1899 - 1974
"Don't Get Around Much any More"
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, DC in 1899. His
mother, Daisy Kennedy Ellington, recognized her son's talents
when he was a child. Daisy's husband worked as a blueprint maker
for the U.S. Navy. Occasionally he worked as a butler, sometimes
at the White House. Neither parent could have imagined that
their son would be an honored guest and performer at the White
House before four different presidents. In 1969, he was awarded
the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his accomplishments as a
musician and conductor.
Nicknamed "Duke" by his boyhood friends because of his love for
dressing in fine clothes, Ellington displayed talent as a
pianist when he was quite young. His piano teacher tried to make
Duke learn the piano in a conventional way. Duke did learn, but
he always added creativity and expression to his playing.
Ellington strove for excellence and elegance in everything he
did. When still in high school, he designed the winning poster
for a contest sponsored by the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He graduated from high
school in 1917 and was offered a scholarship from the Pratt
Institute of Applied Art in New York City, but music was his
first love, and he followed his instincts.
Ellington struck out on his own. He organized a band in
Washington and began to play regular engagements. His band went
to New York City, where they made their first recordings. When
Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians played at the famous
Cotton Club in Harlem, they were on their way to success.
The band played in movies during the 1930s. They also toured
Europe for extended periods of time. Each musician had his own
style, but they all played together under Ellington's leadership
to create wonderful sounds.
He and his band performed in all the major concert halls in the
United States and Europe. Liberia, in West Africa, commissioned
Ellington to write music to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
Another West African nation, Togo, was honored by Ellington's
work entitled "Togo Brava." Millions of fans around the world
loved his music.
Although the 1950s were not popular years for bands, Ellington
kept his band together. He stayed in business while he composed
other types of music. He wrote pieces for his band, music for
Broadway shows and ballets, jazz compositions, concert hall
music, and sacred music. Altogether he wrote more than 6,000
pieces of music.
"He has made us all happier and richer by having lived among us.
He will not be easily replaced on this earth." The great
African-American singer Sarah Vaughan spoke these words of Duke
Ellington after his death in 1974. Fans of Duke Ellington know
they will never need to replace this great man - his creative
spirit is still very much alive in his music.
Duke Ellington was the most important composer in the history of
jazz as well as being a bandleader who held his large group
together continuously for almost 50 years. The two aspects of
his career were related; Ellington used his band as a musical
laboratory for his new compositions and shaped his writing
specifically to showcase the talents of his bandmembers, many of
whom remained with him for long periods. Ellington also wrote
film scores and stage musicals, and several of his instrumental
works were adapted into songs that became standards. In addition
to touring year in and year out, he recorded extensively,
resulting in a gigantic body of work that was still being
assessed a quarter century after his death.
Ellington was the son of a White House butler, James Edward
Ellington, and thus grew up in comfortable surroundings. He
began piano lessons at age seven and was writing music by his
teens. He dropped out of high school in his junior year in 1917
to pursue a career in music. At first, he booked and performed
in bands in the Washington, D.C., area, but in September 1923
the Washingtonians, a five-piece group of which he was a member,
moved permanently to New York, where they gained a residency in
the Times Square venue The Hollywood Club (later The Kentucky
Club). They made their first recordings in November 1924, and
cut tunes for different record companies under a variety of
pseudonyms, so that several current major labels, notably Sony,
Universal, and BMG, now have extensive holdings of their work
from the period in their archives, which are reissued
The group gradually increased in size and came under Ellington's
leadership. They played in what was called "jungle" style, their
sly arrangements often highlighted by the muted growling sound
of trumpeter James "Bubber" Miley. A good example of this is
Ellington's first signature song, "East St. Louis Toodle-oo,"
which the band first recorded for Vocalion Records in November
1926, and which became their first chart single in a re-recorded
version for Columbia in July 1927.
The Ellington band moved uptown to The Cotton Club in Harlem on
December 4, 1927. Their residency at the famed club, which
lasted more than three years, made Ellington a nationally known
musician due to radio broadcasts that emanated from the
bandstand. In 1928, he had two two-sided hits: "Black and Tan
Fantasy"/"Creole Love Call" on Victor (now BMG) and "Doin' the
New Low Down"/"Diga Diga Doo" on OKeh (now Sony), released as by
the Harlem Footwarmers. "The Mooche" on OKeh peaked in the
charts at the start of 1929.
While maintaining his job at The Cotton Club, Ellington took his
band downtown to play in the Broadway musical Show Girl,
featuring the music of George Gershwin, in the summer of 1929.
The following summer, the band took a leave of absence to head
out to California and appear in the film Check and Double Check.
From the score, "Three Little Words," with vocals by the Rhythm
Boys featuring Bing Crosby, became a number one hit on Victor in
November 1930; its flip side, "Ring Dem Bells," also reached the
The Ellington band left The Cotton Club in February 1931 to
begin a tour that, in a sense, would not end until the leader's
death 43 years later. At the same time, Ellington scored a Top
Five hit with an instrumental version of one of his standards,
"Mood Indigo" released on Victor. The recording was later
inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. As "the Jungle Band," the
Ellington Orchestra charted on Brunswick later in 1931 with "Rockin'
in Rhythm" and with the lengthy composition "Creole Rhapsody,"
pressed on both sides of a 78 single, an indication that
Ellington's goals as a writer were beginning to extend beyond
brief works. (A second version of the piece was a chart entry on
Victor in March 1932.) "Limehouse Blues" was a chart entry on
Victor in August 1931, then in the winter of 1932, Ellington
scored a Top Ten hit on Brunswick with one of his
best-remembered songs, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got
That Swing)," featuring the vocals of Ivie Anderson. This was
still more than three years before the official birth of the
swing era, and Ellington helped give the period its name.
Ellington's next major hit was another signature song for him,
"Sophisticated Lady." His instrumental version became a Top Five
hit in the spring of 1933, with its flip side, a treatment of
"Stormy Weather," also making the Top Five.
The Ellington Orchestra made another feature film, Murder at the
Vanities, in the spring of 1934. Their instrumental rendition of
"Cocktails for Two" from the score hit number one on Victor in
May, and they hit the Top Five with both sides of the Brunswick
release "Moon Glow"/"Solitude" that fall. The band also appeared
in the Mae West film Belle of the Nineties and played on the
soundtrack of Many Happy Returns. Later in the fall, the band
was back in the Top Ten with "Saddest Tale," and they had two
Top Ten hits in 1935, "Merry-Go-Round" and "Accent on Youth."
While the latter was scoring in the hit parade in September,
Ellington recorded another of his extended compositions,
"Reminiscing in Tempo," which took up both sides of two 78s.
Even as he became more ambitious, however, he was rarely out of
the hit parade, scoring another Top Ten hit, "Cotton," in the
fall of 1935, and two more, "Love Is Like a Cigarette" and "Oh
Babe! Maybe Someday," in 1936. The band returned to Hollywood in
1936 and recorded music for the Marx Brothers' film A Day at the
Races and for Hit Parade of 1937. Meanwhile, they were scoring
Top Ten hits with "Scattin' at the Kit-Kat" and the swing
standard "Caravan," co-written by valve trombonist Juan Tizol,
and Ellington was continuing to pen extended instrumental works
such as "Diminuendo in Blue" and "Crescendo in Blue." "If You
Were in My Place (What Would You Do?)," a vocal number featuring
Ivie Anderson, was a Top Ten hit in the spring of 1938, and
Ellington scored his third number one hit in April with an
instrumental version of another standard, "I Let a Song Go out
of My Heart." In the fall, he was back in the Top Ten with a
version of the British show tune "Lambeth Walk."
The Ellington band underwent several notable changes at the end
of the 1930s. After several years recording more or less
regularly for Brunswick, Ellington moved to Victor. In early
1939 Billy Strayhorn, a young composer, arranger, and pianist,
joined the organization. He did not usually perform with the
orchestra, but he became Ellington's composition partner to the
extent that soon it was impossible to tell where Ellington's
writing left off and Strayhorn's began. Two key personnel
changes strengthened the outfit with the acquisition of bassist
Jimmy Blanton in September and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster in
December. Their impact on Ellington's sound was so profound that
their relatively brief tenure has been dubbed "the
Blanton-Webster Band" by jazz fans. These various changes were
encapsulated by the Victor release of Strayhorn's "Take the 'A'
Train," a swing era standard, in the summer of 1941. The
recording was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
That same summer, Ellington was in Los Angeles, where his stage
musical, Jump for Joy, opened on July 10 and ran for 101
performances. Unfortunately, the show never went to Broadway,
but among its songs was "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good),"
another standard. The U.S. entry into World War II in December
1941 and the onset of the recording ban called by the American
Federation of Musicians in August 1942 slowed the Ellington
band's momentum. Unable to record and with touring curtailed,
Ellington found an opportunity to return to extended composition
with the first of a series of annual recitals at Carnegie Hall
on January 23, 1943, at which he premiered "Black, Brown and
Beige." And he returned to the movies, appearing in Cabin in the
Sky and Reveille with Beverly. Meanwhile, the record labels,
stymied for hits, began looking into their artists' back
catalogs. Lyricist Bob Russell took Ellington's 1940 composition
"Never No Lament" and set a lyric to it, creating "Don't Get
Around Much Anymore." The Ink Spots scored with a vocal version
(recorded a cappella), and Ellington's three-year-old
instrumental recording was also a hit, reaching the pop Top Ten
and number one on the recently instituted R&B charts. Russell
repeated his magic with another 1940 Ellington instrumental,
"Concerto for Cootie" (a showcase for trumpeter Cootie
Williams), creating "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me." Nearly
four years after it was recorded, the retitled recording hit the
pop Top Ten and number one on the R&B charts for Ellington in
early 1944, while newly recorded vocal cover versions also
scored. Ellington's vintage recordings became ubiquitous on the
top of the R&B charts during 1943-1944; he also hit number one
with "A Slip of the Lip (Can Sink a Ship)," "Sentimental Lady,"
and "Main Stem." With the end of the recording ban in November
1944, Ellington was able to record a song he had composed with
his saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, set to a lyric by Don George and
Harry James, "I'm Beginning to See the Light." The James
recording went to number one in April 1945, but Ellington's
recording was also a Top Ten hit.
With the end of the war, Ellington's period as a major
commercial force on records largely came to an end, but unlike
other big bandleaders, who disbanded as the swing era passed,
Ellington, who predated the era, simply went on touring,
augmenting his diminished road revenues with his songwriting
royalties to keep his band afloat. In a musical climate in which
jazz was veering away from popular music and toward bebop, and
popular music was being dominated by singers, the Ellington band
no longer had a place at the top of the business; but it kept
working. And Ellington kept trying more extended pieces. In
1946, he teamed with lyricist John Latouche to write the music
for the Broadway musical Beggar's Holiday, which opened on
December 26 and ran 108 performances. And he wrote his first
full-length background score for a feature film with 1950's The
The first half of the 1950s was a difficult period for
Ellington, who suffered many personnel defections. (Some of
those musicians returned later.) But the band made a major
comeback at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956, when they
kicked into a version of "Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue" that
found saxophonist Paul Gonsalves taking a long, memorable solo.
Ellington appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and he signed
a new contract with Columbia Records, which released Ellington
at Newport, the best-selling album of his career. Freed of the
necessity of writing hits and spurred by the increased time
available on the LP record, Ellington concentrated more on
extended compositions for the rest of his career. His comeback
as a live performer led to increased opportunities to tour, and
in the fall of 1958 he undertook his first full-scale tour of
Europe. For the rest of his life, he would be a busy world
Ellington appeared in and scored the 1959 film Anatomy of a
Murder, and its soundtrack won him three of the newly instituted
Grammy Awards, for best performance by a dance band, best
musical composition of the year, and best soundtrack. He was
nominated for an Academy Award for his next score, Paris Blues
(1961). In August 1963, his stage work My People, a cavalcade of
African-American history, was mounted in Chicago as part of the
Century of Negro Progress Exposition.
Meanwhile, of course, he continued to lead his band in
recordings and live performances. He switched from Columbia to
Frank Sinatra's Reprise label (purchased by Warner Bros.
Records) and made some pop-oriented records that dismayed his
fans but indicated he had not given up on broad commercial
aspirations. Nor had he abandoned his artistic aspirations, as
the first of his series of sacred concerts, performed at Grace
Cathedral in San Francisco on September 16, 1965, indicated. And
he still longed for a stage success, turning once again to
Broadway with the musical Pousse-Café, which opened on March 18,
1966, but closed within days. Three months later, the Sinatra
film Assault on a Queen, with an Ellington score, opened in
movie houses around the country. (His final film score, for
Change of Mind, appeared in 1969.)
Ellington became a Grammy favorite in his later years. He won a
1966 Grammy for best original jazz composition for "In the
Beginning, God," part of his sacred concerts. His 1967 album Far
East Suite, inspired by a tour of the Middle and Far East, won
the best instrumental jazz performance Grammy that year, and he
took home his sixth Grammy in the same category in 1969 for And
His Mother Called Him Bill, a tribute to Strayhorn, who had died
in 1967. "New Orleans Suite" earned another Grammy in the
category in 1971, as did "Togo Brava Suite" in 1972, and the
posthumous The Ellington Suites in 1976.
Ellington continued to perform regularly until he was overcome
by illness in the spring of 1974, succumbing to lung cancer and
pneumonia. His death did not end the band, which was taken over
by his son Mercer, who led it until his own death in 1996, and
then by a grandson. Meanwhile, Ellington finally enjoyed the
stage hit he had always wanted when the revue Sophisticated
Ladies, featuring his music, opened on Broadway on March 1,
1981, and ran 767 performances.
The many celebrations of the Ellington centenary in 1999
demonstrated that he continued to be regarded as the major
composer of jazz. If that seemed something of an anomaly in a
musical style that emphasizes spontaneous improvisation over
written composition, Ellington was talented enough to overcome
the oddity. He wrote primarily for his band, allowing his
veteran players room to solo within his compositions, and as a
result created a body of work that seemed likely to help jazz
enter the academic and institutional realms, which was very much
its direction at the end of the 20th century. In that sense, he
foreshadowed the future of jazz and could lay claim to being one
of its most influential practitioners.
Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974), certainly America's most
brilliant jazz composer, was considered by many to be one of the
great composers of the 20th century, irrespective of categories.
On April 29, 1899, Edward Ellington, known universally as
"Duke," was born in Washington, D.C. He divided his studies
between music and commercial art, and by 1918 establishing a
reputation as a bandleader and agent. In 1923 he went to New
York City and soon became a successful bandleader. In 1927 he
secured an important engagement at the Cotton Club in Harlem,
remaining there (aside from occasional tours) until 1932.
Ellington's band made its first European trip in 1932. After
World War II it toured Europe regularly, with excursions to
South America, the Far East, and Australia. One peak period for
the band was from 1939 to 1942, when many critics considered its
performances unrivaled by any other jazz ensemble.
As a composer, Ellington was responsible for numerous works that
achieved popular success, some written in collaboration with his
band members and with his coarranger Billy Strayhorn. The Duke's
most significant music was written specifically for his own band
and soloists. Always sensitive to the nuances of tone of his
soloists, Ellington wrote features for individual sidemen and
used his knowledge of their characteristic sounds when composing
other works. His arrangements achieved a remarkable blend of
individual and ensemble contributions. However, because most of
his works were written for his own band, interpretations by
others have seldom been satisfactory.
With Creole Rhapsody (1931) and Reminiscing in Tempo (1935)
Ellington was the first jazz composer to break the 3-minute time
limitation of the 78-rpm record. After the 1940s he concentrated
more on longer works, including several suites built around a
central theme, frequently an aspect of African American life.
Always a fine orchestral pianist, with a style influenced by the
Harlem stylists of the 1920s, Ellington remained in the
background on most of his early recordings. After the 1950s he
emerged as a highly imaginative piano soloist.
Ellington was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. The City
of New York gave him a prize and Yale University awarded him a
doctor of music degree in 1967; Morgan State and Washington
universities also gave him honorary degrees that year. On his
seventieth birthday Ellington was honored by President Richard
Nixon at a White House ceremony and given the Medal of Freedom.
In 1970 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and
Ellington continued to compose and perform until his death from
lung cancer on May 24, 1974, in New York City. His band, headed
by his son Mercer, survives him, but as Phyl Garland, writing in
Ebony magazine, put it, the elder Ellington will always be
remembered for "the daring innovations that came to mark his
music - the strange modulations built upon lush melodies that
ramble into unexpected places, the unorthodox construction of
songs … ; the bold use of dissonance in advance of the time."
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This web page was last updated on:
10 December, 2008