Happy birthday Duke Ellington!


Duke Ellington (April 29, 1899-May 24, 1974) was an American jazz pianist and composer. He is ranked as one of the most important musicians to come out of American jazz. He recorded over 1,000 compositions and worked with the best of the jazz world throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He is remembered as being humble and socially astute, always deflecting attention onto others at public appearances. He was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1999, along with many other awards and recognitions bestowed upon him during and after his life.


Ellington (born Edward Kennedy Ellington) was born in Washington, D.C. to James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. As a child, he listened to a slew of pianists, and eventually began taking piano lessons himself. He was directly influenced by Oliver "Doc" Perry, and inspired by James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts when he saw them play. Ellington started playing gigs around D.C. and eventually turned down a scholarship to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to keep playing in D.C., where he had made a name for himself. He performed mainly with Otto Hardwick on alto saxophone, Arthur Whetsol on trumpet, Elmer Snowden on banjo and Sonny Greer on drums. (Image source)




Ellington followed his drummer Sonny Greer to New York, but eventually became discouraged after a round of trying to survive by playing rent-house parties. They returned to D.C. after just a few months but continued to play around D.C. and in Atlantic City. One gig Ellington played in Atlantic City got him another up in Harlem, and soon after he was playing regular shows at the Hollywood Club with Elmer Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra. Ellington took over as bandleader in 1924 after Snowden left the group, and eventually the group became known as Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra after a fire at Hollywood caused the club to reinvent itself as the Kentucky Club. The orchestra grew as big as ten members. (Image source)


Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra

In 1927, Ellington signed a deal with agent Irving Mills, who would go on to get Ellington deals with Brunswick, Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Perfect, Pathe, and several other labels. Ellington's career skyrocketed in the 1930's, with some of his most notable recordings including "Sophisticated Lady," "Cocktails for Two," and "I Let a Song Go Out of my Heart." By this time, Ellington and his band had moved up to play regularly at Harlem's Cotton Club.


During the Depression, Ellington and his band went on tour to continue earning, as the recording industry was all but gutted. The band had a growing following in Europe, one that preceded the attention of white audiences in the United States.

Ellington first collaborated with Billy Strayhorn on the song "Take the "A" Train," which became a hit in 1941. Following that, a close partnership emerged. Ellington is quoted as saying that Strayhorn was "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine." Strayhorn contributed most notably as a lyricist, but also polished Duke's compositions.


During the beginning of the 1940's, Ellington reached the pinnacle of his career. Though he wanted to produce longer works, they weren't as well-received as his short pieces. "Cotton Tail", "Main Stem", "Harlem Airshaft" were just some that came out of this period. Some of the main contributors to Ellington's style and to his recordings include Jimmy Blanton, Ben Webster, and Mary Lou Williams.

The emergence of Rhythm and Blues in the early 1950s pulled audiences away from Ellington, though he still remained a force. But in 1956, Ellington came back to the fore after a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The performance garnered much attention, including a spread in Time magazine, and the recording of the performance, Ellington at Newport, would go on to become one of the most commonly played albums of his discography.


Ellington also contributed to film during his career, including music for the movies Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Paris Blues (1961).


Ellington has been ranked among the top musicians ever produced by the United States. He has been awarded more than 10 Grammy's and nine of his recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Some of his other awards and recognitions include a Pulitzer Prize; honorary degrees from Columbia University and Berklee School of Music; and membership in the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and the French Legion of Honor. He was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966.




Selected works





Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Tuesday, 29 April 2014
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