Born: April 29, 1899
Birthplace: Washington, DC
Died: May 24, 1974
Place of Death: New York, NY
Zodiac Sign: Taurus
Career and Life
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was an American composer, pianist, and leader of a jazz orchestra, which he led from 1923 until his death over a career spanning more than fifty years.
Born in Washington, D.C., Ellington was based in New York City from the mid-1920s onward and gained a national profile through his orchestra's appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In the 1930s, his orchestra toured in Europe. Although widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington embraced the phrase "beyond category" as a liberating principle and referred to his music as part of the more general category of American Music rather than to a musical genre such as jazz.
Some of the jazz musicians who were members of Ellington's orchestra, such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges, are considered to be among the best players in the idiom. Ellington melded them into the best-known orchestral unit in the history of jazz. Some members stayed with the orchestra for several decades. A master at writing miniatures for the three-minute 78 rpm recording format, Ellington wrote more than one thousand compositions; his extensive body of work is the largest recorded personal jazz legacy, with many of his pieces having become standards. Ellington also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, for example Juan Tizol's "Caravan", and "Perdido", which brought a Spanish tinge to big band jazz. In the early 1940s, Ellington began a nearly thirty-year collaboration with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his writing and arranging companion. With Strayhorn, he composed many extended compositions, or suites, as well as additional short pieces. Following an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, in July 1956, Ellington and his orchestra enjoyed a major revival and embarked on world tours. Ellington recorded for most American record companies of his era, performed in several films, scored several, and composed a handful of stage musicals.
Ellington was noted for his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and for his eloquence and charisma. His reputation continued to rise after he died, and he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Award for music in 1999.
When his drummer Sonny Greer was invited to join the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York City, Ellington made the fateful decision to leave behind his successful career in Washington, D.C., and move to Harlem, ultimately becoming part of the Harlem Renaissance. New dance crazes such as the Charleston emerged in Harlem, as well as African-American musical theater, including Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along. After the young musicians left the Sweatman Orchestra to strike out on their own, they found an emerging jazz scene that was highly competitive and hard to crack. They hustled pool by day and played whatever gigs they could find. The young band met stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, who introduced them to the scene and gave them some money. They played at rent-house parties for income. After a few months, the young musicians returned to Washington, D.C., feeling discouraged.
In June 1923, a gig in Atlantic City, New Jersey, led to a play date at the prestigious Exclusive Club in Harlem. This was followed in September 1923 by a move to the Hollywood Club – 49th and Broadway – and a four-year engagement, which gave Ellington a solid artistic base. He was known to play the bugle at the end of each performance. The group was initially called Elmer Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra and had seven members, including trumpeter James "Bubber" Miley. They renamed themselves The Washingtonians. Snowden left the group in early 1924 and Ellington took over as bandleader. After a fire, the club was re-opened as the Club Kentucky (often referred to as the Kentucky Club).
Ellington made eight records in 1924, receiving composing credit on three including "Choo Choo". In 1925, Ellington contributed four songs to Chocolate Kiddies starring Lottie Gee and Adelaide Hall, an all-African-American revue which introduced European audiences to African-American styles and performers. Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra grew to a group of ten players; they developed their own sound by displaying the non-traditional expression of Ellington's arrangements, the street rhythms of Harlem, and the exotic-sounding trombone growls and wah-wahs, high-squealing trumpets, and sultry saxophone blues licks of the band members. For a short time soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet played with them, imparting his propulsive swing and superior musicianship to the young band members.
In October 1926, Ellington made an agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills, giving Mills a 45% interest in Ellington's future. Mills had an eye for new talent and published compositions by Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arlen early in their careers. After recording a handful of acoustic titles during 1924–26, Ellington's signing with Mills allowed him to record prolifically, although sometimes he recorded different versions of the same tune. Mills often took a co-composer credit. From the beginning of their relationship, Mills arranged recording sessions on nearly every label including Brunswick, Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Pathê (and its Perfect label), the ARC/Plaza group of labels (Oriole, Domino, Jewel, Banner) and their dime-store labels (Cameo, Lincoln, Romeo), Hit of the Week, and Columbia's cheaper labels (Harmony, Diva, Velvet Tone, Clarion) labels which gave Ellington popular recognition. On OKeh, his records were usually issued as The Harlem Footwarmers, while the Brunswick's were usually issued as The Jungle Band. Whoopee Makers and the Ten Black Berries were other pseudonyms.
In September 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem's Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington after Jimmy McHugh suggested him and Mills arranged an audition. Ellington had to increase from a six to eleven-piece group to meet the requirements of the Cotton Club's management for the audition, and the engagement finally began on December 4. With a weekly radio broadcast, the Cotton Club's exclusively white and wealthy clientele poured in nightly to see them. At the Cotton Club, Ellington's group performed all the music for the revues, which mixed comedy, dance numbers, vaudeville, burlesque, music, and illicit alcohol. The musical numbers were composed by Jimmy McHugh and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (later Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), with some Ellington originals mixed in. (Here he moved in with a dancer, his second wife Mildred Dixon). Weekly radio broadcasts from the club gave Ellington national exposure, while Ellington also recorded Fields-JMcHugh and Fats Waller–Andy Razaf songs.
Although trumpeter Bubber Miley was a member of the orchestra for only a short period, he had a major influence on Ellington's sound. As an early exponent of growl trumpet, Miley changed the sweet dance band sound of the group to one that was hotter, which contemporaries termed Jungle Style. In October 1927, Ellington and his Orchestra recorded several compositions with Adelaide Hall. One side in particular, "Creole Love Call", became a worldwide sensation and gave both Ellington and Hall their first hit record. Miley had composed most of "Creole Love Call" and "Black and Tan Fantasy". An alcoholic, Miley had to leave the band before they gained wider fame. He died in 1932 at the age of 29, but he was an important influence on Cootie Williams, who replaced him.
In 1929, the Cotton Club Orchestra appeared on stage for several months in Florenz Ziegfeld's Show Girl, along with vaudeville stars Jimmy Durante, Eddie Foy, Jr., Ruby Keeler, and with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Gus Kahn. Will Vodery, Ziegfeld's musical supervisor, recommended Ellington for the show, and, according to John Hasse's Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington, "Perhaps during the run of Show Girl, Ellington received what he later termed 'valuable lessons in orchestration’ from Will Vodery.”
Ellington's film work began with Black and Tan (1929), a 19-minute all-African-American RKO short in which he played the hero "Duke". He also appeared in the Amos 'n' Andy film Check and Double Check, released in 1930. That year, Ellington and his Orchestra connected with a whole different audience in a concert with Maurice Chevalier and they also performed at the Roseland Ballroom, "America's foremost ballroom". Australian-born composer Percy Grainger was an early admirer and supporter. He wrote "The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, Delius is very ill but we are happy to have with us today The Duke". Ellington's first period at the Cotton Club concluded in 1931.
Ellington led the orchestra by conducting from the keyboard using piano cues and visual gestures; very rarely did he conduct using a baton. By 1932 his orchestra consisted of six brass instruments, four reeds, and a four-man rhythm section. As a bandleader, Ellington was not a strict disciplinarian; he maintained control of his orchestra with a combination of charm, humor, flattery and astute psychology. A complex, private person, he revealed his feelings to only his closest intimates and effectively used his public persona to deflect attention away from himself.
Ellington signed exclusively to Brunswick in 1932 and stayed with them through late 1936 (albeit with a short-lived 1933–34 switch to Victor when Irving Mills temporarily moved him and his other acts from Brunswick).
As the Depression worsened, the recording industry was in crisis, dropping over 90% of its artists by 1933. Ivie Anderson was hired as the Ellington Orchestra's featured vocalist in 1931. She is the vocalist on "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932) among other recordings. Sonny Greer had been providing occasional vocals and continued to do in a cross-talk feature with Anderson. Radio exposure helped maintain Ellington's public profile as his orchestra began to tour. The other records of this era include: "Mood Indigo" (1930), "Sophisticated Lady" (1933), "Solitude" (1934), and "In a Sentimental Mood" (1935)
While the band's United States audience remained mainly African-American in this period, the Ellington orchestra had a significant following overseas, exemplified by the success of their trip to England and Scotland in 1933 and their 1934 visit to the European mainland. The British visit saw Ellington win praise from members of the serious music community, including composer Constant Lambert, which gave a boost to Ellington's interest in composing longer works.
Those longer pieces had already begun to appear. He had composed and recorded "Creole Rhapsody" as early as 1931 (issued as both sides of a 12" record for Victor and both sides of a 10" record for Brunswick), and a tribute to his mother, "Reminiscing in Tempo", took four 10" record sides to record in 1935 after her death in that year. Symphony in Black (also 1935), a short film, featured his extended piece 'A Rhapsody of Negro Life'. It introduced Billie Holiday, and won an Academy Award as the best musical short subject. Ellington and his Orchestra also appeared in the features Murder at the Vanities and Belle of the Nineties (both 1934).
For agent Mills the attention was a publicity triumph, as Ellington was now internationally known. On the band's tour through the segregated South in 1934, they avoided some of the traveling difficulties of African-Americans by touring in private railcars. These provided easy accommodations, dining, and storage for equipment while avoiding the indignities of segregated facilities.
Competition was intensifying, though, as swing bands like Benny Goodman's began to receive popular attention. Swing dancing became a youth phenomenon, particularly with white college audiences, and danceability drove record sales and bookings. Jukeboxes proliferated nationwide, spreading the gospel of swing. Ellington's band could certainly swing, but their strengths were mood, nuance, and richness of composition, hence his statement "jazz is music, swing is business".
From 1936, Ellington began to make recordings with smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) drawn from his then-15-man orchestra and he composed pieces intended to feature a specific instrumentalist, as with "Jeep's Blues" for Johnny Hodges, "Yearning for Love" for Lawrence Brown, "Trumpet in Spades" for Rex Stewart, "Echoes of Harlem" for Cootie Williams and "Clarinet Lament" for Barney Bigard. In 1937, Ellington returned to the Cotton Club, which had relocated to the mid-town Theater District. In the summer of that year, his father died, and due to many expenses, Ellington's finances were tight, although his situation improved the following year.
After leaving agent Irving Mills, he signed on with the William Morris Agency. Mills though continued to record Ellington. After only a year, his Master and Variety labels (the small groups had recorded for the latter), collapsed in late 1937, Mills placed Ellington back on Brunswick and those small group units on Vocalion through to 1940. Well known sides continued to be recorded, "Caravan" in 1937, and "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" the following year.
Billy Strayhorn, originally hired as a lyricist, began his association with Ellington in 1939. Nicknamed "Swee' Pea" for his mild manner, Strayhorn soon became a vital member of the Ellington organization. Ellington showed great fondness for Strayhorn and never failed to speak glowingly of the man and their collaborative working relationship, "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine". Strayhorn, with his training in classical music, not only contributed his original lyrics and music, but also arranged and polished many of Ellington's works, becoming a second Ellington or "Duke's doppelganger". It was not uncommon for Strayhorn to fill in for Duke, whether in conducting or rehearsing the band, playing the piano, on stage, and in the recording studio. The 1930s ended with a very successful European tour just as World War II loomed in Europe.
Some of the musicians who joined Ellington at this time created a sensation in their own right. The short-lived Jimmy Blanton transformed the use of double bass in jazz, allowing it to function as a solo/melodic instrument rather than a rhythm instrument alone. Terminal illness forced him to leave by late 1941 after only about two years. Ben Webster, the Orchestra's first regular tenor saxophonist, whose main tenure with Ellington spanned 1939 to 1943, started a rivalry with Johnny Hodges as the Orchestra's foremost voice in the sax section.
Trumpeter Ray Nance joined, replacing Cootie Williams who had defected to Benny Goodman. Additionally, Nance added violin to the instrumental colors Ellington had at his disposal. Recordings exist of Nance's first concert date on November 7, 1940, at Fargo, North Dakota. Privately made by Jack Towers and Dick Burris, these recordings were first legitimately issued in 1978 as Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940 Live; they are among the earliest of innumerable live performances which survive. Nance was also an occasional vocalist, although Herb Jeffries was the main male vocalist in this era (until 1943) while Al Hibbler (who replaced Jeffries in 1943) continued until 1951. Ivie Anderson left in 1942 for health reasons after eleven years: the longest term of any of Ellington's vocalists.
Once again recording for Victor (from 1940), with the small groups recording for their Bluebird label, three-minute masterpieces on 78 rpm record sides continued to flow from Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's son Mercer Ellington, and members of the Orchestra. "Cotton Tail", "Main Stem", "Harlem Air Shaft", "Jack the Bear", and dozens of others date from this period. Strayhorn's "Take the "A" Train" a hit in 1941, became the band's theme, replacing "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo". Ellington and his associates wrote for an orchestra of distinctive voices who displayed tremendous creativity. Mary Lou Williams, working as a staff arranger, would briefly join Ellington a few years later.
Ellington's long-term aim though was to extend the jazz form from that three-minute limit, of which he was an acknowledged master. While he had composed and recorded some extended pieces before, such works now became a regular feature of Ellington's output. In this, he was helped by Strayhorn, who had enjoyed a more thorough training in the forms associated with classical music than Ellington. The first of these, Black, Brown and Beige (1943), was dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, and the place of slavery and the church in their history. Black, Brown and Beige debuted at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, beginning an annual series of Ellington concerts at the venue over the next four years. While some jazz musicians had played at Carnegie Hall before, none had performed anything as elaborate as Ellington's work. Unfortunately, starting a regular pattern, Ellington's longer works were generally not well received.
A partial exception was Jump for Joy, a full-length musical based on themes of African-American identity, debuted on July 10, 1941, at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. Hollywood luminaries such as actors John Garfield and Mickey Rooney invested in the production, and Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles offered to direct. At one performance though, Garfield insisted Herb Jeffries, who was light-skinned, should wear make-up. Ellington objected in the interval, and compared Jeffries to Al Jolson. The change was reverted, and the singer later commented that the audience must have thought he was an entirely different character in the second half of the show.
Although it had sold-out performances, and received positive reviews, it ran for only 122 performances until September 29, 1941, with a brief revival in November of that year. Its subject matter did not make it appealing to Broadway; Ellington had unfulfilled plans to take it there. Despite this disappointment, a Broadway production of Ellington's Beggar's Holiday, his sole book musical, premiered on December 23, 1946. under the direction of Nicholas Ray.
The settlement of the first recording ban of 1942–43, leading to an increase in royalties paid to musicians, had a serious effect on the financial viability of the big bands, including Ellington's Orchestra. His income as a songwriter ultimately subsidized it. Although he always spent lavishly and drew a respectable income from the Orchestra's operations, the band's income often just covered expenses.
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 singers crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford. As the cost of hiring big bands had increased, club owners now found smaller jazz groups more cost-effective. Some of Ellington's new works, such as the wordless vocal feature "Transblucency" (1946) with Kay Davis, was not going to have a similar reach as the newly emerging stars.
Ellington continued on his own course through these tectonic shifts. While Count Basie was forced to disband his whole ensemble and work as an octet for a time, Ellington was able to tour most of Western Europe between April 6 and June 30, 1950, with the orchestra playing 74 dates over 77 days. During the tour, according to Sonny Greer, the newer works were not performed, though Ellington's extended composition, Harlem (1950) was in the process of being completed at this time. Ellington later presented its score to music-loving President Harry Truman. Also during his time in Europe, Ellington would compose the music for a stage production by Orson Welles. Titled Time Runs in Paris and An Evening With Orson Welles in Frankfurt, the variety show also featured a newly discovered Eartha Kitt, who performed Ellington's original song "Hungry Little Trouble" as Helen of Troy.
In 1951, Ellington suffered a significant loss of personnel: Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown and, most importantly, Johnny Hodges left to pursue other ventures, although only Greer was a permanent departee. Drummer Louie Bellson replaced Greer, and his "Skin Deep" was a hit for Ellington. Tenor player Paul Gonsalves had joined in December 1950 after periods with Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie and stayed for the rest of his life, while Clark Terry joined in November 1951.
During the early 1950s, Ellington's career was at a low point with his style being generally seen as outmoded, but his reputation did not suffer as badly as some artists. André Previn said in 1952: "You know, Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, Oh, yes, that's done like this. But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is!" However, by 1955, after three years of recording for Capitol, Ellington lacked a regular recording affiliation.
Ellington's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956 returned him to wider prominence and introduced him to a new generation of fans. The feature "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" comprised two tunes that had been in the band's book since 1937 but largely forgotten until Ellington, who had abruptly ended the band's scheduled set because of the late arrival of four key players, called the two tunes as the time was approaching midnight. Announcing that the two pieces would be separated by an interlude played by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, Ellington proceeded to lead the band through the two pieces, with Gonsalves' 27-chorus marathon solo whipping the crowd into a frenzy, leading the Maestro to play way beyond the curfew time despite urgent pleas from festival organizer George Wein to bring the program to an end.
The concert made international headlines, led to one of only five Time magazine cover stories dedicated to a jazz musician, and resulted in an album produced by George Avakian that would become the best-selling LP of Ellington's career. Much of the music on the vinyl LP was, in effect, simulated, with only about 40% actually from the concert itself. According to Avakian, Ellington was dissatisfied with aspects of the performance and felt the musicians had been under rehearsed. The band assembled the next day to re-record several of the numbers with the addition of artificial crowd noise, none of which was disclosed to purchasers of the album. Not until 1999 was the concert recording properly released for the first time. The revived attention brought about by the Newport appearance should not have surprised anyone, Johnny Hodges had returned the previous year, and Ellington's collaboration with Strayhorn had been renewed around the same time, under terms more amenable to the younger man.
The original Ellington at Newport album was the first release in a new recording contract with Columbia Records which yielded several years of recording stability, mainly under producer Irving Townsend, who coaxed both commercial and artistic productions from Ellington.
In 1957, CBS (Columbia Records' parent corporation) aired a live television production of A Drum Is a Woman, an allegorical suite which received mixed reviews. His hope that television would provide a significant new outlet for his type of jazz was not fulfilled. Tastes and trends had moved on without him. Festival appearances at the new Monterey Jazz Festival and elsewhere provided venues for live exposure, and a European tour in 1958 was well received. Such Sweet Thunder (1957), based on Shakespeare's plays and characters, and The Queen's Suite (1958), dedicated to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, were products of the renewed impetus which the Newport appearance helped to create, although the latter work was not commercially issued at the time. The late 1950s also saw Ella Fitzgerald record her Duke Ellington Songbook (Verve) with Ellington and his orchestra—a recognition that Ellington's songs had now become part of the cultural canon known as the 'Great American Songbook'.
Around this time Ellington and Strayhorn began to work on film soundtrack scoring. The first of these was Anatomy of a Murder (1959), a courtroom drama directed by Otto Preminger and featuring James Stewart, in which Ellington appeared fronting a roadhouse combo. This was followed by Paris Blues (1961), which featured Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as jazz musicians. In 2009 Detroit Free Press music critic Mark Stryker wrote that Ellington and Strayhorn's work in Anatomy of a Murder , is "indispensable, [although] . . . too sketchy to rank in the top echelon among Ellington-Strayhorn masterpiece suites like Such Sweet Thunder and The Far East Suite, but its most inspired moments are their equal."
Film historians have recognized the soundtrack "as a landmark – the first significant Hollywood film music by African Americans comprising non-diegetic music, that is, music whose source is not visible or implied by action in the film, like an on-screen band." The score avoided the cultural stereotypes which previously characterized jazz scores and rejected a strict adherence to visuals in ways that presaged the New Wave cinema of the '60s". Ellington and Strayhorn, always looking for new musical territory, produced suites for John Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt.
In the early 1960s, Ellington embraced recording with artists who had been friendly rivals in the past, or were younger musicians who focused on later styles. The Ellington and Count Basie orchestras recorded together with the album First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (1961). During a period when Ellington was between recording contracts, he made records with Louis Armstrong (Roulette), Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane (both for Impulse) and participated in a session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach which produced the Money Jungle (United Artists) album. He signed to Frank Sinatra's new Reprise label, but the association with the label was short-lived.
Musicians who had previously worked with Ellington returned to the Orchestra as members: Lawrence Brown in 1960 and Cootie Williams in 1962.
The writing and playing of music is a matter of intent.... You can't just throw a paint brush against the wall and call whatever happens art. My music fits the tonal personality of the player. I think too strongly in terms of altering my music to fit the performer to be impressed by accidental music. You can't take doodling seriously.
He was now performing all over the world; 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, including the Swedish vocalist Alice Babs, and the South African musicians Dollar Brand and Sathima Bea Benjamin (A Morning in Paris, 1963/1997).
Ellington wrote an original score for director Michael Langham's production of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada which opened on July 29, 1963. Langham has used it for several subsequent productions, including a much later adaptation by Stanley Silverman which expands the score with some of Ellington's best-known works.
Ellington was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1965 but no prize was ultimately awarded that year. Then 66 years old, he joked: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young." In 1999 he was posthumously awarded a special Pulitzer Prize "commemorating the centennial year of his birth, in recognition of his musical genius, which evoked aesthetically the principles of democracy through the medium of jazz and thus made an indelible contribution to art and culture."
In September 1965, he premiered the first of his Sacred Concerts. He created a jazz Christian liturgy. Although the work received mixed reviews, Ellington was proud of the composition and performed it dozens of times. This concert was followed by two others of the same type in 1968 and 1973, known as the Second and Third Sacred Concerts. These generated controversy in what was already a tumultuous time in the United States. Many saw the Sacred Music suites as an attempt to reinforce commercial support for organized religion, though Ellington simply said it was "the most important thing I've done". The Steinway piano upon which the Sacred Concerts were composed is part of the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Like Haydn and Mozart, Ellington conducted his orchestra from the piano – he always played the keyboard parts when the Sacred Concerts were performed.
Duke turned 65 in the spring of 1964 but showed no signs of slowing down as he continued to make vital and innovative recordings, including The Far East Suite (1966), New Orleans Suite (1970), Latin American Suite (1972) and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), much of it inspired by his world tours. It was during this time that he recorded his only album with Frank Sinatra, entitled Francis A. & Edward K. (1967).
Ellington performed what is considered his final full concert in a ballroom at Northern Illinois University on March 20, 1974.
The last three shows Ellington and his orchestra performed were one on March 21, 1973 at Purdue University's Hall of Music and two on March 22, 1973 at the Sturges-Young Auditorium in Sturgis, Michigan.
Personal Life and Family
Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, to James Edward Ellington and Daisy (Kennedy) Ellington in Washington, D.C. Both his parents were pianists. Daisy primarily played parlor songs and James preferred operatic arias. They lived with his maternal grandparents at 2129 Ida Place (now Ward Place), NW, in the West End neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Duke's father was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina, on April 15, 1879, and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 with his parents. Daisy Kennedy was born in Washington, D.C., on January 4, 1879, the daughter of a former American slave. James Ellington made blueprints for the United States Navy. When Ellington was a child, his family showed racial pride and support in their home, as did many other families. African Americans in D.C. worked to protect their children from the era's Jim Crow laws.
At the age of seven, Ellington began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him to live elegantly. Ellington's childhood friends noticed that his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman, and began calling him "Duke." Ellington credited his friend Edgar McEntree for the nickname. "I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke."
Though Ellington took piano lessons, he was more interested in baseball. "President Roosevelt (Teddy) would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play", he recalled. Ellington went to Armstrong Technical High School in Washington, D.C. He gained his first job selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games.
In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café, Ellington wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag" (also known as the "Poodle Dog Rag"). He created the piece by ear, as he had not yet learned to read and write music. "I would play the 'Soda Fountain Rag' as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango, and fox trot", Ellington recalled. "Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertoire." In his autobiography, Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington wrote that he missed more lessons than he attended, feeling at the time that playing the piano was not his talent.
Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday's Poolroom at the age of fourteen. Hearing the poolroom pianists play ignited Ellington's love for the instrument, and he began to take his piano studies seriously. Among the many piano players he listened to were Doc Perry, Lester Dishman, Louis Brown, Turner Layton, Gertie Wells, Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, Blind Johnny, Cliff Jackson, Claude Hopkins, Phil Wurd, Caroline Thornton, Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, Joe Rochester, and Harvey Brooks.
Ellington began listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in Washington, D.C., but in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where he vacationed with his mother during the summer months. He would sometimes hear strange music played by those who could not afford much sheet music, so for variations, they played the sheets upside down. Henry Lee Grant, a Dunbar High School music teacher, gave him private lessons in harmony. With the additional guidance of Washington pianist and band leader Oliver "Doc" Perry, Ellington learned to read sheet music, project a professional style, and improve his technique. Ellington was also inspired by his first encounters with stride pianists James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts. Later in New York he took advice from Will Marion Cook, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet. Ellington started to play gigs in cafés and clubs in and around Washington, D.C. His attachment to music was so strong that in 1916 he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Three months before graduating he dropped out of Armstrong Manual Training School, where he was studying commercial art.
Working as a freelance sign-painter from 1917, Ellington began assembling groups to play for dances. In 1919 he met drummer Sonny Greer from New Jersey, who encouraged Ellington's ambition to become a professional musician. Ellington built his music business through his day job: when a customer asked him to make a sign for a dance or party, he would ask if they had musical entertainment; if not, Ellington would offer to play for the occasion. He also had a messenger job with the U.S. Navy and State departments, where he made a wide range of contacts. Ellington moved out of his parents' home and bought his own as he became a successful pianist. At first, he played in other ensembles, and in late 1917 formed his first group, "The Duke's Serenaders" ("Colored Syncopators", his telephone directory advertising proclaimed). He was also the group's booking agent. His first play date was at the True Reformer's Hall, where he took home 75 cents.
Ellington played throughout the Washington, D.C. area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. The band included childhood friend Otto Hardwick, who began playing the string bass, then moved to C-melody sax and finally settled on alto saxophone; Arthur Whetsol on trumpet; Elmer Snowden on banjo; and Sonny Greer on drums. The band thrived, performing for both African-American and white audiences, a rarity in the segregated society of the day.
Ellington married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson (d. 1967), on July 2, 1918, when he was 19. The next spring, on March 11, 1919, Edna gave birth to their only 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. According to her obituary in Jet magazine, she was "homesick for Washington" and returned. In 1928, Ellington became the companion of Mildred Dixon, who traveled with him, managed Tempo Music, inspired songs at the peak of his career, and raised his son Mercer.
In 1938 he left his family (his son was 19) and moved in with Beatrice "Evie" Ellis, a Cotton Club employee. Their relationship, though stormy, continued after Ellington met and formed a relationship with Fernanda de Castro Monte in the early 1960s. Ellington supported both women for the rest of his life.
Ellington's sister Ruth (1915–2004) later ran Tempo Music, his music publishing company. Ruth's second husband was the bass-baritone McHenry Boatwright, whom she met when he sang at her brother's funeral. As an adult, son Mercer Ellington (d. 1996) played trumpet and piano, led his own band, and worked as his father's business manager.
Ellington was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and was a freemason associated with Prince Hall Freemasonry.
Ellington died on May 24, 1974, of complications from lung cancer and pneumonia, a few weeks after his 75th birthday. At his funeral, attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion: "It's a very sad day. A genius has passed."
He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, New York City.