Ellington, Duke (actually, Edward Kennedy)

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Ellington, Duke (actually, Edward Kennedy)

Ellington, Duke (actually, Edward Kennedy), elegant American jazz composer, bandleader, and pianist; b. Washington, D.C., April 29, 1899; d. N.Y., May 24, 1974. Ellington was the most important composer in the history of jazz, writing a variety of works, from songs to extended suites, that were tailored to the talents of the musicians in the band he led for nearly 50 years, many of whom stayed with him for lengthy tenures. He wrote for the stage and the screen on occasion, and many of his instrumental works were turned into popular songs with the addition of lyrics, the resulting royalties helping to keep his organization solvent especially after the 1940s, when his style of big band jazz diverged from popular taste. But the bulk of his work consisted of pieces intended to showcase the many jazz soloists who played with him night after night, decade after decade. Critical opinion and audience appreciation for the more ambitious works that occupied him especially in his later decades remain divided. But the songs that helped him to achieve widespread recognition and popularity during his life continue to be performed and recorded, among them “Sophisticated Lady,” “Don’t Get Around Much Any-more,” and “Fm Beginning to See the Light.”

Ellington was born into a relatively comfortable African-American family—his father, James Edward Ellington, was a White House butler who later became a blueprint maker for the Navy. Ellington showed an early interest in music, beginning piano lessons at age seven. He was writing music as early as 1914, and he dropped out of high school in his junior year in 1917 to become a professional musician. On July 2, 1918, he married Edna Thompson. The couple had one child, Mercer Ellington (1919–96), who became a composer and later led his father’s band. They separated in the late 1920s but never divorced.

Ellington’s group, the five-piece Washingtonians, moved permanently to N.Y. in September 1923, establishing a residency at the Hollywood Club (later the Kentucky Club) in the Times Square district. The Washingtonians made their first recordings in November 1924, working for various record companies under various names over the next several years. As the ten-piece Duke Ellington and His Kentucky Club Orch., they first recorded Ellington’s theme song, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” for Vocalion in November 1926; it became their first hit after they rerecorded it for Columbia in March 1927 as Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians. The tune was cowritten by trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley, whose muted “growling” style of playing defined the group’s “jungle” sound. (Unless other-wise noted, all compositions are by Ellington.)

On Dec. 4, 1927, Ellington began a residency at the Cotton Club in Harlem that lasted more than three years. The band was given increased exposure through radio broadcasts from the club. Ellington’s next hit was the two-sided “Black and Tan Fantasy” (music also by Miley)/”Creole Love Call” on Victor in the spring of 1928. In the fall, “The Harlem Footwarmers” had a two-sided hit on Okeh with songs from the Broadway revue Blackbirds of 1928, “Diga Diga Doo”/”Doin’ the New Low Down” (music by Jimmy McHugh, lyrics by Dorothy Fields). Ellington’s own name was on the OKeh recording of “The Mooche,” a hit at the end of the year.

In the summer of 1929, Ellington’s orchestra appeared in the Broadway musical Show Girl, which had songs by George and Ira Gershwin and Gus Kahn and also starred Ruby Keeler with an impromptu cameo by her husband, Al Jolson; the show ran 111 performances. The band traveled to the West Coast in the summer of 1930 to appear in the film Check and Double Check; from its score came another two-sided hit on Victor, “Three Little Words” (music by Harry Ruby, lyrics by Bert Kalmar), with vocals by the Rhythm Boys, a trio including Bing Crosby, which became a best-seller in November, and “Ring Dem Bells” (music and lyrics by Ellington and, supposedly, his publisher/manager Irving Mills, who was frequently “cut in” on songwriting royalties until the two split up in 1939).

Ellington left his regular job at the Cotton Club (though he would return periodically) for a national tour in February 1931. His popular recordings of the year included an instrumental treatment of “Mood Indigo” (music and lyrics credited to Mills, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and Ellington, though the lyrics were actually by Mitchell Parish) and his first extended composition, “Creole Rhapsody,” which took up two sides of a 78-rpm disc and was credited to the Jungle Band.

Ellington scored a major vocal hit in February 1932 with “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (lyrics by Mills), sung by I vie Anderson, which also became his first hit cover song in September when the Mills Brothers released their version. Ellington introduced another standard in the spring of 1933 with “Sophisticated Lady” (lyrics by Parish and Mills). The composer’s own version was backed by a popular recording of “Stormy Weather” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ted Koehler); Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orch. also recorded it successfully.

In the spring of 1934, Ellington again went west to appear in the film Murder at the Vanities. His recording of “Cocktails for Two” (music and lyrics by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow) from the film became a best-seller in May. Ellington’s other big hit of the year was the two-sided disc of “Moon Glow” (lyrics and music by Will Hudson, Eddie DeLange, and Mills) and his own “Solitude” (lyrics by DeLange and Mills) in October. While in Hollywood the Ellington Orch. also appeared in Belle of the Nineties and performed music for Many Happy Returns that was mimed on screen by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

Ellington was in the hit parade in September 1935 with the title song from the motion picture Accent on Youth (music by Vee Lawnhurst, lyrics by Tot Seymour). That same month he doubled the length of his previous long work, “Creole Rhapsody,” with “Reminiscing in Tempo,” recorded on both sides of two records. In the spring of 1936 he was back in the hit parade with “Love Is Like a Cigarette” (music and lyrics by Jerome Jerome, Richard Byron, and Walter Kent). In late 1936 and early 1937 the band was in Hollywood, recording material for such films as A Day at the Races and Hit Parade of 1937. Among Ellington’s notable works of the period were the swing standard “Caravan” (music also by trombonist Juan Tizol, lyrics by Mills), “Diminuendo in Blue/7 and “Crescendo in Blue.” He scored one of the biggest hits of his career in the spring and summer of 1938 with “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” (lyrics by Henry Nemo, John Redmond, and Mills), which topped the hit parade in July.

Ellington entered a particularly accomplished period of his career at the end of the 1930s, aided by the addition of certain key associates. Composer, lyricist, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn joined the Ellington organization in the early months of 1939; in time, his collaboration with Ellington would become so close as to be indistinguishable. Bassist Jimmy Blanton joined the group in September and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster in December, their contributions so crucial that this edition of the Ellington Orch. would become known informally as the Blanton-Webster band.

Ellington scored a hit in June 1941 with “Flamingo” (music by Ted Grouya, lyrics by Edmund Anderson), which featured a vocal by Herb Jeffries. The following month, the orchestra had a hit with Strayhorn’s first major contribution, the big band standard “Take the ’A’ Train,” which became their theme song. Meanwhile, they were in L.A., appearing in the musical revue Jump for Joy (July 10, 1941), which ran 101 performances but closed without moving east. Nevertheless, it featured a hit song in “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” recorded by both Ellington and Dinah Shore.

Ellington’s career was slowed by the U.S. entry into World War II in December 1941 and the musicians’ union recording ban that began in August 1942. So he turned to the concert stage, beginning an annual series of appearances at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 23, 1943, with the premiere of the lengthy composition “Black, Brown and Beige.” He also returned to Hollywood for appearances in Cabin in the Sky and Reveille with Beverly. And despite the recording ban, he scored surprise hits with two recordings made in 1940. Lyricist Bob Russell set words to “Never No Lament” to create “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” The Ink Spots had a giant hit with it in early 1943, bringing Ellington’s original instrumental into the Top Ten as well. Russell then turned Ellington’s “Concerto for Cootie” into “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me.”

The Top Ten recordings by the orchestras of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton had vocals, but the biggest hit came with Ellington’s original instrumental version. At the same time Ellington topped the black-oriented charts with a series of recordings made just before the start of the ban: “A Slip of the Lip (Can Sink a Ship),” “Sentimental Lady,” and “Main Stem.” Ellington’s biggest pop hit of the period was “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (music and lyrics by Ellington, Don George, Harry James, and saxophonist Johnny Hodges), which topped the charts for James in April 1945 and was also a hit for Ellington and for Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots. (Ellington also scored Top Ten hits in the “race” charts in 1945 with “Don’t You Know I Care [Or Don’t You Care to Know]” [lyrics by Mack David] and “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues” [lyrics by George].)

Ellington’s most successful theatrical work during his lifetime was the Broadway musical Beggar’s Holiday (based on Beggar’s Opera) (N.Y., Dec. 26, 1946), with lyrics by John Latouche, which ran for 108 performances. Though he scored a couple of minor hits—”Come to Baby, Do!” (music and lyrics by Inez James and Sidney Miller) on the pop charts in 1946 and “Don’t Be So Mean to Baby (’Cause Baby’s So Good to You)” (music and lyrics by Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour) on the R&B charts in 1948—Ellington focused more on his extended compositions as popular music became less jazz-oriented in the late 1940s. He wrote his first film score for The Asphalt Jungle in 1950.

The early 1950s was a period of struggle for the Ellington Orch., which was hit by an unusually large number of personnel changes. But Ellington made a notable comeback with a triumphant appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956, when saxophonist Paul Gonsalves turned in a memorable solo during “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Ellington at New-port became the band’s first album to appear in the pop charts the following year. It was the best-selling album of Ellington’s career.

Though Ellington had occasionally performed over-seas, the 50-day concert tour of Europe he undertook in October and November 1958 marked the beginning of extensive international appearances that continued until the end of his life. Between tours Ellington continued to write and record substantial instrumental works. He scored and appeared in the film Anatomy of a Murder in 1959, its soundtrack album earning him his first three Grammys, for Best Performance by a Dance Band, Best Musical Composition of the Year, and Best Soundtrack. His score for Paris Blues (1961) earned him an Academy Award nomination. In August 1963 his musical theater work My People, a celebration of African- American history, was performed at the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in Chicago.

Ellington’s musical efforts in the last decade of his life were varied. Having signed to Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, he recorded Ellington ’65, a collection of instrumental versions of contemporary pop hits, which reached the pop charts in late 1964 though it was scorned by jazz fans. Inaugurating the major effort of his last years, he mounted his first sacred concert at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on Sept. 16, 1965. He made another try at a Broadway musical with an adaptation of the film The Blue Angel, Pousse-Cafe (N.Y, March 18, 1966), but it lasted only three performances. His collaboration with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, The Duke at Tanglewood, was a chart album in May. In June the Sinatra film Assault on a Queen, with Ellington’s score, opened. He won the 1966 Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition for his sacred work “In the Beginning, God.” His fifth Grammy came for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance for the 1967 album Far East Suite. Francis A. & Edward K., a collaboration with Sinatra, reached the pop charts in 1968, and Ellington’s other album of the year, And His Mother Called Him Bill, a tribute to Strayhorn, who had died the previous year, won him a sixth Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance in 1969. That same year he scored the film Change of Mind.

Ellington won 1971 and 1972 Grammys for Best Jazz Performance by a big band for his compositions “New Orleans Suite” and ’Togo Brava Suite/7 He published his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress (1973), and continued to perform regularly with his orchestra until shortly before his death from lung cancer and pneumonia at the age of 75. Previously unreleased studio and concert recordings continued to be issued, and he won another Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance by a Big Band for the 1976 album The Ellington Suites. A Broadway revue based on his music, Sophisticated Ladies (N.Y., March 1, 1981), was a major hit, running 767 performances.


Piano Duets: Great Times with Billy Strayhorn (1950); The 1952 Seattle Concert (1954); D. E. Presents… (1956); E. at Newport (1956); Such Sweet Thunder (1957); All Star Road Band Vol. II (1957); E. Jazz Party (1959); Anatomy of a Murder (soundtrack; 1959); Money Jungle (with Charles Mingus and Max Roach; 1962); The Great Paris Concert (1963); Back to Back: D.E. and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues (1963); Ella at D/s Place (with Ella Fitzgerald; 1965); This One’s for Blanton—Duets (with Ray Brown; 1972); D/s Big Four (1973); The Ellington Suites (1976); D.E.: The Blanton-Webster Band, 1939–1942 (1986); D. E. Meets Coleman Hawkins (1986); Side by Side (with Johnny Hodges; 1986); First Time: The Count Meets the D.-1961 (with Count Basie; 1987); Uptown—Early 1950s (1987); Compact Jazz: And Friends (1987); The Blanton-Webster Years (1987); Walkman Jazz/Compact Jazz (1988); Black, Brown & Beige 1944–46 (1988); Blues in Orbit—1960 (1988); D. E. & John Coltrane (1988); The Piano Album (1989); Braggin’ in Brass: The Immortal 1938 Year (1989); E. Indigos: Sept.-Oct. 1957 (1989); The Private Collection, Vols. I-IV (1989); The Private Collection, Vol. V: “The Suites” 1968 (1989); The Private Collection, Vols. VI-X: Dance Dates, California, 1958 (1989); The Best of D. E. (1989); New Mood Indigo (1989); Solos, Duets, and Trios (1990); The Jungle Band: The Brunswick Era, Vol. 11—1929–31 (1990); The Intimacy of the Blues: 1967 & 1970 (1991); 1924–1927 (1991); Compact Jazz: D. E. and Friends (1991); Up in D/s Workshop—1969–72 (1991); The Essence ofD. E.: I Like Jazz (1991);D. E.’s My People (1992); D. E. & His Orchestra: Jazz Cocktail: 1928–31 (1992); Live at the Blue Note—1952 (1992); D. E. Vol. IV: 1928 (1992); The Pianist: 1966, 1970 (1992); 1937 (with Chick Webb; 1993); Original Hits, Vol. I: 1927–31 (1993); Original Hits, Vol. II: 1931–38 (1993); The Great London Concerts—1964 (1993);D. E. & His Orchestra—1938, Vol. II (1993); D. E. & His Orchestra—1938, Vol. Ill (1993); In the 20s—Jazz Archives No. 63 (1993); Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (1993); Things Ain’t What They Used to Be/S.R.O. (1993); Live at the Rainbow Grill (1993); Mood Indigo (1994); Live at the Blue Note (1994); Black, Brown, and Beige—Mastersound Series (1994); D. E., 1938–1939 (1994); D. E., Vol. II: Swing 1930–38 (1994); D. E. & His Orchestra Live at Newport—1958 (1994); 16 Most Requested Songs (1994); Uptown Downbeat with His Orchestra: Cotton Club, Jungle Band 1927–40 (1995); Satin Doll 1958–59 (1995); D. E., 1924–30 (1995); From the Blue Note—Chicago 1952 (1995); In a Mellotone—1940–44 (1995); 70th Birthday Concert—Nov. 1969 (1995); Live at the Whitney: April 10, 1972 (1995); The Cornell University Concert—December 1948 (1995); New York Concert: In Performance at Columbia University—1964 (1995); D. E. & His Great Vocalists (1995); The Best ofD. E. (1995); D. E. & John Coltrane with Jimmy Garrison, Aaron Bell etc., Recorded September 1962 (1995); D. E.: Greatest Hits (1996); E.ia (1996); This Is Jazz (1996); Vol. IV: The Mooche, 1928 (1996); Vol. V: Harlemania, 1928–29 (1996); Vol. VI: Cotton Club Stomp (1996); Vol. IX: Mood Indigo, 1930 (1996); Vol. X: Rockiri in Rhythm, 1930–31 (1996); Sophisticated Lady—1941–49 (1996); E. at Basin Street East: The Complete Concert of 14 January 1964 (1996); Rockin’ in Rhythm, 1958–59 (1996); Best of Early E. (1996); D. E. & His Famous Orchestra: Fargo, North Dakota, Nov. 7, 1940 (1996); The Great D. E. (1996); Cornell University Concert (1996); Cornell University: Second Set (1997); D. E.’s Greatest Hits (1997); Jazz Profile (1997); Revue Collection (1997); Priceless Jazz (1998); This Is Jazz: D. E. Plays Standards (1998); The Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA-Victor Recordings (1999); The Best of the D. E. Centennial Edition (1999); Blues and Ballads (2000); The Great Summit: The Complete Sessions (with Louis Armstrong; 2000); The D.: The Essential Collection, 1927–1962 (2000).


Music Is My Mistress (1973).


D. Preston, Mood Indigo (1946); B. Ulanov, D. E. (1946); P. Gammond, ed., D. E.: His Life and Music (1958); G. Lambert, D. E. (1959); S. Dance, The World of D. E. (1970); D. Jewell, Duke: A Portrait ofD. E. (1977); Mercer Ellington (his son) with S. Dance, D. E. in Person: An Intimate Memoir (1978); W. Timner, Ellingtonia: The Recorded Music of D. E. and His Sidemen (1979, 4th rev. ed., 1996); D. George, Sweet Man: The Real D. E. (1981); J. Collier, D. E. (1987); P. Gammond, D. E. (1987); M. Tucker, Ellington: The Early Years (1991); Tucker, ed., The D. E. Reader (1993); K. Rattenbury, D. E.: Jazz Composer (1990); J. Hasse, Beyond Category: The Life and Genius ofD. E. (1993).

—William Ruhlmann

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Ellington, Duke (actually, Edward Kennedy)

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