Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American jazz composer, pianist and bandleader. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973. Both are the highest civilian honors of each country. He was known as "The Duke" (see: Jazz royalty).
Duke Ellington was a major force in jazz from the 1920s through the 1960s and his work continues to be influential today. He is considered by many to be the greatest American composer. He had many hits including Take the A Train (words and music by Billy Strayhorn), Satin Doll, Rockin' in Rhythm, Mood Indigo, Caravan, Sophisticated Lady, and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing". Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Ellington often shared composer credit with his manager Irving Mills until they had a falling out in the late 1930s. Billy Strayhorn became Ellington's collaborator (not always credited) from 1940 until Strayhorn's death in the mid 1960s.
His works were always tailored to the talents of the musicians in his band, including Johnny Hodges, Bubber Miley, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Sonny Greer, Otto Hardwick, and Wellman Braud. Many musicians stayed with him for decades.
Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. to James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. James Ellington made blueprints for the United States Navy; he also worked as a White House butler for additional income. Since both of Duke's parents played piano, Duke took piano lessons at the age of 7. With practice and hard work, he began performing professionally at age 17. He gradually became more attracted to the arts. Instead of going to an academic-oriented high-school, he attended Armstrong Manual Training School to study commercial art. In his spare time, he would listen to ragtime pianists. He sought out Harvey Brooks in Philadelphia, and after he learned some tricks from the pianist, he found in himself a new vigor for music. He learned to play again, and started doing gigs at cafés and clubs in the area. He dropped out of school three months before he would have graduated so that he could further pursue a career in music.
In 1917, he formed a band called "The Duke's Serenaders" (later renamed "The Washingtonians"), which he moved to New York City in 1923. Ellington & The Washingtonians played at various New York Clubs and toured New England as a dance band until they got their first big break in 1927. When the then much better known Joe "King" Oliver held out for more money at the prestigious Cotton Club, the job as house band was offered to Ellington. This was the best known of the Harlem clubs, and "Duke Ellington and his Jungle Band" became well known nationally thanks to the regular radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club.
In this setting Ellington had a chance to write music in a variety of styles for dance theater acts as well as extended specialties for the band. These appearances featured many experiments in tonality, with trumpet screams and wah-wah, and growling saxophones. When Ellington left the Cotton Club in 1931 he was one of the best known African-American celebrities, recording regularly for several record companies and featured in motion pictures. Ellington continued to tour with his band around the United States and Europe, plus a tour of much of the rest of the world in the 1960s.
He was a musical experimenter all his life, recording with John Coltrane and Charles Mingus as well as with his own highly skilled orchestra. The band reached a creative peak in the 1940s, when he wrote for an orchestra of distinctive voices and tremendous creativity. Some of these musicians, such as Jimmy Blanton, transformed jazz during the short time they played with him.
But even as players left and the popularity of Swing diminished, Ellington continued to find new outlets, new forms and new sidemen. He frequently composed in longer forms modelled on classical music, such as his Black, Brown and Beige (1943), and Such Sweet Thunder (1957), based on Shakespeare. His Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue with a rocking saxophone interval by Paul Gonsalves in 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival greatly increased his fame and drawing power.
He also wrote for films, starting with Black and Tan Fantasy in 1929, but also Anatomy of a Murder (1959) with James Stewart, in which he appeared as a bandleader, and Paris Blues (1961), which featured Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as jazz musicians.
Though his later work is overshadowed by his music of the early 1940s, he continued to make vital and innovative recordings (including The Far East Suite (1966) and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971)) until the end of his life. Increasingly this period of music is being reassessed as people realise how creative Ellington was right to the end of his life.
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."
Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974 and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York. 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. They educate talented students who are considering careers in the arts by providing intensive arts instruction and strong academic programs that will prepare students for post-secondary education and/or professional careers.
Ellington was a prominent member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans.