Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington

Composer Duke Ellington

The most significant and prolific composer in jazz history and one of the most famous American composers in any genre. Ellington's music helped define what jazz is and what it could be. His longer compositions are now sometimes performed by classical orchestras.

Vital Statistics
April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C.
May 24, 1974 in New York City of lung cancer and pneumonia.
20th Century
Performed As:
pianist and bandleader of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
During Lifetime:
The Harlem Renaissance enlists the arts in a celebration and investigation of the African-American experience. The Civil Rights movements of the 1950s-70s causes a dramatic change in American society and politics.
Biographical Outline
  • Beginnings, 1899-1919: Both mother, Daisy, and father, James Edward Ellington, were amateur pianists. Edward's friends notice his elegant manners and sharp appearance and nickname him "Duke." Edward begins studying piano at age 7 and makes his professional debut at 17. He forms his first ensemble, "The Duke's Serenaders" (or the "Colored Syncopators") in 1917. A year later, Ellington marries Edna Thompson, and in 1919 their son, Mercer, is born.
  • New York City, 1923-27: After initial disappointments, Ellington takes pianist Fats Waller's advice and stays in New York to work with Elmer Snowden's band, The Washingtonians. He performs in various venues around New York City with the band, which expands to a 10-piece outfit. The members later provide the nucleus for Ellington's own band.
  • Cotton Club, 1927-30: Ellington forms the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which shares top billing with the likes of Louis Armstrong at Harlem's exclusive Cotton Club cabaret. Under the shrewd management of Irving Mills, the band goes on to make about 200 recordings and is featured in a 1929 Hollywood short film, Black and Tan, and a number of films thereafter.
  • Expansion and experimentation, 1932-42: Ellington's expanded band makes successful American and European tours of major cities. Ellington writes and records some of his signature pieces, such as It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) (1932), Sophisticated Lady (1933), Caravan (1937, by trombonist Juan Tizol), Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me (1940), and I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good) (1940). He also experiments with longer, more involved pieces for the full band, such as Creole Rhapsody (1931), the first jazz number to occupy both sides of a 78-rpm record, Reminiscing in Tempo (1935, four sides, a tribute to his recently deceased mother), Concerto for Cootie (1940), and Ko-Ko (1940). In 1940, Billy Strayhorn arrives as second pianist and Ellington's kindred compositional collaborator and contributor. Strayhorn writes Take the A-Train that year.
  • Holding things together, 1943-56: Ellington further expands the size of his ensemble, and brings it to Carnegie Hall. With Strayhorn's advice and aid, the Duke writes larger, multimovement works, most significantly the suite Black, Brown, and Beige (1943). However, these works are less well-received. The decline of big-band jazz, and the rise of bebop, rhythm and blues, and rock, causes a dip in the band's fortunes. Ellington's doggedness and his status keep the ensemble going through the lean decade. A fiery performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival puts the band back on track and leads to another long-term recording contract.
  • Later years, 1957-74: Ellington composes liturgical music (the Sacred Concerts), and incidental music, as well as film scores. He receives numerous awards, honors, and accolades from around the world. A documentary film about him and his orchestra's life on tour is completed in the final year of his life.
Fun Facts
  • First Impressions: Always exquisitely dressed, poised, and graceful, and armed with a noble and charming personality, Ellington never publicly revealed his age and often provided subtle hints of his own vanity.
  • Chocaholic: Ellington had an enormous sweet tooth. Friends and fans sent him sweets from around the world.
  • The Strayhorn Effect: "Swee' Pea," as Billy Strayhorn was nicknamed in the band, was an important composer in his own right, and contributed a number of compositions and arrangements to the band's repertory. His thorough grounding in classical theory and form were invaluable to Ellington in composing his longer works.
  • All in the Family: Ellington's son, Mercer, played trumpet in his father's band in 1940-41, contributing the standard Moon Mist to its repertory. He took over leadership of the band on his father's death, and also arranged and conducted the music for Sophisticated Ladies (1983), the successful Broadway musical based on the Duke's music. Mercer's son, Paul, the composer's grandson, took over after Mercer's death, in 1996, and still runs the orchestra and Ellington's publishing company, Tempo Music.
  • Beyond Category: Ellington preferred "American music" to "jazz" in describing his music.
  • Decline of the Big Bands: An increasing emphasis on star vocalists, like Frank Sinatra, and also the effects of a strike by the American Federation of Musicians against the record companies in 1942-44, helped bring the era of big bands to a close. The Ellington band is one of the few that experienced a popular revival afterward.
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Explore the Music

Since his death, Ellington's reputation has continued to soar. Once he was known only for his classic big-band compositions, but over the decades his longer works have continued to gain popularity. They are now programmed by bands and symphony orchestras worldwide. Ellington's status among classical musicians has never been higher, and his music is the subject of numerous academic studies.

  • Longer Suites: The suites are increasingly well-regarded, especially Black, Brown, and Beige (1943, rev. 1958), Sweet Thursday (1954), Such Sweet Thunder (1957), the Sacred Concerts (1965-73), Far East Suite (1967), and The River (1970). He also arranged music from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet, and Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt for his band.
  • Ellington's band included some of the best soloists in the country, including, at its height (1939-1942), bassist Jimmy Blanton, saxophonists Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, and trumpeters Ray Nance (who also played violin) and Cootie Williams.
  • Ellington's film scores include Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Alain René Le Sage's Turcaret (1960), and Paris Blues (1961).
  • Films in which Ellington and his band appear include Murder at the Vanities and Belle of the Nineties (1934, Paramount), and Cabin in the Sky (MGM, 1943).
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