April 29, 1899 – Birth of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington

The jazz musician and composer known as Duke Ellington was born into Washington, D.C.’s black elite on April 29, 1899. As James Collier, author of the biography Duke Ellington (Oxford University Press, USA, 1987) observed in his essay in Harlem Renaissance: Lives from the African American National Biography edited by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009), “Ellington developed a strong sense of his own worth and a belief in his destiny, which at times shaded over into egocentricity. Because of this attitude, and his almost royal bearing, his schoolmates early named him ‘Duke.’”

Duke Ellington in 1933

Duke Ellington in 1933

Ellington began studying piano at age seven but didn’t have much interest in it until, in his early teens, he heard a pianist play “swinging music.” He began to rehearse with some other youngsters, and by age sixteen or seventeen Ellington was playing occasional professional jobs.

In 1923 the group ventured to New York and landed a job in Harlem. In early 1924, Ellington was chosen to take over the group. Very quickly he began to change the sound of the band.

As a composer, Ellington liked to break the musical rules. He also would bring in scraps of musical ideas and let his band help develop them.

Beginning with a set of records made in November 1926, the group had a distinctive “Ellington” sound. Increasingly, Ellington was seen by critics who wrote in intellectual and music journals as a major American composer.

In December 1927 the group was hired as the house band at the Cotton Club, rapidly becoming the country’s best-known cabaret. Ellington also added some new musicians who became notable in their own right.

Through the 1920s and 1930s Ellington created masterpieces including “Mood Indigo,” “Creole Love Call,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” and “Daybreak Express.” He also came into his own as a songwriter and composed many popular standards including “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Solitude.” By 1931, through broadcasts from the Cotton Club and recordings, Ellington had become a major figure in popular music.

Duke Ellington in the 1940s

Duke Ellington in the 1940s

In 1939 the character of the band began to change again with the addition of tenor sax player Ben Webster and the composer Billy Strayhorn. This led to the collaborations of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Cotton Tail,” “Harlem Air Shaft” and “Ko-Ko.”

Collier opined that “by the late 1940s, it was felt by many jazz writers that the band had deteriorated. The swing band movement, which had swept up the Ellington group in the mid-1930s, had collapsed, and musical tastes were changing. A number of the old hands left, taking with them much of Ellington’s tonal palette, and while excellent newcomers replaced them, few equaled the originals.”

Not long after the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955, some black civil rights activists criticized Ellington for not having been more outspoken about the movement. Ellington told Nat Hentoff, the noted jazz critic, “People who think that of me have not been listening to our music. For a long time, social protest and pride in the Negro have been our most significant themes in talking about what it is to be a Negro in this country – with jazz being like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to be associated with.” He also told the story of how he dealt with Jim Crow in the South when they had engagements there. “Without the benefit of federal judges we commanded respect. We had two Pullman cars and a 70-foot baggage car. We parked them in each station, and lived in them. We had our own water, food, electricity and sanitary facilities. The natives would come by and say, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Well,’ we’d say, ‘that’s the way the president travels.’ We made our point. What else could we have done at that time?”

In 1956 Ellington was asked to play the closing Saturday night concert at the recently established Newport Jazz Festival and an inspired performance and enthusiastic crowd gave a boost to Ellington’s career.

In later years, Ellington faced the loss of several long-term orchestra members, including Billy Strayhorn, who died in 1967, and Johnny Hodges, who died in 1970.

Ellington gave little sign of slowing down in the early 1970s, but in 1973 he learned that he had lung cancer. He died on May 24, 1974.

You can listen to “the Ellington sound” in this video below, in which the Duke Ellington Orchestra plays “Satin Doll.” “Satin Doll,” a jazz standard, was written in 1953 by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The song has been recorded countless times, by such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, 101 Strings, and Nancy Wilson.

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