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  • Writer's pictureJazz Attack

Jazz Greats: Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born April 29, 1899 in Washington, DC. His parents encouraged his love of music with his mother teaching him how to play piano. His nickname “Duke” came from his childhood friends, specifically Edgar McEntee, who were impressed by his suave outfits and noble manners. Duke composed his first song, Soda Fountain Rag, at the age of 15 and began playing professionally at 17. In 1918, Duke married his high school sweetheart Edna Thompson and they soon had their son and future bandleader, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.

Duke was part of a band in Washington, but in 1923 he moved to New York and began leading his own group, the Washingtonians. The band started as a sextet but quickly grew into a 10-piece band. The group regularly consisted of other jazz legends such as Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams. In 1927, after gaining a fanbase, the Washingtonians were hired as a regular house band at the Cotton Club. This meant Duke’s band now had regular radio broadcasts and recordings, gaining him much more notoriety. He was also able to expand the band to a 14-piece. In 1931, Ellington wrote one of his greatest hits, It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing.

In 1933, In Duke’s band began touring in Europe where he clashed with the traditional idea of a unified big band sound and instead focused on his soloist’s individual strengths. Allowing them to play against each other and have extended solos. 

When talking about Duke Ellington, it’s impossible not to include Billy Strayhorn, who was an arranger, composer, and pianist and worked extensively with Ellington. Strayhorn composed some of his most popular songs, such as Take The A Train in 1939. In the late 1930s and 1940s, Ellington wrote many of his other most well known songs such as Don’t Get Around Much Any More, In a Mellow Tone, and I’m Beginning To See The Light.

Though the popularity of big band music began to wane after World War II, Ellington continued to write and perform. He also began exploring the idea of composing classical jazz. He composed several suites in the 40s and 50s such as Black, Brown and Beige, Liberian Suite, and even a reorchestrated version of the Nutcracker Suite. He wrote for ballets, theater, and television. He was known for his sense of musical drama and compositions that were full of complex rhythms and melodies, but still accessible to all listeners. Ellington was nominated for 22 grammy awards and won 11. He was awarded the Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966 and the Trustees Award, along with Billy Strayhorn, in 1968. Mood Indigo was inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1975. Duke was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.

Duke Ellington died of lung cancer on May 24, 1974. His last words were, "Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered." Duke’s career spanned over half a century. Countless songs of his are now considered jazz standards. He not only changed the format of jazz, but built a foundation on which all American music could grow.

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