Edward Kennedy Ellington

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Edward Kennedy Ellington

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 Letters.

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."

Further Reading

Peter Gammond, ed., Duke Ellington: His Life and Music (1958), contains some first-rate essays on Ellington. See also Barry Ulanov, Duke Ellington (1946), and George E. Lambert, Duke Ellington (1961). Gunther Schuller, The History of Jazz (1968), includes the most perspicacious and scholarly study of Ellington's recordings of the 1920s.

James Lincoln Collier, Duke Ellington, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Stanley Dance, The World of Duke Ellington, Da Capo, 1980.

Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress, Doubleday, 1973.

Mercer Ellington, and Stanley Dance, Duke Ellington in Person, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Ron Frankl, Duke Ellington, Chelsea House, 1988.

Derek Jewell, Duke, A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Norton, 1977.

Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, Yale University Press, 1991.

Duke Ellington, The Beginning, Decca.

Duke Ellington, The Best of Duke Ellington, Capitol.

Duke Ellington, The Ellington Era, Columbia. □