With pure talent and a passion for music, he made some of the greatest jazz music, inspiring millions and showcasing the world what a talented musician can create. Considered as one of the greatest jazz artists ever to live, let’s explore the life and history of Duke Ellington. Let’s get started!
Early Years of Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, in Washington DC to parents James Ellington and Daisy Ellington. Duke was born in a musical family as both his parents were pianists. Music had embedded itself within Duke from a very young age. His family had always shown racial pride and support in their community. When Duke was seven years old, he began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. The story behind Duke Ellington being called the “Duke” is also very interesting. Ellington’s mother usually surrounded her son with dignified and poise women to reinforce his manners and embed elegance within him. And due to this, his friends noticed his elegant manners, dapper dressing, and overall persona which resembled that of a young nobleman, and therefore he was nicknamed the “Duke”. He credits his friend Edgar McEntree for the nickname.
Although Duke Ellington took piano lessons, he was often attracted to baseball. He attended the Armstrong Technical High School and even mentioned once that President Roosevelt would often come by on his horse, stop there and watch them play. During his childhood, he often sneaked into Frank Holiday’s Poolroom and there he heard the poolroom pianists perform which ignited that spark within his soul for the instrument. From that moment on, he started to dwell deep into the study and learning of the piano. In the summer of 1914, Duke Ellington worked as a soda jerk at the Poodle Doc Cafe, and there he wrote his first composition called “Soda Fountain Rag”. This piece was created all by ear, as Duke has not yet learned to write and read music.
Throughout the following years of his teenage, he continued to listen to famous pianists like Doc Perry, Louis Brown, Blind Johnny, Lester Dishman, Gertie Wells, and many more such artists. Ellington also took lessons in harmony from a Dunbar High School music teacher called Henry Lee Grant. And along with additional guidance from pianist and band leader Oliver Doc Perry, he learned and mastered the art of reading and writing music. This helped bring a professional touch to his music and improve his overall techniques and performance. Later on, in New York City, he took advice from various artists like Will Marion Cook, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet to improve and evolve his musical talents. Soon after, Ellington has started performing at various clubs in and around Washington D.C. His passion and attraction towards music grew to whole new heights and three months before graduating from high school, he dropped out to pursue a career as a professional musician.
The Music Career of Duke Ellington
Initially, in 1917, Ellington was working as a freelance sign painter up until he met drummer Sonny Green who pushed and motivated him to pursue a professional music career. Soon, Ellington moved out of his parents’ home and bought his own as he was doing pretty well as a successful pianist. Earlier Duke used to perform in other ensembles, but in late 1917 he formed his first group called “The Duke’s Serenaders”. His band included his childhood friend Otto Hardwick who played the bass, Arthur Whetsol on trumpet, Elmer Snowden on Banjo, and Sonny Greens on drums. They performed and played throughout the D.C. area and also Virginia. Later when his drummer Sonny Greens moved to New York City, Ellington also left his successful career in Washington and moved to Harlem. And eventually, he joined the Harlem Renaissance.
In June 1923, Ellington and the artists performed at many gigs in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and other prestigious clubs in Harlem. And later, in September 1923, Ellington performed at the Hollywood Club for a four-year period which gave him a solid base and foundation in his jazz music career. Soon after, Ellington made eight records in 1924, and also received credits on the composition of various songs like “Choo Choo”, and in 1925 for four songs to “Chocolate Kiddies”, which starred Lottie Gee and Adelaide Hall. Then in October 1926, Ellington signed an agreement with agent publisher Irving Mills, giving Mills a forty-five percent interest in Duke Ellington’s future. And throughout 1924 to 1926, Ellington started recording and creating various tracks, and soon, the Cotton Club Orchestra was formed. From here on his jazz music career started to grow at a rapid pace.
Then in 1929, the Cotton Club Orchestra appeared on stage for quite some time on Florenz Ziegfeld’s Show Girl. Ellington led the orchestra by conducting from the keyboard using piano cues and visual gestures. It was very rare when he conducted using a baton. By 1932 his orchestra consisted of six brass instruments, four reeds, and a four-man rhythm section. Soon after, Ellington signed exclusively to Brunswick in 1932 and stayed with them through late 1936. Although the band’s audience remained mainly African-American in this period, the Ellington orchestra had a significant following overseas because of the success of their trip to England and Scotland in 1933 and their 1934 visit to the European mainland. After 1936, Ellington began to make recordings with smaller groups like sextets, octets, and nonets, drawn from his fifteen men orchestra, he composed pieces intended to feature a specific instrumentalist.
Duke Ellington’s popularity increased incredibly in the 1940s when he composed several legendary masterpieces like the “Concerto for Cootie,” “Cotton Tail” and “Ko-Ko.” Some of his best hits included “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Solitude” and “Satin Doll.” A number of these spectacular songs were sung by the impressive Ivie Anderson, who was an all-time favorite female vocalist of Duke’s group. With his amazing music style and remarkable performances, he attained widespread fame and love due to his incredible musical talents. One of his best and most famous pieces “Take the A Train” composed by Billy Strayhorn, was recorded for commercial purposes and referred to a subway line in New York City.
Later during that time period due to the War, musicians enlisting in the military and travel restrictions made touring difficult for the big bands and dancing became subject to a new tax, which continued for many years, affecting the choices of club owners. By the time World War II ended, the focus of popular music was shifting towards singing crooners. As the cost of hiring big bands had increased, club owners now found smaller jazz groups more cost-effective. During this period, Ellington was able to tour most of Western Europe between April 6 and June 30, 1950, with the orchestra playing for over eighty days. Then in the late 1950s, Ellington and Strayhorn began to work on film soundtrack scoring, some of their works include “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Paris Blues”.
Then in the early 1960s, Ellington embraced recording with artists who had been friendly rivals in the past or were younger musicians who focused on different styles. During this period, he recorded some amazing jazz music with various artists like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, and others. Soon after, he was now performing all over the world. And a significant part of each year was spent on overseas tours. As a consequence, he formed new working relationships with artists from around the world. From 1959 to 2000, Duke Ellington received and earned twelve Grammy Awards, out of which he received nine when he was alive. He truly created soulful and harmonious music, which made people experience some of the best jazz music ever created.
Personal Life and Later Years of Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington lived a very fulfilling and amazing life and had a remarkable music career that spanned over six decades. He married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thomosin on July 2, 1918. Then soon after in March 1919, they had the birth of their son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington. Ellington was joined in New York City by his wife and son in the late twenties, but the couple soon permanently separated.
After having an amazing and inspiring journey in life, Duke Ellington passed away on May 24, 1974, due to complications from lung cancer and pneumonia, which was a few weeks after his seventy-fifth birthday. His funeral was attended by over twelve thousand people which was held at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine. Duke Ellington’s last words were "Music is how I live, why I live, and how I will be remembered."
Duke Ellington was one of the most prominent and successful jazz musicians of his time and is remembered for his amazing and soulful music to date. Having received numerous prestigious awards which included several Grammy Awards, The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and many more. His legacy continues to inspire and touch millions of lives even today with his mesmerizing and unique music.
Listen to Incredible Jazz Music on Calm Radio
Listen to Duke Ellington and many other jazz music legends on Calm Radio. From channels like Jazz Piano, Just Jazz, Light Jazz Piano, Smooth Jazz and Mellow Jazz, and many other jazz music channels featuring famous jazz musicians like Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges, Cotton Club, and legendary jazz music tracks like Take the A Train, and much more on Calm Radio.