Duke Ellington

May 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Duke Ellington1899 – 1974 Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is recognized as one of the greatest jazz composers and performers who ever lived. He combined an exceptional talent for instrumental voicings, improvisation, and jazz arrangements to create a unique big-band sound that expanded the range of the musical form and excited audiences around the world. His recordings and compositions continue to entertain, educate, and inspire today.

Ellington was born in Washington D.C. to a loving family. His father served at one time as a White House butler; both of his parents played piano, and Duke took lessons for two years starting at age seven, but his interest was more focused on baseball and the entertainments he found in the capital city. From pool halls to burlesque halls, he encountered a wide variety of people and was exposed at an early age to ragtime and other musical forms. An encounter with a hot Philadelphia pianist, Harvey Brooks, awakened his latent passion for the piano at about age 14. He began to study in earnest, and completed his first composition that year.

His schooling followed a commercial art path with a scholarship at Pratt Institute, but he soon turned these skills to creating posters for his and other bands’ musical performances. Local figures Oliver “Doc” Perry and Louis Brown tutored the young Duke, who began playing at clubs and cafes in the area. At age 17, just three months from graduation, he dropped out to dedicate himself to the music business. At about this time, he earned the nickname “Duke” from a friend, a reference to his regal style. The Duke formed his first group in 1917, and married Edna Thompson in 1918. By the time his only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, was born in 1919 Duke was playing private society and embassy parties in Washington and Virginia. At the same time, the thriving Black community was a nurturing and formative influence, and instilled in Ellington a deep sense of pride in his African American heritage that would continue to inform his art.

He made the big move to New York City in 1923 at the urging of the famous Fats Waller, and with his new group “The Washingtonians” quickly became part of the local club and party scene. Duke made his recording and music publishing debut in 1924, with “Choo Choo.” In the late 1920s his entire family joined him in New York, but he and Edna separated soon after.

The confluence of several timely factors launched Duke and his new “Jungle Band” to rapid prominence. Their appearances at the world-famous Cotton Club in Harlem gave them instant exposure to the jazz and social cognoscenti of New York and beyond. The technological developments of radio and recordings (including live broadcasts from the Cotton Club), and their growing popularity with consumers nationwide, brought the unmistakable sound of Duke’s music to huge audiences everywhere. From 1927 to 1932, the unique voicings, horns, and rhythms of the band grew wildly popular. The period 1932 to 1942, considered by some to be the group’s “golden era,” saw the addition of many fabulously talented musicians to the roster, including Jimmie Blanton (bass), Ben Webster (tenor sax), and Ray Nance (trumpet). Concurrently, Ellington produced some of his best known works, such as “Concerto for Cootie,” “Ko-Ko,” “Cotton Tail,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “Jump for Joy” (his first full-length stage piece).

Perhaps most important, a new lyricist named Billy Strayhorn joined the organization in 1939. The Duke soon realized that Strayhorn was a brilliant composer, and a collaboration began which would yield some of the best-loved songs of all time. “Take the ‘A’ Train,” for one, became the band’s universally recognized theme song. In another significant development for Ellington’s expanding range, his “Black, Brown, and Beige,” a musical depiction of the struggle of Blacks in America, debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943. It is widely considered a jazz milestone today.

Shifts in popular tastes and musical styles after World War II led to a period of relative quiet for Ellington’s group, and other big-bands. But at a 1956 concert in Newport, Rhode Island, America “rediscovered” Duke Ellington. Legendary performances by members of the band, and the crowd’s passionate reaction, were followed by Duke’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine later that year. In 1959, he began composing for film and television, further broadening his range and popularity. The U.S. State Department sponsored diplomatic tours for the band throughout Europe in the 1960s. Ellington continued to experiment with long-form compositions and adaptations, and as a pianist performed with such giants as John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Frank Sinatra, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. He also composed a series of “Sacred Music” concerts, reflecting his deep spirituality.

Duke died at the age of 75 on May 24, 1974. Among the many honors bestowed upon him during his life, he was recommended for a Pulitzer Prize, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest award for a civilian), was given honorary doctorate degrees by Howard and Yale Universities, and was a member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters. By the end of his career, he had played over 20,000 performances.

Writing in The New York Times, Wynton Marsalis said, “His artistic development and sustained achievement are among the most spectacular in the history of music. His was a distinctly democratic vision of music in the service of the whole band’s sound and, more than any other composer, he codified the sound of America in the 20th century.”


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