As a bandleader and composer, “The Duke” is jazz royalty
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Few musicians have made a stamp on American culture quite like Duke Ellington. Jazz is quintessentially American, and Duke Ellington and jazz go hand-in-hand. His career spans an unbelievable 50 years, from the early days of jazz in the ‘20s up to modern jazz in the ‘70s.
Duke Ellington was born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. Both his parents were accomplished pianists -- his mother preferred parlor songs and his father more classical pieces. Ellington himself began taking private piano lessons at the age of seven. He got the nickname “the Duke” around this time, after neighborhood friends noticed his dapper style and easy manner that came at such a young age.
Ellington applied this casual attitude to his music studies. During his teenage years, he would compose songs offhandedly while working. Though he wasn’t a fan of the classical repertoire he learned during piano lessons, he admired the stride piano players he heard in clubs around town. He’d also travel around the Mid-Atlantic area to hear notable ragtime and stride players like Fats Waller.
He spent his teen years taking private lessons from his high school music teacher Henry Lee Grant and local bandleader Doc Perry. Ellington dropped out of school in 1916, and would spend the rest of the decade taking odd jobs and freelancing as a bandleader. He formed his first group, The Duke’s Serenaders, in 1917.
After a brief, unsuccessful stint in Harlem, and then a string of wildly popular shows in Atlantic City, Ellington returned to New York City in 1923 to play a residency at the Hollywood Club. In 1924, he became bandleader of the group and renamed them The Washingtonians. That year, Ellington would also make his first recording, “Choo Choo.”
What would become Ellington’s big break came in 1927, when he was offered a residency at the Cotton Club after many more prominent bandleaders had turned it down. The Cotton Club was Harlem’s most popular nightclub by far, and drew crowds from well beyond the neighborhood -- particularly wealthy, white patrons. The club also had a national radio show, which broadcasted Ellington’s original scores around the country.
Ellington and his orchestra remained popular throughout the ‘30s during the Great Depression. He signed a contract to record with Brunswick records between 1932 to 1936, during which the band would release some of their most popular singles -- “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” (1932), “Sophisticated Lady” (1933), and “In a Sentimental Mood” (1935). By the late ‘30s, the jazz craze was in full swing, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra were at the forefront. His massive popularity allowed him to hire whomever he pleased and experiment with jazz forms. The band could also tour for the first time, first in the United States and then in Europe, where classical composers inspired Ellington to write longer compositions.
This inspiration would become a central theme of Ellington’s work in the ‘40s. 1943’s “Black, Brown, and Beige” was a long-form masterpiece that told the story of black Americans throughout history. Though he debuted this composition at Carnegie Hall, it did not receive critical or popular acclaim. Ellington would continue writing and releasing long-form works, from one-off songs to complete musicals, but they never had the same success as his shorter songs. However, in 1946, his musical Beggar’s Holiday was staged on Broadway.
The early ‘50s were the most difficult part of Ellington’s career, as solo artists became favored over big bands. Many of his greatest band members, such as Sonny Greer and Johnny Hodges, left during this time as well. Yet Ellington and his orchestra were still able to tour Europe, and even played for President Harry Truman.
Ellington’s career was resurrected by an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. The long-form song he would play there, "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," became an instant hit, and landed Ellington a story in Time magazine, making him one of the few jazz musicians to do so. A recording of this concert, Ellington at Newport, was the first record put out during his long and successful recording contract with Columbia records.
Throughout the rest of the ‘50s, the Duke Ellington Orchestra would tour and record steadily. Ellington’s compositional output during this time is extraordinary. Such Sweet Thunder (1957), a collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald on the Duke Ellington Songbook (1957), a spot in the canonical “Great American Songbook,” and the first major film score composed by a black artist, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), are just a few of his massive achievements during this time.
Ellington’s career slowed down in the ‘60s, but not by much. During this time, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and an Honorary Ph.D. from the Berklee College of Music in 1971. In 1966, he would record The Far East Suite, widely considered one of his greatest masterpieces. He would also begin his Sacred Concerts, a series of concerts which mixed Christian themes and jazz. Though not particularly popular, they were deeply personal projects that Ellington repeated in 1968 and 1973. He performed his last concert on March 20, 1974 at Northern Illinois University. Ellington died on May 24, 1974 at the age of 75.
Countless articles and books have been written about Duke Ellington’s myriad contributions to jazz and American musical history. His compositional output alone is unparalleled. It spans so many different styles of jazz, and incorporates so many musical elements from all over the world. Add to this his mentorship of rising jazz musicians and his always charming demeanor, and you have a musician and composer entirely worthy of the name, “The Duke.”