Duke Ellington

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Updated On February 13, 2022
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Birthday
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Washington, D.C.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was an American jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader. He is considered as one of the best jazz composers and a prolific performer of his time. Most of his musical compositions on instruments set standards for others, which were later turned into songs. This renowned jazz pianist displayed his skill in film scores and classical works too. Considered a very influential personality in the history of jazz music, he chose to name his music ‘American Music’ instead than jazz. A bandleader, pianist and a composer, Ellington was dubbed ‘Duke’ by his boyhood pals for his courteous and well-mannered behavior. He was truly a genius in the sense of instrument combinations, arranging jazz and improvising music that made Ellington stand distinct among other composers of his period. His reputation as a composer and bandleader is maintained even after his death.
He cooperated with numerous others and composed more than one thousand tunes and many of his extant works became a standard in jazz music. Ellington and his orchestra enjoyed a huge career resurrection with an engagement at the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island, in July 1956. He recorded for most American record companies of his period and performed in several films and composed several theatrical musicals. With his creative genius, Ellington elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on a par with other traditional musical genres.

Childhood & Adolescence

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1899. James Edward Ellington’s father and Daisy Kennedy Ellington’s mother were also pianists. His father performed operatic arias, while his mother preferred parlor tunes.They stayed with his maternal grandparents at 2129 Ida Place, which is now known as Ward Place, NW in Washington, D.C.’s West End area.Ellington began his piano studies at the age of seven.

Marietta Clinkscales taught him the same thing.His friend Edgar McEntree dubbed him “Duke” due to his relaxed and graceful demeanor and smart attire. He graduated from Washington, D.C.’s Armstrong Technical High          School. He was an avid baseball player. His first employment was as a peanut vendor at Washington Senators baseball games.In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at Poodle Dog Café, he produced his first piece, “Soda Fountain Rag,” which is also known as the “Poodle Dog Rag.”

He was influenced by a number of pianists, including Phil Wurd, Caroline Thornton, Luckey Roberts, Turner Layton, Gertie Wells, Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, Harvey Brooks, Claude Hopkins, Eubie Blake, Cliff Jackson, Joe Rochester, Lester Dishman, Louis Brown, and Blind Johnny.He began by listening to and emulating Washington, D.C.-based ragtime pianists, as well as those from Atlantic City and Philadelphia. He took private harmony lessons from Henry Lee Grant, a Dunbar High School music teacher.

He instilled a greater understanding of the instrument, learnt to read music sheets, developed his technique, and projected a professional approach with the additional assistance he obtained from pianists in his hometown and band commander Oliver “Doc” Perry.In 1916, he declined an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in favor of music, and he also withdrew out of Armstrong Manual Training School, where he was studying commercial painting, three months before graduating.

In 1917, he began working as a freelance sign painter and simultaneously began assembling groups to play for dances. In 1919, he met Sonny Greer, a New Jersey drummer. He began his music career by drawing signs. Whenever someone requested a sign for a dance or party, he inquired as to whether they had prepared for music and volunteered to play for them.He founded his own ensemble, “The Duke’s Serenaders,” in the late 1917s “‘. He gave his first appearance in the True Reformer’s Hall, earning 75 cents.

Ellington’s music and band flourished in Washington, D.C., and Virginia. He was frequently invited to perform at diplomatic and private gatherings.Sonny Greer on drums, Otto Hardwick on alto saxophone, Elmer Snowden on banjo, and Arthur Whetsol on trumpet comprised his band. They played for both black and white audiences, which was fairly uncommon during that era.

Career of Duke

When Sonny Greer, Ellington’s drummer, joined the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York City, he left behind a prosperous job in Washington, D.C., and relocated to Harlem.After leaving the Sweatman Orchestra to start their own, the young musicians found themselves in a fiercely competitive burgeoning jazz scene that was difficult to breach. After a period of discouragement, the young musicians returned to Washington, D.C.In June 1923, an engagement in Atlantic City, New Jersey, proved fortunate for the trio, earning them an invitation to perform at Harlem’s exclusive Exclusive Club.

Initially known as ‘Elmer Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra,’ the group changed their name to ‘The Washingtonians’ after a period of time. Snowden quit the trio in 1924, and Ellington took over as bandleader. The club reopened as the Club Kentucky following a fire catastrophe.By the end of 1924, Ellington had produced eight albums, three of which he was credited with composing, including ‘ChooChoo’.He provided four songs to Lottie Gee and Adelaide Hall’s 1925 film Chocolate Kiddies, which exposed European audiences to African-American styles and artists. By this time, Ellington’s Kentucky Club Orchestra had expanded to eleven members and had their own distinct sound.

In October 1926, he signed a career-advancing pact with agent-publisher Irving Mills. This partnership with Mills enabled him to record prolifically, which resulted in Ellington gaining widespread fame.In September 1927, King Oliver’s (an American jazz cornetist and bandleader) unwillingness to play as the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club swung the agreement in Ellington’s favor, and weekly radio broadcasts from the club brought Ellington national attention. He never looked back from that point on.He was not a strict disciplinarian and maintained control of his orchestra using charm, humor, flattery, and keen psychology.

As the Great Depression worsened, the recording business was also impacted by the financial crisis, which resulted in the loss of nearly 90% of performers by 1933. In the instance of Ellington’s Orchestra, radio exposure contributed to the symphony’s continued success, and the orchestra began touring. “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” and “In a Sentimental Mood” are just a few of the records from this era.In the early 1930s, the band’s audience in America was primarily composed of African-Americans, but also had a sizable following abroad, as seen by the band’s 1933 tour of England and Scotland and 1934 visit to the European mainland.

His popularity skyrocketed in the 1940s, when he composed some of his masterworks, including “Concerto for Cootie,” “Cotton Tail,” and “Ko-Ko.””It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Solitude,” and “Satin Doll” were among Ellington’s most famous songs, and many of his hit compositions were sung by Ivie Anderson, Duke’s favorite female vocalist.Additionally, he wrote other outstanding and popular songs, including “Sophisticated Lady,” “Rocks in My Bed,” and “Satin Doll,” as well as “Don’t Get

Around Much Anymore,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Solitude,” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.”Ellington’s career was resurrected with his band’s July 7, 1956, appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. It reintroduced him to a wider audience and brought him to the attention of a new generation of jazz aficionados. Ellington’s performance at the festival garnered international attention and culminated in the release of an album that would go on to become Ellington’s best-selling long-playing CD.

Ellington composed three works of sacred music during his final decade: In the Beginning God, Second Sacred Concert, and Third Sacred Concert.Following World War II, his band frequently toured Europe and also performed in Asia, West Africa, South America, and Australia, in addition to North America.In 1973, he wrote his autobiography, ‘Music Is My Mistress.’ Ellington won a total of 12 Grammy awards, nine of which were while he was still living.

Personal History and Legacies

Ellington married Edna Thompson, his high school love, on July 2, 1918, when he was 19 years old.
On March 11, 1919, they welcomed their first and only child, a baby boy. He was given the name Mercer Kennedy Ellington.They parted ways in the late 1920s, and Mildred Dixon became Ellington’s companion in 1928, managing his business and accompanying him on his tours.

He left his family in 1938 and moved in with Beatrice “Evie” Ellis, a Cotton Club employee.He became acquainted with Fernanda de Castro Monte in the early 1960s.Later, Ellington’s sister Ruth ran Tempo Music, and his son played piano and trumpet and founded his own band, which he also directed. He was also his father’s business manager, and he assumed leadership of the band upon his death.

Ellington died of pneumonia and lung cancer on May 24, 1974.He was laid to rest in New York City’s Woodlawn Cemetery. His concluding comments were, “Music is the reason I live, the reason I exist, and the way I will be remembered.”After his death, his son took charge of the band, and they continued to release albums. In 1988, “Digital Duke” received the Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, with ‘The Duke Ellington Orchestra’ receiving credit.

Numerous memorials to Ellington are located in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles.The Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. educates students interested in pursuing careers in the arts. This school was originally named the Calvert Street Bridge and opened in 1935. However, in 1974, it was renamed the Duke Ellington Bridge.In 1989, the Duke Ellington Building at 2121 Ward Place, NW received a bronze plaque.In 2010, a park named Duke Ellington Park was dedicated across the street from his birthplace.

On February 24, 2009, the United States launched a coin portraying Ellington. He was the first African-American to appear on a US circulating coin.After his death, the West 106th Street where he lived was renamed Duke Ellington Boulevard.The prestigious high school bands compete in the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Tournament and Festival, a well-known annual competition.Ellington was included on academic Molefi Kete Asante’s 2002 list of the 100 Greatest African-Americans.

Estimated Net Worth

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