A Brief History of Duke Ellington

As a Jazz Musician in New York City, I have always loved studying the history of the music that I play.  My studies have shed light on the vast amount of jazz influencers that have written, played and composed music over the past hundred years.  One of these influencers is easily one of my favorite performers of all time. He goes by the name of Duke Ellington.

So, Who Was Duke Ellington?

The founder of Big Band Jazz, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington led way to an exciting and new sound in today’s world of music.  The musical icon was a composer, pianist, and bandleader of Jazz Orchestra, which he led beginning in 1923.

On April 29th, 1899, a legend was born in the heart of our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.  Little did the world know, this soon to be musical legend would revolutionize the world of music as we know it.  Duke Ellington’s career lasted more than fifty years and included the composition of thousands of songs that have been seen on stage, on the big screen, and in the famous contemporary songbook.  Ellington produced one of the most notable ensemble melodies and sounds in music history, which he played until he passed away in 1974.

What Was Duke Ellington’s Early Life Like?

Ellington was born to parents James Edward Ellington and Daisy (Kennedy Ellington).  It’s easy to say that Duke drew his inspirations from both his mom and dad, who were pianists at the time.  Daisy was known for primarily playing parlor-style songs while James was known for operatic arias. They were a musically gifted family!

The family grew up in a middle-class neighborhood within Washington D.C. at Duke’s maternal grandparent’s house.  It was a difficult time for black families due to the presence of Jim Crow Laws ruling throughout the South. On top of those laws, Daisy Ellington was the daughter of a former American Slave.  So you can imagine how protective parents were of their children back in this era.

At the age of seven, Duke started studying piano.  Shortly after, he was “bestowed” with the name Duke due to his gentleman manners.  It was at the age of 15 when Duke wrote his first-ever composition. This composition was called “Soda Fountain Rag” which was inspired by his job as a soda jerk.  Towards the end of high school, Duke was offered a prestigious scholarship to attend the art/music program at Pratt University in Brooklyn, New York. He turned down the offer to follow his passion for Ragtime.  Duke immediately began playing professionally at the age of seventeen.

At 19, Duke married the love of his life, Edna Thompson, who was his high school sweetheart.  Soon after the two got married, they gave birth to their only son Mercer Kennedy Ellington.

What Songs Is Duke Ellington Known For?

If you’re a Duke Ellington fan, I’m sure you’re aware that this musician had dozens upon dozens of classic songs.  Duke’s career blew up in the forties when he composed songs such as “Solitude”, “Sophisticated Lady”, “Sepia Panorama”, “Satin Doll”, “Ko-Ko”, “Cotton Tail”, “Concerto for Cottie”, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing”, and “Prelude to a Kiss”.  Many of these hits were sung by the very talented and nostalgic female vocalist Ivie Anderson, who was a major part of Duke’s band.

But the song that really set Duke Ellington different from the rest of the jazz musicians was known as “Take the A Train”.  This classic was written in 1939, recorded on February 15th, 1941 and was composed by the great Billy Strayhorn.  The purpose of its recording was for commercial use but turned into an everyday soundtrack shortly after its release.  The song refers to the “A” train subway line in New York City.  This line ran through Harlem (the notable and popular jazz neighborhood).

Ellington earned twelve Grammy awards between the years 1959 and 2000.  Nine of these awards were bestowed upon him during his lifetime.

Duke Ellington’s Famous Band

When Duke Ellington first began playing music, he would perform in Broadway nightclubs throughout New York City.  He was the bandleader of a sextet, which quickly grew into a full ten-piece ensemble. Not only was Duke a talented musician, he knew how to put together a talented group of musicians.  His ability to listen for unique playing styles led way to his band which was comprised of legends such as Jon Nanton who would play the trombone like no other, and Bubber Miley who used a plunger to make that lovely “wa wa” sound.  

Also, on his band throughout time were musicians such as cornetist Rex Stewart, the saxophone player Johnny Hodges, and the trumpeter Cootie Williams. With Duke’s band came hundreds upon hundreds of original recordings.  Each recording appeared all over the mainstream media (radio and films at the time).  In the 1930s, Ellington’s band toured Europe twice (a very rare thing to in this time period).

How Did Duke Ellington Die?

It was a sad day on May 24th, 1974 when Duke Ellington passed away due to contracting lung cancer and pneumonia.  He touched many lives and left behind a legacy for years to come. Many people still cherish Duke’s work and are still inspired by the wonderful music Duke created throughout his career.  Duke’s last words were “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered”.  Over 12,000 people were in attendance at Duke Ellington’s funeral. The place of his burial was at the Woodlawn Ceremony in the Bronx, New York City.

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