Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974), also known simply as Duke (see Jazz royalty), was an American jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader.
Many regard Duke Ellington as the most important figure to emerge from the U.S. jazz scene in the twentieth century, although Ellington himself might have quibbled with the description, as he was reluctant to describe his work as anything more specific than "music". The word jazz was too narrow for Ellington, a man whose greatest compliment was to describe others who had impressed him as "beyond category".
Indeed, Ellington has proved to be enigmatic, slipping through the easy classifications of biographers. Musicians run into much the same kind of problem when dealing with Ellington's compositions. Musically, he wore many hats, and he could never settle on just one.
Through the ranks of Duke Ellington's Orchestra passed some of the biggest names in jazz, including Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Bubber Miley, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Sonny Greer, Otto Hardwick, Clark Terry, Jimmy Blanton, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, and Wellman Braud.
Many of these musicians played in Ellington's orchestra for decades, and while most were noteworthy in their own right, it was Ellington's musical genius that melded them into one of the most well-known orchestral units in the history of jazz. His compositions were often written specifically for the style and skills of these individuals, such as "Jeep's Blues" for Johnny Hodges, and "The Mooche" for Tricky Sam Nanton.
Ellington was one of the twentieth century's best-known African-American celebrities. He recorded for many American record companies, and appeared in several films. Ellington and his orchestra toured the whole of the United States and Europe regularly before World War II. After the war, they continued to travel widely internationally.
Duke's father, James Edward Ellington, born in Lincolnton, North Carolina on April 15, 1879, was the son of a former slave. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 with his family. Ellington was born to J.E. and Daisy Kennedy Ellington at 2129 Ward Place NW (the home of his maternal grandparents) in Washington. J.E. made blueprints for the United States Navy; he also worked as a White House butler for additional income. Daisy and J.E. were both piano players, and at the age of seven or eight Ellington began taking piano lessons from a Mrs. Clinkscales who lived at 1212 Street NW (the address erroneously, but commonly, given as his childhood home).
In his autobiography, Ellington claims he missed more lessons than he went to, feeling that the piano was not his talent. Over time, this would change. Ellington sneaked into Frank Holiday's Poolroom at fourteen and began to gain a greater respect for music. Hearing a mentor play the piano ignited Ellington's love for the instrument and he began to take his piano studies seriously.
He began performing professionally at the age of seventeen. Instead of going to an academically-oriented high school, he attended Armstrong Manual Training School to study commercial art. Three months before he was to graduate, he left school to pursue his interest in music. He never made broad claims for his piano playing, saying that many Washington piano teachers were better. The British pianist Stan Tracey has counted this by claiming that Ellington 'had chops', but often chose to focus on the melody that sprung from a number rather that show off his technical ability
Duke Ellington began his artistic career as a sign painter in Washington, D.C., but by 1923 he had formed a small dance band known as The Washingtonians (which included drummer Sonny Greer), and had moved to New York City. Shortly thereafter, the group became the house band of the Club Kentucky (often referred to as the "Kentucky Club"), an engagement which set the stage for the biggest opportunity in Ellington's life. In 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem's Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington and was accepted. With a weekly radio broadcast and famous clientele nightly pouring in to see them, Ellington's popularity was assured.
Ellington's band by now had become a large orchestra and the ranks had been filled by many men who would become famous in their own right. Trumpeter Bubber Miley was the first major soloist, an early experimenter in jazz trumpet growling. Miley is credited with morphing the band's style from rigid dance instrumentation to a more "New Orleans", or earthy style. An alcoholic, Miley had to leave the band before they gained wider notoriety, and died in 1930 at the age of twenty-eight. Johnny Hodges joined the orchestra in 1928 and stayed until his death in 1970, except for two brief sabbaticals. Hodges became the band's undisputed leading soloist, the king of romantic alto saxophone ballads with his swooning, creamy style remaining influential for years.
Barney Bigard, formerly a member of King Oliver's band, was a master of New Orleans jazz clarinet and stayed with the band for twelve years. Harry Carney was one of the original innovators of the baritone saxophone, winning each Downbeat magazine poll until the emergence of Gerry Mulligan. Carney, who also pioneered circular breathing, was the longest lasting member of the orchestra, joining in 1927 and remaining with the group until his death in 1974 (just several months after Ellington's). Lawrence Brown brought a buttery, elegant trombone style that conflicted with that of Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, who was the originator of many unique trombone stylings, most notably the plunger mute technique. Filling out the rhythm section* were Ellington's childhood friend Sonny Greer, who stayed with the unit until 1950, and guitarist Fred Guy.
The 1930s saw Ellington's popularity continue to increase, largely aresult of the promotional skills of Duke's manager Irving Mills, who got more than his fair share of co-composer credits out of the deal. Ellington would finally break with Mills in 1937.
While their United States audience remained mostly African-American in this period, though the Cotton Club had a near exclusive white clientele, a 1934 trip to Europe showed that the band had a huge following overseas. At home, meanwhile, Mills arranged a private train just for the band, so that they would not have to suffer the indignities of segregated accommodations while touring the South.
Ellington in the 1940s
The band reached a creative peak in the early 1940s, when Ellington wrote for an orchestra of distinctive voices and displayed tremendous creativity. Some of the musicians created a sensation in their own right. The short-lived Jimmy Blanton transformed the use of the double bass in jazz, allowing it to function as a solo rather than a rhythm instrument alone. Ben Webster too, the Orchestra's first regular tenor saxophonist, started a rivalry with Johnny Hodges as the Orchestra's foremost voice in the sax section. Ray Nance joined in, replacing Cootie Williams who had "defected", contemporary wags claimed, to Benny Goodman. Nance, however, added violin to the instrumental colours Ellington had at his disposal. A recording of Nance's first concert date, at Fargo, North Dakota, in November 1940, is probably the most effective display of the band at the peak of its powers during this period.
Three-minute masterpieces flowed from the minds of Ellington, Billy Strayhorn (from 1939), Duke's son Mercer Ellington, and members of the Orchestra. "Cottontail", "Mainstem", "Harlem Airshaft", "Streets of New York" and dozens of others date from this period.
Ellington's long-term aim became to extend the jazz form from the three-minute limit of the 78 rpm record side, of which he was an acknowledged master. He had composed and recorded "Creole Rhapsody" as early as 1931, but it was not until the 1940s that this became a regular feature of Ellington's work. In this, he was helped by Strayhorn, who had enjoyed a more thorough training in the forms associated with classical music than Ellington himself. The first of these, "Black, Brown, and Beige" (1943), was dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, the place of slavery, and the church in their history. Unfortunately, starting a regular pattern, Ellington's longer works were not well received; Jump for Joy, an earlier musical, closed after only six performances in 1941.
In 1951, Ellington suffered a major loss of personnel, with Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown, and most significantly, Johnny Hodges leaving to pursue other ventures.
Revival of his career
Ellington's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956, was to return him to wider prominence. The feature "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue", with saxophonist Paul Gonsalves's six-minute saxophone solo, had been in the band's book for a while, but on this occasion it nearly created a riot. The revived attention should not have surprised anyone — Hodges had returned to the fold the previous year, and Ellington's collaboration with Strayhorn had been renewed around the same time, under terms which the younger man could accept. Such Sweet Thunder (1957), based on Shakespeare's plays and characters, and The Queen's Suite the following year (dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II), were products of the renewed impetus which the Newport appearance had helped to create.
The late 1950s also saw Ella Fitzgerald record her Duke Ellington Songbook with Ellington and his orchestra, a clear recognition that Ellington's songs had now become part of the cultural canon known as the "Great American Songbook".
In the early 1960s, Ellington was between recording contracts, which allowed him to record with a variety of new artists. In 1962, he participated in a session which produced the "Money Jungle" (United Artists) album with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and recorded with John Coltrane for Impulse, who also recorded Ellington and his Orchestra with Coleman Hawkins. Musicians who had previously worked with Ellington returned to the Orchestra as members: Lawrence Brown in 1960 and Cootie Williams two years later.
Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, but was turned down. His reaction: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young". In 1966, he performed his first Sacred Concert, an attempt at fusing Christian liturgy with jazz, which was followed by two others. This caused enormous controversy in what was already a tumultuous time in the United States. Many saw the Sacred Music suites as an attempt to reinforce commercial support for organized religion, though the Duke simply said it was "the most important thing I've done", perhaps with a touch of hyperbole.
Though his later work is overshadowed by his music of the early 1940s, Ellington continued to make vital and innovative recordings, including The Far East Suite (1966), "The New Orleans Suite" (1970), and "The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse" (1971), until the end of his life. Increasingly, this period of music is being reassessed as people realize how creative Ellington was right up to the end of his life. More controversally, for some critics, such as James Lincoln Collier, continue to dismiss Ellington's later work.
Duke Ellington was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country. He died of lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York City.
Work in films and the theatre
Ellington's film work began in 1929 with the short film Black and Tan. He also appeared in the film Check and Double Check. It was a major hit and helped introduce Ellington to a wide audience. He and his Orchestra continued to appear in films throughout the 1930s and 1940s, both in short films and in features such as Murder at the Vanities (1934). In the late 1950s, his work in films took the shape of scoring for soundtracks, notably Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with James Stewart, in which he also appeared fronting a roadhouse combo, and Paris Blues (1961), which featured Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as jazz musicians.
A long-time fan of William Shakespeare, he wrote an original score for Timon of Athens that was first used in the Stratford Festival production that opened July 29, 1963 for director Michael Langham, who has used it for several subsequent productions, most recently in an adaptation by Stanley Silverman that expands on the score with some of Ellington's best-known works.
A large memorial to Duke Ellington, created by sculptor Robert Graham, was dedicated in 1997 in New York's Central Park, near Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, an intersection named Duke Ellington Circle. In his birthplace of Washington, D.C., there stands a school dedicated to his honor and memory: the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. The school educates talented students, who are considering careers in the arts, by providing intensive arts instruction and strong academic programs that prepare students for post-secondary education and professional careers. The Duke Ellington Ballroom, located on the Northern Illinois University Campus, was dedicated in 1980. Although he made two more stage appearances before his death, what is considered Ellington's final "full" concert was performed there March 20, 1974.
Stevie Wonder wrote the song "Sir Duke" as a tribute to Ellington in 1977.
The Ellington Orchestra itself continued intermittently as a "ghost band", led by Mercer Ellington (1919–1996), after his father's death.
A partial discography
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Great American Songbook