July 18 and 25, 1988. The 1943 Carnegie Hall debut of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on January 23, 1943, was recreated in July 1989, Maurice Peres conducting, at Carnegie Hall.
Ellington excelled as a composer, pianist, and leader. He stood tall among his contemporaries and remains in that position more than two decades following his death. His instrument was his orchestra; together, they produced the epitome of sophisticated jazz for all others to emulate. The Duke is today a popular subject for conferences, dissertations, and biographies.
September 30, 2004: Ellington was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Source: "Jazz At Lincoln Center To Induct Inaugural Class of Musicians into The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame" (Press Release), September 30, 2004.
Yale University is a repository for Ellington materials. Other items are in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.