(April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974)
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington influenced the world of jazz forever throughout his career of 50 years. He had his own blend of rhythm and movement that gave audiences something they had not yet experienced before. Ellington provided a sense of musical drama to audiences all over the world and performed in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
Duke Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 and raised by two musically talented parents in a middle-class neighborhood in Washington DC. At 7 years old, he began playing the piano and acquired the nickname “Duke” for his gentleman ways. At age 15, he wrote his first song, “Soda Fountain Rag” inspired by his job as a soda jerk. Ellington turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and began playing professionally at age 17 and pursued his passion for ragtime. Two years later, Ellington married Edna Thompson, his high school sweetheart. Soon after the couple welcomed their only child into the world, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.
Throughout the 1920s, Ellington led a sextet through performances in Broadway nightclubs and the group eventually grew into a 10-piece ensemble. Ellington recruited musicians with unique playing styles, such as Bubber Miley who used a plunger to make the “wa-wa” sound, and Joe Nanton who could make his trombone “growl.” The ensemble soon added Cootie Williams as a trumpeter, Rex Stewart as cornetist and Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone. Ellington’s various ensembles recorded hundreds of songs, made film and radio appearances and even toured Europe twice throughout the 1930s.
Ellington composed over 3,000 songs in his lifetime. His most famous compositions include: “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” “In a Mellotone,” and “Satin Doll.” Ellington was most creative during his travels, in which he wrote his most famous song, “Mood Indigo.” Ellington once said, “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people.”
Ellington’s level of ingenuity set the bar high for future generations of jazz, pop, theater and soundtrack composers. Duke Ellington lives on through his extended suites that are forever timeless. The suite format highlights the empowering purpose of his music and the profound experience of what it means to be African-American. He will be remembered by his suites such as 1943’s “Black, Brown and Beige” and 1972’s “The Uwis Suite.”
On May 24, 1974, Duke Ellington died at the age of 75 of lung cancer and pneumonia. His last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”